Robert Cray sits at a dinette table aboard his tour bus, sipping from a bottle of beer and studying the storm that is hurling rain and lightning across the night sky of Memphis. The young blues singer-guitarist and the other four members of the Robert Cray Band are on the road promoting their hit album Strong
Persuader, and in half an hour or so, they are slated to take the stage at the Mid South Coliseum, where they are opening for Huey Lewis and the News. For the moment, though, Cray seems content just to roost in this dimly lighted compartment, watching the Southern monsoon blow across the parking lot and talking about some of the many blues artists - such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush, B.B. King and Bobby "Blue” Bland — who have influenced his style over the years.
The Robert Cray Band (from left): Richard Cousins, Cray, David Olson and Peter Boe
After a bit, the talk turns to Robert Johnson - the legendary Delta musician who recorded a handful of haunting blues songs in the mid-1950s before he was murdered by a jealous husband at the age of twenty-seven. Cray grows excited and, in a rare impetuous moment, leans forward as he begins to rap out an odd cross-beat on the tabletop, then launches into Johnson s "Kindhearted Woman Blues” "I love my baby” he sings, "my baby don’t love me/I love my baby, ooh, my baby don’t love me/l really love that woman, can’t stand to leave her be.” In the darkness, the wind howling against the window, the voice sounds uncannily like Johnson s: high, ghostly, full of unfathomable despair.
Cray breaks off, then laughs shyly at his own impulsiveness and falls silent. Lightning flashes outside, illuminating the cabin and the singer’s thoughtful, handsome features. "You know,” he says after a moment, "I hear a lot about people calling me die next big hope for blues music. That’s a heavy burden for anybody to try to bear. All I ever wanted was to sit in a bus, cruising down the road, I had no idea this record was going to go the way it has. No idea at all. I would have been happy if it was Number 101 on the charts. Now I’ve got to be thinking about this stuff every day.”
Actually things are even a little more overpowering than Cray lets on. It all began late last year, when the video for Cray’s then-current single, "Smoking Gun” a song about sexual jealousy that erupts into murder -began winning an. audience on (of all places) MTV; in February the single itself crossed over to radio and entered the pop charts, where it resided in the Top 40 for several months. Meanwhile, the band’s fourth album. Strong Persuader, climbed to Number 13 in Billboard magazine’s Top 200 — making it the highest-charting blues LP since Bobby "Blue” Bland’s Call on Me/ That’s the Way Love Is hit Number II in 1963. (The rise of Strong Persuader also kicked two of Cray’s earlier albums, Bad Influence and False Accusations, into the lower half of die Top 200.)
In addition, Cray has recently become something of a cause celebre among other pop artists. Keith Richards recruited him as a guitarist for Chuck Berry’s backup band for the filming of Taylor Hackford’s forthcoming documentary on Berry. Tina Turner engaged him for her recent HBO special (Cray’s solo on the Sam Cooke classic "A Change Is Gonna Come” provided the show with its most affecting moment) and for her European tour this summer. Eric Clapton enlisted him as die opening act for Clapton’s April tour, which closed in New York at Madison Square Garden. And Clapton, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe have all cited Cray as one of their favorite songwriters, and as proof Clapton covered Cray’s song "Bad Influence.”
In short, Robert Cray - a smart, unassuming bandleader from the Pacific Northwest — is fast emerging as just the sort of artist that many of us thought we would never see again: a bona fide hero of the blues whose appeal is strong enough to attract pop listeners. In feet, before the season is out, chances are Cray will stand as one of die most successful blues entertainers in pop history.
For anybody who esteems the blues, this is, of course, a heartening development. Yet it also raises a couple of questions — namely, why and why now, in an era when the blues form has been so transmogrified in both black and white pop that one rarely hears an undisguised blue note anymore? Actually, say some critics, the blues have little to do with Cray’s rise. Instead, they argue, his success can be attributed to something as simple as his sweet-yet-steely good looks (he has been mentioned as the lead in a proposed film biography of Robert Johnson) or to his good fortune in hitting die marketplace at a time when the pop audience is turning to nostalgia and roots revivalism.
