By Kenneth LaFave
Robert Cray knew what kind of music he wanted to make when he heard the blues on the radio as a child in Columbus, Georgia. Not only was the music filled with emotion, but the artists’ names were cool.
“I was a kid and the nicknames appealed to me—like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and stuff like that,” says Cray, whose band performs at Friday, December 1, at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale.
While the blues and its artists inspired him, the instrument he chose had more to do with rock.
“My dad loved Ray Charles and he thought it would be cool for me to play piano, so I started on piano,” he says. “But then the Beatles came and suddenly, everybody wanted to play guitar, including me.”
The guitar and the blues, flecked with rock influences, made a good pairing for Cray, who also added vocals to his musical mix. In 1983, he debuted with Bad Influence, an album that caught on with blues aficionados without quite going big in the mainstream. A steady crescendo of interest led at last to the 1986 album, Strong Persuader, which broke into the mainstream, but kept its blues identity. Many critics judged it the best blues album in years, and Rolling Stone wrote that the album was “a version of blues and soul that doesn’t come from any one region, building an idiom for songs that tell with conversational directness the stories of ordinary folks.”
Strong Persuader earned Cray a Grammy for best contemporary blues album, as did the follow-up, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1988) and a later collection, Take Your Shoes Off (1999).
At 64, Cray looks back at a career that feeds a constant stream of repertoire for his touring shows. At Talking Stick, he will reach back to Bad Influence and travel to 2017’s Memphis, released earlier this year with the group Hi Rhythm.
Along the path of that career, Cray has touched the core of popular culture in some unusual ways. Cray was the bass player for the fictional band Otis Day and the Knights in the 1978 comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House. He also shared the stage with rock guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan that last night before Vaughan’s tragic helicopter accident. And then there’s his 30-year friendship with Eric Clapton:
“I was touring in Europe, I think 1985 or 1986, when the promoter came up to be and gave me a cassette tape of Eric Clapton doing the title song from Bad Influence, which he was getting ready to release,” Cray says.
“Eric had heard about us through a bass player and recorded the song. Within 5 minutes of getting the cassette, Eric himself walked onstage. That led to our friendship. Within a few months we were booked on tours together.”
Fender Guitars has produced a Cray-designed version of the Stratocaster.
“It’s a matter of the neck shape and the way the pickups are wound, things like that,” Cray explains. “There are a lot of Stratocasters, but my design sounds the way I want it to.”
For he has remained Robert Cray. In fact, for a while in the late-’80s, he renamed himself “Night Train Clemens,” but it didn’t stick. His music didn’t need it. Who are the listeners today for his music? Cray sees a universal demographic in his audiences:
“Yes, there is an older audience, but a whole lot of younger people come to the shows now, too,” he says. “You see, we’ve done this for 30 years, and so the old ones have brought their kids to our concerts, and now, the kids have been turned on to the music, so they come on their own. It’s kind of cool.”
Robert Cray, Talking Stick Resort, 9800 E. Talking Stick Way, Scottsdale, 480.850.7777, talkingstickresort.com, 8 p.m. Friday, December 1, tickets start at $45.
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