An Evening with Robert Cray

The Carolina Theater, Durham

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Robert Cray has been bridging the lines between blues, soul and R&B for the past four decades, with five Grammy wins, a Blues Hall of Fame inductee, recipient of the Americana Lifetime achievement award, countless tours and over 20 acclaimed albums.  

Growing up in the Northwest, Robert Cray listened to the gospel of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Bobby Bland’s soul, Jimi Hendrix’s rock guitar and the Beatles pop sounds. He would bring all of the influences into play throughout his career, but his teenage band was captivated by Southern Soul and the blues. 

“In the early days of the band we were getting back into O.V. Wright and paying attention to my favorite blues players; Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Albert King and especially Albert Collins,” Cray says. 

The Texas-born blues guitarist known as Master of the Telecaster, Albert Collins, sealed the deal on the Cray Band’s early direction. The musical highlight of Cray’s senior year was his class voting to bring Collins in to play a graduation party. 

The glow of a career in music began when Cray was a teen, and in 1974 it burst into flames as the Robert Cray Band came together in Eugene, Oregon. 

How strong was the fire? 

“Richard and I didn’t own a vehicle, and we were staying with his girlfriend in Eugene. We hitched a ride to Salem, where our drummer Tom Murphy was going to school, to rehearse,” Cray recalls. 

With the group’s 1980 debut release, Who’s Been Talkin’, word about the Cray Band began to spread across the Northwest and down in to California. Playing packed bars and roadhouses the Cray Band was thrilling. Yes, fans could hear an Albert Collins guitar riff and a Howlin’ Wolf song but the sound was present. Blues and soul fans showed up religiously, but those steamy raucous sets also drew crowds whose tastes in music ranged from rock to funk and jazz. 

Also among the Cray Band admirers were other musicians. John Lee Hooker put his appreciation into action. 

“The first time we played with Hooker was in Montana. We were opening the set and he was playing solo,” Cray recalls. “We’d never met him before but he just walked on stage and started playing with us. We dug the hell out of the guy, and after that we were friends.” 

The Cray Band’s next two releases – Bad Influence and False Accusations – charted, taking the four-piece’s sound across the airways and abroad. The group was on a roll, but the players slept on couches. 

“We were just road rats,” Cray says with a chuckle. “We’d take a break for two weeks to record, then go back out. We didn’t have a house, a home, any of those responsibilities.” 

On one of those breaks Cray went into the studio with Collins and another great Texas guitarist and singer, Johnny Clyde Copeland, to record Showdown!, a CD that has become essential to any 80s electric blues collection. 

It was the sounds of the blues and soul that first drew attention from artists in the rock arena. In an interview Eric Clapton gives his initial response to Robert Cray saying, “As a blues fan, we’re saved.” 

The Cray Band’s beginnings did bring the sounds of its mentors into the mainstream, even taking the music of John Lee Hooker, Etta James and Albert Collins to a larger, younger audience. But no one knew how broad the band’s audience would be until the Cray Band opened the ears of rock radio programmers. 

With the 1986 release of Strong Persuader the Cray Band’s tunes were put in heavy rotation on mega rock stations across the nation. The first hit, “Smoking Gun,” was followed by “I Guess I Showed Her” and “Right Next Door (Because of Me).” 

The Cray Band’s next two releases, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Midnight Stroll, brought more radio listeners to record stores, increasing sales of the group’s CDs. Following the path of fame taken by blues-based rockers like Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cray became a sensation, leading his band in concerts at large arenas and major music festivals. He was the first African American artist since Jimi Hendrix to rise to such fame in rock music. 

Was there a change in the band’s direction or had the blues arrived again into the mainstream after more than three decades of being forgotten by radio? 

“We were doing blues and R&B from the first,” Crays says. “That’s just part of what we do. If you’re writing a tune it’s only natural to grab something from someplace else. You’re gonna put in some soul changes and some jazz, something you’ve been listening to. With what we do there’s a whole lot of room to move.” 

Clapton’s admiration for Cray led to a writing collaboration on the hit “Old Love,” which featured Cray on guitar. A call came from Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards who asked him to be in the film he and Steve Jordan were producing about the rock guitarist Chuck Berry, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Concert footage in the film features Richards, Jordan, Clapton, Julian Lennon, Linda Ronstadt and Etta James. Cray performs “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” with Berry. Dressed in a baby blue tuxedo jacket, the young guitarist is the epitome of the tune’s title. 

Cray also performed on the Tina Turner TV special “Break Every Rule.” During the 90s the Cray Band was featured in concert with artists like Clapton, the Stones, John Lee Hooker, BB King and Bonnie Raitt, who declared that the band leader is “an original; he’s passionate, he’s a bad ass and puts on one of the best shows you’ll ever see.” 

Amidst these accolades, soaring record sales and a packed touring schedule the Cray Band recorded six CDs in the 90s. Cray produced Shame + A Sin, which referenced his blues roots, in 1993. It was followed by two more self-produced recordings, Some Rainy Morning and Sweet Potato Pie. 

Recorded in Memphis and featuring the famed Memphis Horns Sweet Potato Pie was the Cray Band’s most soulful album to date. The next recording Take Off Your Shoes delved even deeper into Memphis sounds of the 60s. 