Well, maybe. But there’s also something rather extraordinary that goes on in Cray’s music. In contrast with many bluesmen — who put their meaning and emotion primarily in the force of their musical expression - Cray plays down such classic blues traits as roaring guitars and exclamatory vocals and, through a tightly controlled, soulful style, gives equal weight to the narrative content of his songs, turning up painful revelations about modem heartbreak with a rare colloquial intelligence. At its best, Cray’s music is good enough to outdistance its influences — in the case of Strong Persuader, in fact, good enough to make the blues seem like they’re his, and his alone, to define for these uneasy rimes.
WHEN IT COMES TIME TO EXPLORE THE MEANINGS BEHIND ROBERT Cray’s success, it is sometimes easier to do so with people around Cray — his band mates and producers — than the singer himself. For example, at a show in Little Rock, Arkansas, the night before bus appearance in Memphis, it was bassist Richard Cousins Cray’s oldest friend and, according to some observers, the driving force in the band - who seemed to dominate the mood of the evening, lobbying Cray, keyboardist Peter Boe, drummer David Olson and temporary second guitarist Tim Kaihatsu for changes in the current set (the band wasn’t playing enough material from Strong Persuader, Cousins argued) and calling the management office in San Francisco to track the progress of the album on the Top 200 chart Cray, meantime, sat on a folding metal chair in the dressing room, taking it all in coolly.
Still, it would be a mistake to confuse Cray’s reticence for unconcern (at the Litde Rock sound check, he resisted Cousins’s requests for song changes m a quiet, firm way that precluded further debate) or to infer that he is less than insightful or not a friendly conversationalist Indeed, he is as polite and alert as stars come - he answers questions frankly and amiably, though he rarely gives more to strangers titan seems absolutely necessary and has virtually no caste for idle chat Regardless of what era he was bom in, Robert Cray is at heart a bluesman; that means be crusts words (and strangers) only so far and probably trusts the verities in his music a whole lot further.
"Robert is like his music,” says Cousins, "no frills, no gimmicks. And he doesn’t say anything he doesn’t have to. The cat’s very level, very regular and exactly what he seems to be.”
The next afternoon, when the subject of his reserve comes up, Cray shrugs and smiles. "Well, that’s me until I’m drunk or something, then I’m a totally opposite person,” he says with a laugh. "But, yeah, that’s my way. I’m not that outgoing on the bandstand or for that matter sitting here right now.”
As he speaks, Cray is seated in the rear parlor of the tour bus (known as Snakedaddy) en route to the concert in Memphis. He peers outside the window, scanning the local countryside. These are some of the South’s oldest plantation lands we arc passing through, and only the Mississippi River separates them from the neighboring Delta, where more than half a century ago the country blues first thrived before making an eventful migration northward to Chicago and a deep-thrilling electric era. The region has changed slowly but considerably since those years - though not so much that one can’t still recognize it as the place that might have spawned something as rueful and lonesome as blues music.
But for Cray the reality of the South probably seems somewhat distant Though he was born in Columbus, Georgia, and spent some time in his younger years in Virginia and Alabama, Robert Cray grew up in places far, far removed, both physically and temperamentally — such as Munich, West Germany, where his father, a U.S. Army quartermaster, was stationed during the early 1960s. It was there, says Cray, that he remembers first hearing some of the music that would later help shape his R&B-inflected blues sensibility.
"We couldn’t watch German television and understand it,” Cray recalls, "so my father started buying records — a lot of Bobby Bland, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, B.B. King, Ernie K-Doe, that sort of stuff My parents were about my age right now — I’m thirty-three — and sometimes at night they’d have parties. I was supposed to be in bed sleeping, but I’d just be lying there, hearing those same records played over and over. That was a lot of fun.”
