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."
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.
Cray still lets loose with a downhome shuffle now and then, as he does so convincingly on “Across The Line" [
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
], but the bulk of his new material is geared to the pop market.
Perhaps critic Robin Tolleson put it best recently in the opening of his cover story on Robert for Downbeat: "Cray is to blues what the Yellowjackets are to jazz -- close enough."
Cray, an amiable, unassuming presence in person, seems mystified by all the adulation and success raining down on him. "I don't know, man. It makes me feel good, but I don't understand it," he laughs. "I guess people respond to us because we're pretty accessible. We cover a lot of different musical territory. Somebody might be into the bluesier aspects of our show, somebody else might be into the Stax soul thing that we do. And to me, those things aren't too far away from each other, so a lot of people can really get into our music."
So while the Albert Collins-inspired “Across The Line" will satisfy blues purists, “Acting This Way," with its David Sanborn alto solo, will no doubt appeal to MOR listeners. Cray has it both ways.
Aside from his strong solo style and urgent vocals, Cray's real strength is his rhythm playing. In this age of speed licks and two-handed technique, rhythm guitar playing has become a lost art. Cray could lead a seminar on the subject.
"Some people say, 'Hey, you're not doing so many solos anymore.' Well, that's fine and dandy. I mean, solos aren't the most important thing to me. I really like rhythm guitar playing, too. I like to be a part of a band. I like to play songs, not just solo on and on for ten minutes. I guess that comes from all the soul music I listened to coming up -- Steve Cropper playing all that great rhythm guitar with Booker T & The MG's, Teeny Hodges playing behind Al Green and O.V. Wright.
“And one other guy who really impressed me was John Watkins out of Chicago, playing rhythm behind Albert Collins. I listened closely to all them cats, and it must've sunk in along the way."
Perhaps Cray's current interest in Brazilian music may ultimately result in some new kind of hybrid. Anyone for a shuffle samba in E?
''I've always wanted to play nylon-string guitar in a Brazilian groove," he confesses. "That's a dream I have now, but it really takes a long time to get comfortable with that style of playing. I love that music. I guess my interest was sparked during our recent tour through Brazil. Man, they breathe music down there. That music really touches you. It's all around and you just soak it up when you're down there."
He also mentions that his current listening tastes run to jazz. "I dig Thelonious Monk a whole lot, but I could never play anything like him. I just think you should keep your ears open to a lot of different kinds of music and be aware of what's around you. I don't have to play any of this stuff for public consumption, but I still want to know about it. And maybe in some way it does eventually come out in my music."
He may never make another stone blues album again, but one thing is for certain: He ain't gonna starve going in the direction he staked out on Strong Persuader and carried through on Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark. Cray already paid his dues playing Howlin' Wolf staples all over Oregon, Washington and Northern California during the seventies.
He's not entirely turned his back on the 12-bar shuffle, but it seems now that he's honing a new reputation as a kind of poet laureate of the contemporary blues scene. There's no turning back after platinum. Strong Persuader was the sound of Cray's ship coming in. Now he's packing arenas all over the free world instead of kicking around funky blues clubs in Eugene.
A movie contract can't be too far off. After all, he's got The Look.
A Robert Cray Axology
FOR HIS FINE debut album, Who's Been Talkin', Cray played a Gibson 345 stereo guitar. It gave him a darker sound than he's currently getting on Stratocasters.
"I had a real deep sound on that album because of all the low end I'd get with the humbuckers, and from the fact that I'd play a lot on the bass pickup. But then maybe a year after that record was recorded, I switched to a Stratocaster. The Gibson was cool 'cause it had a six-position switch, but it was really too much on the low end and too bright at the high end. And I especially like that Fender sound for rhythm playing. I've been a Fender man ever since."
His main ax is an ugly green '64 Strat with jumbo frets. He recorded most of Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark with that one, alternating with a '57 sunburst Strat (pictured on the cover of last year's Grammy Award-winning Strong Persuader). On tour, he also carries a new American Standard Strat that contains the pickups from another '64 Strat he had. He also has a red Japanese reissue Strat with low-impedance pickups. The American Standard Strat has a maple fingerboard; the rest of Cray's guitars are fitted with rosewood.
Live, Cray plays through two Fender Super Reverb amplifiers. In the studio, he uses a set-up of a Super Reverb and a Twin Reverb. On stage, he sets his volume on five, the treble and middle on 10 and the bass at about four. The bright switch remains on and the reverb is set at about three, though he says, "I'm looking for a different reverb sound now ... maybe an SPX90 or some Lexicon system."
Until then, the guitar roadie will continue to walk out on stage and crank up the reverb during Cray's solo on "I Can't Go Home," then turn it back down to three before heading for the wings. It's a primitive method, but then Cray hasn't yet gone in for any pedals or effects whatsoever. "I'm just a plain o1' guy," he laughs. "Just straight to the amp for me and I'm off and running."
He uses D’Addario strings, fairly heavy gauge -- .O11, .013, .018, .028, .036 and .046. He plays with extra heavy tortex picks and will occasionally reach in with his third or fourth finger to pull at the strings, a la Albert Collins.
Cray doesn't use the wang bar, but shakes the strings pretty nicely with a natural vibrato he's developed. "I worked that out a long time ago from listening to B.B. King stuff," he says. "And also, I used to play with real heavy strings, like a .013 on the high E. I didn't know they made lighter strings for the longest time, so I just kept struggling with these heavies. Now, if I ever pick up a guitar with light gauge strings and really let loose on a .009, it goes right off the neck.