Robert Cray Discusses Albert Collins, Gear and His New Album in 1989 Guitar World Interview
Along with writing partner Dennis Walker (who goes by the nom de plume of D. Amy on record credits), Cray is putting more emphasis on the storytelling, the vocals, the overall band sound, than on his own guitar playing.
"The guitar doesn't have a lot to do with where I'm progressing to as a songwriter. Right now, I think I'm more concerned about writing a real good ballad than coming up with some killer guitar lick. The guitar is probably gonna layout a little bit for a particular song, like a ballad. It's really not as prominent as it used to be, but it's still there."
In spite of this current de-emphasis of guitar in the scheme of his writing, you certainly won't be seeing Cray strolling the stage with a mike in his hand and his guitar in a stand. "No, I couldn't do that. I just couldn't do that," he offers. "I gotta play. I couldn't live without it. And it's an especially satisfying and challenging thing to try and play and sing at the same time, which is what I really dig about the Brazilian musicians I've been listening to lately, particularly Baden Powell."
Not quite a bluesman, not quite a popstar. There’s no doubt that Cray has a strong affinity for the blues. He grew up listening to B.B. and Albert, Little Milton and Otis Rush and all the greats. But he was also keeping an ear open to the Southern soul scene -- Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is," Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" and Bobby Purify's ''I'm Your Puppet" were particular favorites in his formative years.
Hendrix, Clapton and all the great electric blues-based rock players of the day caught his fancy during his high school years, but it was seeing Albert Collins at a rock festival in 1969 that really turned his head around. Two years later, Collins played at Cray's high school graduation party in Tacoma, Washington, and the ice-pick sound really sunk in deep.
"That was it,” Cray recalls. "That changed my whole life around. From that moment I started seriously studying the blues." He began emulating Albert's licks, which were difficult to reproduce on a standard-tuned guitar, and required some ridiculous stretches on the fretboard. "I'd hear something that Albert was playing, not realizing that it maybe took him two fingers pressed down on six strings in D minor or C minor tuning with that capo he uses to get that sound. And with my standard tuning, it usually meant a mile-long stretch. But I worked on it until I finally got it down."
Between 1976 and 1978, the Robert Cray Band opened for Albert Collins on gigs along the Pacific Northwest. During that period, Collins would occasionally hire the group as his backing band, which thrilled Cray to no end.
"He was like a father to us," says the thirty-five-year-old guitarist. "He showed us the ropes, showed us how to travel and get along on the road. It was a great time, and he's become a good friend. And he's still a big inspiration to me as a guitar player. I just love the way he digs in with his fingers, pulls the strings and lets 'em fall. I like that. I think guitars were meant to be abused. Just like that one song he does called 'Don't Lose Your Cool.' Man, he's poppin' the hell outta the thing on that tune. His fingers are just like picks, man. They're hard!
“So lately, I find myself pulling up on the high E string ... just flat out pulling it off the fingerboard with my third or fourth finger. I love the staccato kind of grooves you can get going with that."
The two guitarists recently reunited on the 1986 Alligator album, Showdown!, a blues summit meeting that also involved Texan Johnny Copeland. You can hear the Albert Collins influence on Cray's playing throughout the 1979 recording, Who's Been Talkin', an earthier affair than any of Cray's recent popular albums.
This great blues album, originally released on the now-defunct Tomato label in 1980, has recently been reissued by Atlantic Records. Seek it out if you really want to know what the man can do on the guitar. His solos on the slow blues numbers, "The Welfare Turns Its Back On You" and ''I'd Rather Be A Wino," are excellent examples of the real deal. And his playing on the Chicago blues of Sam Myers' "Sleeping In The Ground" or on his own "Nice As A Fool Can Be" is nastier and raunchier than anything on Strong Persuader or Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark.
But you can't argue with success, and Cray scored big with Strong Persuader. On the strength of that platinum-seller, Cray was named Number One R&B Artist of the Year for '87-'88 by Rolling Stone, Downbeat and Performance magazines. Playboy named Strong Persuader the Best R&B album and "Smoking Gun" the Best R&B song of the year. Cash Box nominated him the Number One Most Promising AOR Male Artist and the Number Two New Video Artist. And he made a clean sweep of the prestigious W.C. Handy Awards (Band of the Year, Vocalist of the Year, Contemporary Male Artist, Contemporary LP, Single of the Year, "Smoking Gun," and Song of the Year, "Right Next Door") for an unprecedented fifth time.