It would be nearly a decade later, though, in another faraway place, that Cray would acquire an interest in claiming this music for himself. In the intervening years, enamored of the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Cray had taken up guitar and had grown pretty adept at steering spirited lead lines over complex pop harmonies. Then, later in die Sixties, during the family’s third stay at Fort Lewis, outside Tacoma, Washington, Cray was introduced to the work of a handful of modem Chicago blues stylists — such as Buddy Guy, Magic Sam and Otis Rush — and he found himself undergoing a quick and crucial shift in tastes.
"Initially” Cray says, "I just dug the hell out of the touch and phrasing of the guitarists. That was what convinced me that I was going to play blues music. But I still didn’t understand what all those lyrics were about. Then I heard Elmore James, and 1 was struck by the fact that he seemed like a real sad man. A lot of the time he sang, it was just pure power, no holds barred. If his voice cracked, well, that was all right because the man was telling his story. And that’s what I started to appreciate about a lot of blues. These guys were really telling stories, and it wasn’t so important if the music was perfect. What mattered was, they grabbed you with their conviction.”
'When I realized I had to be the frontman, I was scared to death. I couldn’t look at anybody, and my teeth would chatter.'
In 1969, Cray met Richard Cousins during an afternoon jam session in Lakewood, Washington. Like Cray, Cousins had grown up as an army brat, in a family partial to the music of such early R&B pathfinders as Dinah Washington and Ray Charles - yet also like Cray, when it came time to play music himself, he initially preferred contemporary stylists, including local heroes Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the archetypal Stax/Volt sound of Booker T. and the MGs. Cray and Cousins began playing together in a local band and for a time shared a house in Tacoma, where they embarked on a joint study of blues history. "Actually,” says Cousins, "we became reeducated - we began figuring out who people like Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson and Tampa Red were. I mean, it’s embarrassing to admit, but at one time we’d thought these songs were written by the Allman Brothers. It was kind of funny to be learning this stuff in reverse.”
In 1974, disenchanted at their prospects as a working blues unit on the Tacoma pop scene, Cray and Cousins moved to Eugene, Oregon -a progressive college town with an active folk community and a growing openness to black roots forms. It was there that they formed the first Robert Cray Band: a trio with Cousins on bass, Tom Murphy on drums and a nervous Cray on guitar and vocals.
"When I realized I had to be the frontman,” says Cray, "I was scared to death. I couldn’t look at anybody, and my teeth would chatter so bad, Richard had to do all the announcing of the songs.” He pauses for a moment and sighs deeply. "It’s still not wide-open. I can tell by holding my finger up if I'm having a good time or not when I’m singing. If I’m shaking, I’ll put it back down and go for something more. If my finger stays straight, its all right”
The group soon acquired a harmonica player named Rocky Manzanaras. It was through Manzanaras’s influence that Cray’s long-held blues-only fanaticism began to give way to an increasingly R&B-inflected sound. "All of a sudden,” Cray says, "Junior Parker and James Brown material started falling in there alongside the blues songs. Deep down I’d also always liked the soul singers people like Al Green, Solomon Burke, Percy Sledge, Bobby Womack, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and probably my favorite singer, a guy named O.V. Wright.”
It was a busy time for Cray and the band. They played regularly in Eugene and Portland and, in 1976, got a job backing one of their idols, Texas shuffle-blues guitarist Albert Collins, during an extensive West Coast tour. The band picked up another lead singer, Curtis Salgado -an animated harmonica player who reportedly imparted much of his technique and repertoire (and, some say, personality) to John Belushi for use in the Blues Brothers. Then in 1978 they met Bruce Bromberg, a Los Angeles blues enthusiast and songwriter who in collaboration with partner Dennis Walker had produced guitarist Phillip Walker for Bromberg’s label Joliet. Td heard good things about Cray for a year or two,” says Bromberg, "but it just didn’t seem likely that a really good blues guy would emerge from the Northwest. Then one night in 1978 he was playing the Palms in San Francisco, and I went to see him.
