Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


CRAY, Robert

(b 1 Aug. '53, Columbus GA) Blues guitarist, singer and songwriter. From an army family, he spent time in Germany. He formed first band influenced by the Beatles in Tacoma WA, then an Albert Collins concert helped decide his musical direction; the Chicago blues influence loomed large (Buddy Guy, Magic Sam) and his father's fondness for Ray Charles played a part. The early band included high school friend Bobby Murray on guitar; the Robert Cray Band hit the road '74 with bassist Richard Cousins. The music was leavened with soulful vocals, but never far from blues roots. Cray toured hard, and met John Belushi '77, whose love of blues was exhibited in film/LPs Blues Brothers, and Cray had was seen on screen playing bass with Otis Day and the Knights in the film Animal House '78.

Cray's first LP Who's Been Talkin' '78 was made at two sessions with horns, different rhythm sections, Curtis Salgado (harmonica; vocal on one track) and Cousins at one session; it was released on indie Tomato label '80 which kept going broke; reissued '86 on Charly UK, on Charly CD as The Score and on Tomato CD in USA as Too Many Cooks. The second LP Bad Influence '83 was on Hightone USA/Demon UK, where a spot on TV's Whistle Test led to good sales and headline status at top venues: this time lineup was Cray, Cousins, Dave Olson on drums, Mike Vannice, tenor sax and keyboards; Warren Rand, alto sax; all tunes original except 'Got To Make A Comeback' (Eddie Floyd) and 'Don't Touch Me' (Johnny 'Guitar' Watson). The mix of blues, soul revealed the most exciting new bluesman for a long time. Third album False Accusations '85 was more of the same, with personnel changes: Cray lost Vannice and Rand, added Peter Boe on keyboards and toured the UK as the album made indie charts there. Showdown! '85 on Alligator began as a Collins album and became a guitar showpiece for Collins, Cray and Johnny Copeland, an unusually successful all-star date. Strong Persuader '86 was his first for a major label (Mercury), the 12-inch single and CD had extra tracks. Collins has covered 'Phone Booth'; Albert King made it a title track on Fantasy; Eric Clapton covered 'Bad Influence' '86 and jammed with Cray at London's Mean Fiddler in November: their version of 'Phone Booth' was a sound-page flexi-disc in May '87 Guitar Player magazine. Cray toured with Clapton '87, prepared for a cameo part in Chuck Berry biopic Hail Hail Rock'n'Roll. All Night Long on the Japanese P-Vine label included out-takes from Who's Been Talkin', also tracks made with pianist Floyd Dixon.

Cray named his biggest influences as Jimi Hendrix and Steve Cropper; he admired Charlie Baty (Little Charlie and the Nightcats); he had won eleven W. C. Handy National Blues Awards and won six more '87 with his own incisive playing (he eschews wah-wah pedals and other impurities), first-class singing of memorable songs that tell a story (the co-operative songwriting, often with producer Dennis Walker and Bruce Bromberg as 'D. Amy', results in 'Cray music'), backing trio integrated in all senses. Further albums were Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark '88 (with the Memphis Horns, fresh from Stevie Winwood's soul pastiche Roll With It), Midnight Stroll '90, I Was Warned '92, Shame + A Sin '93; Some Rainy Morning '95 was his first album without horns and had a stripped-down sound, followed by Sweet Potato Pie '97 made in Memphis, the horns back. He entered the new century with Take Your Shoes Off and Shoulda Been Home on Rykidisc, Tune Will Tell and Twenty on Sanctuary.