Personalities | Robert Cray | Eighties | Jazz & Blues

Although Robert Cray’s clean, good looks, precise guitar lines and slick presentation earned him some knocks from critics early on in his career (hardcore blues aficionados tended to dismiss him as ‘blues lite’ for yuppies), he later gained their respect for his smart songwriting and razor-sharp guitar licks, along with an intensely passionate vocal style reminiscent of the great 1960s R&B singer O.V. Wright.

A Promising Debut

Born on 1 August 1953 in Columbus, Georgia, Cray moved around frequently until the age of 15, when his family finally settled in Tacoma, Washington. Inspired by Texas guitarslinger Albert Collins (who played at Cray’s high-school graduation), he taught himself to play guitar and formed his first band in 1974 with bassist Richard Cousins. After playing around the Pacific Northwest during the 1970s, even joining Collins’s backing band on a few West Coast gigs, Cray’s band made its recording debut in 1980 with Who’s Been Talkin’ (on Tomato Records). That first album set the tone for Cray’s recording career, reflecting an equal allegiance to blues and R&B in his faithful covers of O.V. Wright’s ‘I’m Gonna Forget About You’, Freddie King’s ‘The Welfare (Turns Its Back On You)’ and the Willie Dixon-penned title track. But it was Cray’s originals ‘Nice As A Fool Can Be’ and ‘That’s What I’ll Do’ that pointed to a future direction for this talented singer, songwriter and guitarist.

Cray followed up with two solid outings on the High Tone label – 1983’s Bad Influence, which contained the chilling original ‘Phone Booth’, and 1985’s False Accusations – before finally breaking through to mainstream acceptance following the release of his superb 1986 Mercury Records debut, Strong Persuader (containing his hit original song ‘Smoking Gun’). In 1985 Cray appeared on a guitar summit meeting, the aptly named Showdown! (Alligator Records), with fellow blues six-stringers Albert Collins and Johnny ‘Clyde’ Copeland.

A Southerly Direction

During the 1990s, Cray took more of a southern soul direction on recordings such as 1990’s Midnight Stroll, 1992’s I Was Warned and 1995’s Some Rainy Morning (all on Mercury), while continuing to blossom as a songwriter with a knack for minor-key confessionals. In 1999 he collaborated with drummer Steve Jordan, who produced and played on the Memphis-flavoured Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc). Also appearing on that retro-soul outing was drummer-producer Willie Mitchell of Hi Records fame; he co-wrote and also created the horn arrangements for the opening track, which has the distinct feel of an early 1970s Al Green number. Elsewhere on the album, Cray offers faithful renditions of Mack Rice’s ‘24-7 Man’ and Solomon Burke’s ‘Won’t You Give Him (One More Chance)’.

Time Will Tell

Cray has continued to expertly blend relaxed, good-feeling southern soul and urgent blues on 2001’s Stax/Volt-flavoured Shoulda Been Home (again produced in Memphis by drummer Steve Jordan) and 2003’s Time Will Tell (Sanctuary), his thirteenth recording as a leader. That most recent release is easily his most ambitious to date and is in some...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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