"Although the group was called the Robert Cray Band, Robert kind of stood over on the side, playing pretty good guitar and singing occasionally. You could tell he was shy. Curtis meantime was jumping up and down and doing his thing. But when Robert did sing and play, he got me. It reminded me of how, back in the Sixties, you’d see, for example, a Bobby Womack album, and there would be Bobby on the cover, holding this guitar. You’d buy this record, and maybe it would have some great tunes and some great singing, but where was the guitar? It wasn’t there. Even in all that great Muscle Shoals stuff, guitar wasn’t the thing - it was just a rhythm instrument. With Robert, though, it added up 'Here’s a guy,’ I thought, who can sing this stuff and who can play the guitar.’ That appealed to me very much.”
Bromberg took the Cray band into a Los Angeles studio and recorded an album for Tomato, a New York independent that had also signed Albert King. It proved an ill-fated venture: Tomato collapsed, and the Robert Gay Bands debut effort, Who’s Been Talkin’ - in part, a lively tribute to such seminal influences as Howlin’ Wolf and O.V. Wright - disappeared without notice.
"Really embarrassing,” says Gay. "But it gave us the opportunity to continue working up and down the West Coast, which is all we really wanted at that point. The big thing was, we liked the music, and that’s why we continued working together.”
In the meantime, the Robert Cray Band changed considerably. Curris Salgado eventually quit, forcing Cray to step forward as frontman, while drummer David Olson (from Salgado’s former band, the Nighthawks) joined the lineup, along with keyboardist and tenor saxophonist Mike Vannice and alto saxophonist Warren Rand. The new group continued working die club and festival circuit for the next few years, until 1982, when they ran into Bruce Bromberg again, at a Bay Area blues festival. Bromberg was surprised that the band hadn’t secured a recording contract yet and offered to record the band once more, then shop the finished work with Bruce Iglauer s Chicago blues label, Alligator. But the record that the Cray band and Bromberg came up with, Bad Influence, was turned down by Iglauer. ("He told us we needed 'more shuffles’ ” says Bromberg. "I wanted to sign the band,” Iglauer says, "but I felt there were weaknesses in the lineup. I did take a pass, and yeah, I’ve regretted it.”) Partly out of resignation, Bromberg ended up placing the album with HighTone, the new label he had recently formed with record distributor Larry Sloven.
Reaction to the record was swift and, in blues terms, nothing short of spectacular. But then, Bad Influence was an uncommon blues work: in contrast with most of the more celebrated releases in the idiom during the last decade or so, Cray’s second album did something more than showcase the arrival of yet another impressive instrumental or vocal stylist. Indeed, with its emphasis on evocative melodies and well-drawn characterizations, the album came across as the first major effort at revitalizing and advancing the blues song form in many, many years. In America the blues community responded by granting Cray an unprecedented four W.C Handy awards (the blues equivalent of the Grammys), and in England — where the album was licensed by Elvis Costello’s Demon label — Bad Influence soared to the top of the independent-album chart.
In some ways, though, it was the next album, Babe Accusations, that proved pivotal. It is, in fact, a work as grim and as lovely as any the blues have ever produced, or as pop could ever hope to bear - a record rife with indelible accounts of troubled men and women who betray their lovers, their best friends and their best ideals for desperate, bitter pleasures and are left facing themselves in empty rooms late at night, waiting for callers who never call and visitors who never arrive.
‘Now it’s the Eighties, and it’s not like men rule and women are down there scrubbing the floor.... Man can apologize, man can have a heart too.’
False Accusations (which cracked the Top 200 and won citations from numerous critics as one of the best albums of 1985) was also die record that attracted the interest of die major labels, which had not courted a black blues musician since CBS signed Muddy Waters, in 1977. "It was my intention to stay with HighTone,” says Cray, "because I wanted to use the same producers. I wanted to maintain this family-type situation that we seem to have.” But when PolyGram Records called about the possibility of marketing and distributing Cray as a HighTone artist, things sounded promising. "They treated us like real people,” says Larry Sloven, who handles most of HighTone s business affairs. "They didn’t want to change what Robert did, and the deal we made guaranteed us that whatever we produced would be accepted by them. We had promised Robert that that's what we were going to do.”
