Robert Cray Discusses Albert Collins, Gear and His New Album in 1989 Guitar World Interview
Here's an interview with guitarist Robert Cray from the January 1989 issue of Guitar World magazine. The original story, which started on page 54, ran with the headline, "His Time is Now."
No, he can't squeeze strings like Albert King or Albert Collins. And he doesn't have the grit of an Otis Rush or Lowell Fulson. He's got a great voice, but it's not in the same league with all-time greats like B.B. King or Big Joe Turner or Wynonie Harris.
But Robert Cray has one thing all those others don't have: The Look. Handsome, clean-cut, strikingly photogenic, he was tailor-made for the MTV generation. And it's because his videos are broadcast on MTV that the younger generation flocks to his concerts.
Not just the usual assortment of raggedy, pot-smoking, white urban blues guitar freaks who generally show up every time Albert or B.B. or Hubert Sumlin come to town. I'm talking couples. Young men and young women. White and black and yellow and brown, from middle- and upper-class backgrounds.
Yuppies? Plenty. Maybe it's The Look, maybe it's the conviction in his voice, maybe it's his tales of heartbreak and two-timing. Could it be his blistering guitar licks?
Something's drawing 'em in, pulling the Yuppies away from their VCR's and Cuisinarts to actually go out and mingle with plebeian blues fanatics and guitar aficionados.
Whatever the attraction, one point is clear: Robert Cray is making it safe to like the blues again. And in that regard, he's an important figure, regardless of what critics and blues purists/curmudgeons might think of his licks or his tunes or his general demeanor. He's communicating, and he's doing it with loads of sincerity. Robert loves the blues, and although he may be filtering Albert Collins licks through a pop sensibility, it's still the same ol’ feeling coming across.
If you haven't yet seen or heard Robert Cray (which is nearly impossible, given the massive exposure he got in 1987 following his Grammy Award-winning Strong Persuader album, cover stories in dozens of music magazines worldwide, guest shots on The Tonight Show, The Today Show, Late Night With David Letterman, appearances on the Grammy Award show alongside the likes of Albert and B.B. King and in the film Hail, Hail Rock 'N Roll alongside the likes of Keith Richards and Chuck Berry), then picture this: Z.Z. Hill with Stanley Jordan's look.
Yet some critics don't buy into The Look. They've called his music watered-down, poppified , Yuppified or downright bland. His own record distribution company (Polygram) alerts retailers with a curious tag on Cray's latest, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark. It reads: Place In Pop/Rock Section.
That bit of record company wisdom clearly irked Robert and his comrades. "We got kinda upset by that," he confesses in somber tones. "It was strictly a marketing ploy ... an idea of the record company so they could find a place to put the record. That's since been changed. The sticker was on the first batch they released, but it's gone now."
So the question remains: Where does a record store retailer or critic / curmudgeon looking for a quick and easy tag place Mr. Cray? Is he a bluesman? Pop singer? R&B act? One clue might be the clever bumper sticker slapped on his guitar case: "I Brake For The Blues."
Well, so does John Davidson. And grits ain't gravy. Say he is a bluesman. Are we talkin' blues as in the sweaty, raunchy Buddy Guy-Junior Wells variety, or the more polite kind as practiced by the likes of Eric Clapton? Clearly, Cray has more in common with the latter group. Call it the contempo-blues crowd. But even he admits that the term "blues" does not really accurately describe what he's been doing, particularly over the past few years.
"In the early days, we were doing a lot of straight blues stuff, and also putting in some funky James Brown covers. But when I started to write more of my own material, all the gospel and R&B influences started coming out, and it just turned everything all around. Now, I don't mind being called a blues musician, but it doesn't encompass everything we do. There are better blues musicians out there than myself. And, besides, I don't think I want to stay in one particular bag. I like gospel and R&B and a lot of different kinds of music. I'm influenced a lot by what else is going on around me, so it's not right to just call me a blues musician. It's too confining."