“That was definitely a soul record,” Cray says. “I’d already been writing songs, Jim (Pugh, who was keyboards with the Cray Band from 1989 to 2014) was writing songs, leaning toward soul. Steve Jordan (producer), heard them and put the icing on the cake.” 

Jordan, who subsequently produced the Cray Band’s In My Soul, Shoulda Been Home and the first CD in 4 Nights of 40 Years Live, also brought the personification of Memphis soul to the recording session, Willie Mitchell, to help with arrangements for the Memphis Horns. Mitchell discovered and first recorded Al Green along with other Southern Soul singers like Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright and Syl Johnson for the famed Memphis label Hi Records. When he arrived at the Cray recording session, he brought not only the Memphis presence but also a present. 

“Willie came over – he was wearing a gold jacket – and gave me this song, ‘Love Gone to Waste,’” Cray says. “Then we put some final touches on the CD at his studio in Memphis. It was a great opportunity to see Willie in the studio.” 

Both on Take Your Shoes Off and 4 Nights of 40 Years Live, “Love Gone to Waste” showcases Robert Cray’s natural ease with soul ballads. He is intense but smooth in telling the story of love gone bad. Then in a falsetto voice he soars through the sadness into the inevitable pain. It is a song that Cray owns because no other singer has dared try to do it justice. Take Your Shoes Off won a Grammy in 2000. 

In the next decade the Cray Band recorded seven CDs, three of them live, and two – Twenty and This Time – were nominated for Grammys. 

The group’s most recent recordings, Nothing But Love and In My Soul put the band back on the Billboard Charts.  Cray’s latest record, also produced by Jordan is called “Robert Cray with Hi Rhythm” and was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis with the famous Hi Rhythm section.  While the present tour is with Cray’s current band (The Robert Cray Band) and NOT Hi Rhythm, Robert will perform occasionally at select special shows with Jordan and Hi Rhythm.

Robert Cray was born on August 1, 1953, in Columbus, Georgia, while his father was stationed at Fort Benning. Cray’s musical beginnings go back to when he was a student at Denbigh High School in Newport News, Virginia. While there, he played in his first band, The One-Way Street. His family eventually settled in the Tacoma, Washington, area. There, he attended Lakes High School in Lakewood, Washington.

By the age of twenty, Cray had seen his heroes Albert Collins, Freddie King and Muddy Waters in concert and decided to form his own band; they began playing college towns on the West Coast. In the late 1970s he lived in Eugene, Oregon, where he formed the Robert Cray Band and collaborated with Curtis Salgado in the Cray-Hawks. In the 1978 film National Lampoon’s Animal House, Cray was the uncredited bassist in the house party band Otis Day and the Knights.

Cray released the album Who’s Been Talkin’ on Tomato Records in 1980. Two albums on HighTone Records in the mid-1980s, Bad Influence and False Accusations, were moderately successful in the United States and in Europe, where he was building a reputation as a live artist. Cray was signed to Mercury Records and in 1986 released his fourth album, Strong Persuader, produced by Dennis Walker, which received a Grammy Award, while the crossover single “Smokin’ Gun” gave him wider appeal and name recognition. Under the pseudonym “Night Train Clemons”, he recorded with Ted Hawkins in 1986. He was invited by Keith Richards to join the backing band for Chuck Berry in the 1987 film, Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll, directed by Taylor Hackford.

By now, Cray was an opening act for such major stars as Eric Clapton and sold out larger venues as a solo artist. Cray has generally played Fender guitars (Telecasters and Stratocasters) and there are two signature Robert Cray Stratocasters models available from Fender. The Robert Cray Custom Shop Stratocaster is made in the United States in the Fender custom shop and is identical to the guitars that Cray currently plays, while the Robert Cray Standard Stratocaster is a less-expensive model made in Fender’s Ensenada, Mexico plant.

Cray had the opportunity to play alongside John Lee Hooker on his album Boom Boom, playing the guitar solo in the song “Same Old Blues Again”. He is also featured on the Hooker album, The Healer; he plays a guitar solo on the song “Baby Lee”. The entire Robert Cray Band backs Hooker on the title track of Hooker’s 1992 album Mr. Lucky, where Cray plays lead guitar, sings, and banters with Hooker throughout the song.

Cray played with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, and Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin, performing “Sweet Home Chicago”. This was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s final performance before he died in a helicopter accident later that night.

Cray was invited to play at the “Guitar Legends” concerts in Seville, Spain at the 1992 Expo, where he played a signature track, “Phone Booth”. Albert Collins was also on the bill on this blues night of the “Legends” gigs.

Cray continues to record and tour. He appeared at the Crossroads Guitar Festival, and supported Eric Clapton on his 2006-2007 world tour. In Fargo, North Dakota, he joined Clapton on backup guitar for the Cream song “Crossroads”. In 2011, Cray was inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame and received the Americana Music Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance in 2017. (Wikipedia)

TICKETS

Address309 West Morgan StreetDurham, NC27701
DateAug 24, 2019
Time8:00 PM
PerformerRobert Cray
VenueCarolina Theatre