By the time Robert Cray and HighTone signed a deal with Poly-Gram in April 1986, producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker and the band were already well into the recording of Strong Persuader — and it became apparent that something of a departure was in die works. For one thing, there was the material: an unusually penetrating body of work about the high costs of betrayal and jealousy — songs that could hold their own with die darkest works of, say, Elvis Costello. In addition, the song structures — which had begun to take some out-of-the-ordinary turns on False Accusations with the addition of a new, jazz-influenced keyboardist, Peter Boe — were beginning to mix blues, pop and soul elements in subtle and effective ways that deepened the material, both musically and emotionally.
"We’d always known the band could go to a more R&B flavor” says Cray, "or stick with the blues thing or settle into some combination of the two. We could also see there was some kind of opening for a band like us in today’s market, but we wanted to be stubborn, and we definitely wanted to maintain chat serious viewpoint of the lyrics. I mean, die whole thing wasn’t just to get out there and make the money right away. We’ve been a working band for a long time. We started off playing the kind of music that we wanted to, and that’s what we’re still doing.”
For all its accomplishments, Strong Persuader is also the subject of vigorous debate among pop and blues fans — defended on one side by those who hail the album as a victory in both form and spirit ("by any disinterested standard ... the best blues record in many, many years," wrote Robert Christgau in The Village Voice) and rejected at the other extreme by those who charge that, simply, the music Cray presently plays can no longer be called blues. At best, they counter, it’s blues glossed into pop — and for most blues zealots, that’s no victory at all-
Cray himself has a fairly broad view of the matter. "Actually,” he says, "I think the music on Strong Persuader is not completely blues. But then, you could say the same about several of the songs that John Lee Hooker or Bobby Bland recorded: they’re not the regular twelve-bar, three-chord style of blues.
"At the same time,” Cray continues, "an awful lot of people don’t consider Otis Redding a blues singer, but songs like 'Pain in My Heart,’ I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ - those are blues songs. The music may have been a little different than traditional blues, but let me tell you, Otis Redding was a genius blues singer. He was singing from here, " Cray says, patting the middle of his chest. "How can somebody say Otis didn’t sing die blues?”
As Cray talks, the bus is wheeling down Union Avenue m Memphis. In a few moments, we pass the still-extant Sun Studio, where over thirty years ago producer Sam Phillips had already begun recording many other blues-minded crossover artists. Cray peers at the sight without comment, then continues. ''Playing blues is just one of the things we enjoy doing,” he says. "Like Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby Bland, all we’re really concerned with is playing songs we like. In a way, the music is secondary. What counts is the story you tell. That’s the thing — get your point across first The music is secondary.”
REGARDLESS OF HOW ONE VIEWS Robert Cray’s foray into pop style, there is one respect in which his music is clearly pure blues of the deepest sort - and that is its subject matter. Like many of the most memorable blues - and much of the most meaningful country and pop music as well - Cray’s best songs illuminate the indelible pain that accompanies the dissolution of romantic love. More exactly, they are songs about sexual infidelity, with a remarkable twist: whereas blues songs have traditionally addressed this topic from the pained perspective of the one betrayed (or, in some cases, from the vantage of one who cheats as an act of reprisal), Cray’s most stinging songs are actually self-indicting. That is, often as not, they tell their tales in the voice of the sorrowful home wrecker who undoes the happiness of other people, then must face the knowledge of what that means.
Perhaps Cray’s best song of this sort is "Right Next Door (Because of Me),” on Strong Persuader — the account of a pep star sitting in his hotel room, listening to a marriage fall apart on the other side of the wall: "She was right next door and I'm such a strong persuader,” sings Cray. "She was just another notch on my guitar/ She’s going to lose the man that really loves her/In the silence I can hear their breaking hearts.” As the singer listens, the man next door storms out of his wife’s life, and she sits alone, crying. The pop star thinks about going to comfort her, but what would he say? "It’s because of me,” he realizes, "It’s because of me.” It’s a rare, conscience-stricken blues: the blues of a man who knows he is creating deeper blues for others.
