With 5 Grammy Awards, 15 nominations, millions of record sales worldwide, and thousands of sold out performances, rock blues icon Robert Cray is considered “one of the greatest guitarists of his generation.” Rolling Stone Magazine in their April 2011 issue credits Cray with reinventing the blues with his “distinct razor sharp guitar playing” that “introduced a new generation of mainstream rock fans to the language and form of the blues” with the release of his Strong Persuader album in 1986.
Since then, Cray has gone on to record sixteen Billboard charting studio albums and has written or performed with everyone from Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan, from Bonnie Raitt to John Lee Hooker. Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011 at the age of 57, he is one of the youngest living legends to receive the prestigious honor. And while he can look back over an astonishing four-decade career punctuated by his trademark sound and distinct playing style, Robert Cray is too busy moving forward on an amazing journey that has him releasing his seventeenth studio album IN MY SOUL on April 1, 2014 and embarking on yet another world tour with the Robert Cray Band.
As ever with Robert Cray’s undefinable sound, his music remains stubbornly beyond category. Although blues is the foundation, his music is a melting pot of traditional American rock, soul, jazz, gospel, funk and R&B. “When I first started playing guitar, I wanted to be George Harrison – that is, until I heard Jimi Hendrix. After that, I wanted to be Albert Collins and Buddy Guy and B.B. King. And then there are singers like O.V. Wright and Bobby Blue Bland. It’s all mixed up in there. You just never know. I always attribute it to the music we grew up listening to and the radio back in the ‘60s. It’s pretty wide open. It’s hard to put a tag on it.”
The band includes Cray (vocals/guitar), original bandmate and longtime childhood friend Richard Cousins on bass. Richard played with The Robert Cray Band from 1979-1991 and rejoined the band in 2007. Les Falconer, who Cray has known and admired through the years and joined in early 2013 on drums; and Dover Weinberg who played with the band from 1974-1979, back on piano/keyboards.
Cray still remembers the first love that led him here. “My dad was in the army, so we moved around quite a bit,” he explains. “I had a lot of time and the guitar became my friend. Also, when I first picked up a guitar, The Beatles were just out, and that’s why I got one. That’s why a lot of kids got guitars. The whole atmosphere of that time was, ‘Hey, I learnt this’. ‘Well, let me show you this…’ So that’s what sparked my interest, and it never really went away.” Cray cites Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy and B.B. King as formative guitar influences, alongside singers like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, but just as pivotal for the aspiring bluesman was witnessing Albert Collins play a set at his high-school dance.
It was that Collins performance that led to the formation of the Robert Cray Band in 1974, a four piece touring band featuring Cray on lead vocals and guitar and his friend Richard Cousins on bass. Cray’s thrillingly modern take on the blues was the talk of the circuit, even if the singer was a bit of an introvert on stage. “I just couldn’t speak to the audience,” says Robert with a smile, “so Richard would do all the introductions. These days I think I’m a little better at it.”
In 1976 after two years of touring and in the first of many pinch-yourself moments, was invited to be the house band for Albert Collins; a stellar musical apprenticeship and schoolboy fantasy that lasted over 18 months.
Opening their account with 1980’s Who’s Been Talkin’, the Robert Cray Band fired off three albums in quick succession, and although 1985’s False Accusations hijacked the charts and won an industry blues award, it was the following year’s Strong Persuader that achieved lift-off, hitting a US#13 chart position that was unprecedented for a blues record in the synthesizer age. “I guess Strong Persuader just captured a good spirit and energy,” Cray reflects. “People are still calling out for some of those songs at shows. It gave us a good springboard. I guess it was the songs, but it was also the era, because radio and MTV gave us a foothold, and we had videos out too.”
As songs like “Smoking Gun” scaled the singles charts across the planet and word spread of his incendiary live shows, his name began to be mentioned in the same breath as the blues heavyweights, and he was regularly to be found working alongside them. He spent the years that followed guesting on Eric Clapton’s Journeyman album, jamming live with Keith Richards, appearing in Tina Turner’s TV special Break Every Rule, posthumously inducting Howlin’ Wolf into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and supplying solos for the late John Lee Hooker. “We became good friends,” says Cray of this latter hero. “We were with the same agency, so we did a lot of shows together. I went to Japan with John Lee and watched as the Japanese fans mobbed him. It was fantastic.”
The oft-quoted line reads ‘that bluesmen improve with age’, and Cray’s evolving output through the next three decades gives weight to the theory.
“In the ’90s, we had the I Was Warned album (1992), and then Sweet Potato Pie(1997), which was a Memphis kind of thing that got into the soul bag,” he recalls. “I really liked those two records: there was some good songwriting.”
In 2000 he took home a Grammy for the album Take Your Shoes Off and went on to release two additional Grammy nominated albums Twenty (2005) featuring the poignant anti-Iraq war song of the same name, and This Time (2009) featuring the soul drenched favorite “I Can’t Fail.” The following years, the Robert Cray Band released the live album Cookin’ In Mobile(2010) and the critically acclaimed Nothing But Love (2012).
“We have been very lucky,” says Cray, “we’ve been afforded the luxury of having a great loyal and amazing fan base around the world, allowing a band like ours to continue to work.”
Guitar: Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster
Amps: 2 Matchless / Clubman 35 1 Fender / Vibroking
Rack: Zack Manufacturing / Vibroman 1.0 TC Electronics / 2290 Samson / Wireless Peavy / Valveverb Korg / DTR-1 Tuner