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The guitar man
Interview by Martin Plimmer
Photographs by Deborah Feingold
THE GUITAR MAN
At 33, Robert Cray may be a little young to be a blues legend but he already has the respect of his peers and the best-selling blues album ever
A FILM ABOUT CHUCK BERRY’S LIFE IS IN PRODUCTION AT THE MOMENT which features some of the world’s best-known guitarists playing together: Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Cray. Why Robert Cray? The same thought went through Cray’s head when he joined the line-up.
Nobody has ever paid much attention to Robert Cray before, apart from the regulars at the West Coast clubs where he and his band have been playing solidly for the past 13 years. While most black artists were tinkering with the disco formula, Cray was exploring his roots. His blues-based music was not an obvious money-spinner.
Then, last year, after two of his albums had gone to the top of the English independent label charts, PoIyGram signed him up. The story goes that PoIyGram wanted a token worthy artist to give the label some credibility among musicians. It certainly didn’t expect ‘Strong Persuader’, Cray’s current album, to become the most successful blues album ever, rising coolly into the American top 20.
More than most artists, Cray has earned success with hard work, in 1984 we had 255 nights on stage, in 1985, 244,’ he said. ‘You can’t be married in this kind of work, that’s why all the heartbreaks happen and I can write about them so much.’
That’s also one reason why Cray is such an accomplished guitarist. He is an elegant, precise player. Every note is pertinent. He strokes the strings and information pours out. He knew he could look after himself on stage with Chuck Berry and friends -‘I felt I was able to do what was required.’
PoIyGram were right about one thing. He is a musician’s musician. Richards is a keen fan (he suggested Cray to Berry), Clapton has recorded his song ‘Bad Influence’, B.B. King called him the Saviour of the Blues and after he guested on Tina Turner’s TV special ‘Breaking .All the Rules’, she asked him to support her on her British tour, which starts in Glasgow tomorrow.
Cray handles the fuss of fame with equanimity, though the smile can’t get any wider. He’s an amiable 33-year-old, polite and self-contained. You suspect a serious nature. .As when he plays guitar, he exerts an easy authority.
He is the son of a US serviceman, and travelled widely as a child. ‘My father was a big record collector: jazz records to soul. My mother was a big fan of Bobby Bland, Sam Cooke and gospel. I spent most of my time listening to records at home in Germany because there was no other form of entertainment except the movies. I was taking classical piano lessons. My father wanted me to be Ray Charles.’
Cray dropped piano and took up guitar when he heard the Beatles in 1965. At 12, he was thrashing around in pop bands. ‘Then, in the later days of high school, I started rediscovering the sounds of my parents’ house. I used to sit with friends listening to Buddy Guy and B.B. King, trying to copy licks off the records. That’s when I became a blues fanatic, what I call a “blunatic". Nobody could tell me blues wasn’t the best music. I learnt my lesson when I realised that soul ballads were blues songs in lyric form, but the music was a little bit different. Then I learnt what R & B was about.’
He formed his current band in 1974 with an old high school chum, bassist Richard Cousins. ‘We were 20 y ears old. We could stay anywhere - just take sleeping bags and travel. It was a lot of fun too. We were doing B.B. King to Elmore James. We used to do four, occasionally five sets a night at West Coast clubs like the Back Door.’ The band was good enough by 1976 to back one of Cray’s early heroes, bluesman Albert Collins, who became a second father to them all.
Their first recording seven years ago was a disaster. The record company delayed the release for two years and then went bust. ‘We just kept working,’ said Cray. ‘Nobody left the band.’ It was four years before they got another chance to record, but the album, ‘Bad Influence’, did well in England. The June tour will be the band’s ninth visit in four years. ‘The first time we came we must have played to about 50 people. The second time it was 685, then it jumped to 1,750.’
Cray’s achievement has revived interest in blues, which means there is always a blunatic at the stage door advising him where he’s going wrong. I laving been one himself once, Cray hates them.
He’s certainly no purist. If anything, his voice is too neat for the blues. It is the voice of a soul singer. In fact his best songs are those which stray furthest from the blues format and closest to soul. There is a mystique about them too, evoked by the classy but straightforward arrangements which give them their broad appeal. The songs themselves (the best ones are written by the band’s co-producer Dennis Walker) are well-crafted stories of resentment, cheating and loneliness. The current single, and best song on the album, ‘Right Next Door’, is one of Walker’s.
Life, there can be few bands that are as cohesive. ‘As far back as I can remember we’ve had a tight band; a tight bass and drum outfit. 1 could drop my hands from the guitar and those two could run the show. I spend more time with these guys than I do with anybody and we do get on. It’s a family relationship. It’s a love, sometimes hate, relationship and it works. There are times when I just yell and scream and the next minute it’s hugs and kisses. When we’re not working we disappear and it feds great for a while, but within a few days we all want to be playing again. After a week you really get the itchies,’ (he twitches his hands).
‘The important thing now is to keep this band going, because I can see we still haven’t tapped our resources. Every day we play we get to know a little more about each other. When we started, the most important thing was to play music we enjoyed. As we get older it’s important to make a living, but I don’t think the attitude’s changed at all. If we lost our record contract right now I’m sure we’d just keep playing.