Yet exactly whose blues are these anyway? After all, one of the more consistent elements of the blues is the autobiographical authenticity of the form: when Robert Johnson or Sonny Boy Williamson sang these songs about fear, anger and flight, one had little doubt that, one way or another, the man singing the words had also lived the experience he was describing. By contrast, many of Cray’s songs almost seem to be blues by committee: since Bad Influence, producers Bruce Bromberg (under the pseudonym D. Amy) and Dennis Walker have written or co-written a great deal of Cray’s material, including "Smoking Gun” and "Right Next Door.” Is Cray’s seeming obsession with infidelity, then, a matter of personal concern, or is it a product of persona, artfully tailored for him by Bromberg and Walker?
"At a certain point,” says Dennis Walker, "we did all sit down and talk about what Robert really felt comfortable singing, and that turned out to be the relationships between men and women — more specifically, ones that he felt he could possibly be involved in. Then we had to figure how to portray those stories and feelings Ln a new kind of way. We decided it makes more of a dramatic statement when you can bring it home like that, make it more personal.”
To Cray, the material has become something of a calling. "I always had the option of not doing these songs,” he says as we sit aboard the bus in stormy Memphis, awaiting show time. "Some of this stuff might seem a bit harsh, but it’s what I wanted to sing about”
Does that mean, then, that the songs are close to home?
Cray laughs softly. "What does it look like?” he says. "I’ve had my ups and downs. I’ve been through a lot of that kind of stuff before. Right now I’m happy to say I’m not like I used to be. Not so much. A lot of the songs I write myself are taken from things I did in the past When I pick out songs that Dennis or Bruce has written for me, I pick them on the basis of if they fit me or not, if I can honestly go out there and sing them. Sometimes, of course, it’s just fun to sing about something. But usually those serious ones, like 'Porch Light’ or 'Right Next Door,’ yeah, you could say that things like that have been dose.”
He sits quietly for a moment, then goes on. "A lot of these songs,” he says, "are about hurting somebody else — that’s different from some of those older, macho-style blues songs. Several years ago, when we would perform some of the older blues tunes, and when the women’s movement was really strong, a lot of the women got upset with what we were doing. So we made a conscious effort to change some of the songs. We tried to make some of the people realize that just because we were males singing this stuff, and a lot of the songs we were doing were written by males, it didn’t mean we couldn’t see things another way. Sometimes we’d just change the lyric around a bit
"But now it’s the Eighties, and it’s not like men rule and women are down there scrubbing the floor. These are the Eighties, and man can apologize, man can have a heart too. He’s only a man, like O.V. Wright says. He feels pain too and can admit that he’s wrong. Maybe that’s what it is: maybe some of these songs are apologies.”
‘A lot of the songs I write myself,’ Cray says, 'are taken from things I did in the past.’
A FEW MINUTES LATER CRAY AND HIS band take the stage in Memphis and begin to act out the timeless blues rite of playing songs of rage and regret that somehow gladden and uplift those who hear them. Like the crowd the night before in Little Rock — and like many of the crowds that the Robert Cray Band will play for from now on - tins is perhaps not an audience that has much firsthand knowledge of blues tradition. For that matter, many in the crowd may not even fully understand just how much their own city has figured in the history of the music. Still, from the moment that the Cray band pumps into a romping version of "I Guess I Showed Her,” from Strong Persuader, something seems to transfix this largely teenage, predominantly female, mostly white audience. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the tense, soulful backbeat that Cousins and Olson bring to the sound or the simmering, Booker T-type keyboard textures conjured by Peter Boe. Or perhaps it’s simply that inspired, inflaming guitar solo that Cray pulls off tonight in "Smoking Gun” - a performance that is supposed to convey the pain of lost love and an anger that leads to fateful violence.
In a sense, that solo is reason enough to celebrate the evening. It proclaims that Robert Cray is rekindling something very old here - something as old as Robert Johnson’s darkest visions — but also something that teems with modern passions. He closes his eyes and pulls the guitar closer, leaning into the music with the look of a man who intends to follow it, as far and deep as it will go.
Mikal Gilmore is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone.