Widely recognized as one of the greatest blues guitarists of our time, Robert Cray has pretty much done it all in his four decades of making music. Cray has written songs or shared the stage with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Copeland and Eric Clapton.
For Cray’s 17th studio album, In My Soul (released April 1), the five-time Grammy winner once again reasserts himself as one of the great musical storytellers with an inspired collection of original blues/soul material as well as takes on songs by Otis Redding, Mable John and Bobby "Blue" Bland.
I recently spoke with Cray about his new album as well as some of the highlights from his 40 years in music.
GUITAR WORLD: How would you describe the new album, In My Soul?
Everybody knows we've been dabbling in the soul vein for the longest time, but I think this record has more soul on it than any record we've ever done. It's got a lot of different flavors of soul on it.
Tell me about a few of the recent personnel changes to the band.
In addition to our longtime bass player Richard Cousins, we recently added Dover Weinberg back to the lineup playing organ and piano. He used to be in the band in the late Seventies, and he rejoined us in late November just before we went into the studio. We also added Les Falconer on drums. He's been in the band for about a year.
What was it like working with producer Steve Jordan?
Fantastic. This was my third time working with Steve, and he's such a great organizer and gets everyone totally involved in the project. He treats every song as an individual and puts 100 percent-plus into every tune.
When you start a new album project, do you ever go in with an idea of what you want it to sound like ahead of time?
We never do. With this record, no one in the band even knew what the others were going to bring in until a week before we went into the studio. When we presented our material to each other as a band, everyone was pretty much on the same page: We had a lot of soul tunes. Steve also offered a few suggestions for songs — Otis Redding’s “Nobody's Fault But Mine” and the Mable John song, "Your Good Thing Is About to End," the one Lou Rawls made famous. We also decided to do a tribute to Bobby “Blue” Bland, "Deep in My Soul," because we just lost him last year.
Where did the idea for the song “You Move Me” come from?
I remember I was standing outside of the hotel after a gig, waiting for the bus to come pick us up and take us to the next town, when I heard the groove and melody in my head. So I took out my iPhone and hummed the melody into the phone. That's how it started.
Where else do you find inspiration for songs?
I'm not the kind of guy who gets up in the morning, sits down and then tries to force out a tune. I just wait for the idea to come. Most of the ideas for songs come to me when I'm off the road at home and am able to pursue them as they come.
What inspired you to start playing?
I started playing guitar around 1965, right after I saw the Beatles play. I saw them on Ed Sullivan's show, just like everyone else did, and persuaded my mother to buy me a guitar. I wound up with a Harmony Sovereign acoustic to start off with and began taking lessons right away.
You had the pleasure of seeing Jimi Hendrix perform a few times. What was that experience like?
It was incredible. The first time I saw him was at the Seattle Center Coliseum. I remember I was really far away trying to take a picture and he looked like a little speck. The second time I saw him was the year he passed, 1970, when he played outdoors at a baseball stadium. I had already been playing for a few years when I heard him for the first time and out of all of the music I had been listening to up to that point, there was nothing like it.
What was it that first attracted you to the blues?
My parents had a great record collection, so there was always a lot of blues music at home. But it wasn't until I was in high school when everything changed. I had two friends, Bobby Murray, who went on to play with Etta James, and Richard Cousins, our bass player, who both grew up in the same area as me and played guitar. I remember Bobby had teamed up with another guy in town who was listening to a lot of B.B. King, Magic Sam and Howlin’ Wolf, and every day after school the three of us would go check out the music and buy all of these great Blues records. That's when I really got into it.
Can you tell me the origin of your 1986 hit, “Smoking Gun”?
It started out as a lyric by one of our producers, Bruce Bromberg. He came in with the lyrics and passed them to me and Richard and we took to putting the music to it. Bruce gave us some lyrics; I read the lyrics and the lyrics told us to play that music. That's how it came about.
What are some of the biggest highlights of your 40 years in music?
There have been a lot of them. As teenagers, we wanted to be blues men and bought all of those records and then got to meet many of the people we idolized. I got to sit in and perform with Muddy Waters; we got to play with John Lee Hooker and Albert Collins and make records with both of them. I played with Eric Clapton and got to be on his Journeyman record and wrote a song with him called "Old Love." There's a whole lot of amazing things that have happened over the years.
What makes the blues so special?
I like the emotion that's brought about in that type of music. The honesty and sincerity. For me, nothing is any more convincing than listening to Elmore James’ voice cracking in “The Sky Is Crying.” It’s so pure and so deep. It's that kind of raw emotion that makes the blues so special.
Photo: Jeff Katz
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metal head who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.