Robert Cray Band – 2019
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November 9, 2019 @ 8:00 pm
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. 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. 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.