Robert Cray: I'm Just the Guitarist In A Band
He needs coffee before we start. The machine in the plush five star hotel is being cleaned, so he has to wait. Tired after the flight from Switzerland and part way through a major tour, here he is in the morning, sat in short-sleeved white shirt, Khaki cap and sandals. This is some 26 years after I first met him. He’s looking good.
He being the legendary blues star Robert Cray…..While Robert sifts through a pile of black and white pictures of him that I took in 1987 when he was touring with Tina Turner, Tim his tour manager arrives with coffee. Robert looks pleased. He’s a very quiet, laid back guy and answers my questions with due thought and the occasional “I dunno,” instead of churning out stock verbals saved up for hacks like me asking the same dumb question he’s heard a zillion times in his career.
I have to declare an interest before I continue. I am a HUGE fan of this guy sat opposite me at the table in this empty restaurant. I absolutely love his guitar playing. But I adore his voice. It is unique. More soul than blues. Never fails to hit the solar plexus and do what great music should do. It moves and creates emotion. There, I said it.
I first came across him at a modest gig he did at Leicester Polytechnic way back in 1985 after an invite from his then record label to check him out. Glad I did. Blew me away. I even ended up showing him and the band a local curry house afterwards, and joined them for a drink. Two years later, I was a photographer at his gig with Tina Turner at the NEC, the only snapper allowed to get shots of his duet with her. Then our paths cross again, when he is on the bill at a big American music festival at Crystal Palace and when he sold out Hammersmith Odeon, with the Memphis Horns in his band. It doesn’t stop there.
In 1990, on Feb 10th in fact, I was at Robert’s wedding! He married a Brit’, a top model and actress based in LA, but originally from Leicester where the pair tied the knot. I was invited by his publicist to go take pictures. Here we are 21 years later, and I meet up with Robert’s wife Sue Turner-Cray, who just flew in with their four year old son Winston. She is now an award-winning actress (was in Disney’s James & The Giant Peach) and writer, and co-wrote several songs with her husband on Robert’s recent albums. She tells me the little one likes jamming with Dad at home to James Brown songs. Not on the miniature Strat’, Fender sent him, signed by all the Fender team. But on his mini drum kit!
Fast forward to summer 2011, London. 15 Grammy nominations and five wins later, here we are chatting about his career to date. My opening question is: “What drives you these days when you have basically done it all?” Robert doesn’t have to think about that. “I think it is that playing music is still a lot of fun. Being around a good crew and my friends in the band is what it is about. It started off to be that way, and it has never changed. Not once have I ever felt it was time to stop, or I was not enjoying it any more. There are times you need to be off the road and re-charge your batteries. But it is still great fun.”
Is touring harder or easier after so many years on the road? Robert tells me it is the same as it always has been, and he loves it. “Touring is the same now as it has always been when I was younger. Once it is in the blood, I don’t think you ever lose it to be honest with you. I look forward to going to different places and playing. I like to eat. But that’s totally off the subject, “he laughs. I argue and say no it isn’t - as he has a food theme on several albums and song titles (Cookin’ In Mobile, Sweet Potato Pie & Chicken In The Kitchen among them!). “Well, people do travel on their stomach. One of the great things of travelling is to sample different cuisine. In Britain, my favourite dish is the breakfast. “
We discuss the trend towards rock that many blues players have gone towards. A la Joe Bonamassa. Is he tempted to go there? “I am a rock and roll fan. A big Jimi Hendrix fan. The band and myself, would never go into a completely different direction, but we have already little touches of different styles. We have an RnB thing. A song called Poor Johnny which touches on a Caribbean flavour. Songs with rock feel like ‘Back Door Slam.’ But we do what we do and will continue to do so.” Glad to hear it.
Robert talks about his dislike of being pigeon holed and his music labelled, and the avoidance of that over the years. So how does he describe his style of music? “I say I play music. It’s a tough thing to do to describe what we do, but I’d say blues and rhythm and blues. Tags are the toughest thing in the world to try to fit into. It has become more so these days, because in the States there are so many radio stations and they all have to have a category. We do what we do. Ours has always been a combination of a lot of different things. There’s the Hendrix thing. The RnB and blues thing.Those are all the different kinds of music I enjoyed and grew up listening to, and listen to now. Including gospel. “Blues is one of the foundations of our music, but it is not all we do. I wanted to be George Harrison when I first started playing guitar. Until I heard Jimi Hendrix. Then I wanted to be Albert Collins and Buddy Guy. Then BB King. Then there are the singers, like OV Wright, Bobby Blue Bland. It’s all mixed up in what we do.”
“When I sit down to write a song, I am not thinking I am going to do this kind of song. There’s a whole word of different kinds of colours from which to paint. When you are painting, any of those can come into one song, so there is no one place for us, in one category.” Talking of Hendrix. Robert gets animated when I ask if there is one song he heard as a youngster that rocked his world. “The first time I heard the intro chords to Purple Haze. I’d been playing guitar for two and half to three years and having lessons on and off. It did something to my mind and inside my body. I do not know where it came from. It was a completely different thing to anything I had ever heard, and that really twisted me around.”
So are you a blues guitarist with a soul voice, or a soul singer who plays the blues? That prompts a loud laugh. “Errr…err… I dunno! Both of them work fine with me.” He laughs again. I advise that the best answer was: “I’m Robert Cray.” He smiles and says “Yeahh. That’s right.”
We discuss influences and his heroes. Albert Collins is the main one on guitar methinks. He has the same aggression and attack that Collins had when he was spanking the plank - mixed up with sweetness and the seemingly gentle stroking of the instrument, to coax out notes and phrases no one has ever thought of before, let alone played. Cray is Cray. Full stop. So who would he say was the best guitarist ever, if he had to pick just one? “No, I cannot pick one. There are a lot of favourites. Albert Collins being one. Albert King. BB King. Otis Rush. Magic Sam. Eric Clapton. Howling Wolf. Robert Johnson, of course. T. Bone Walker. They all come with a different flavour, and that’s the thing (we are back to food and cooking again I say, with the mention of flavours!). “We used to have these arguments all the time about who was the best guitarist ever. Me and Stevie Ray (Vaughan) would argue about it. He would say Albert King and I would say Albert Collins. Albert Collins was my favourite, because I liked his attack. At the same time, I have mucho respect for Albert King too. Nobody can bend the strings like that, and with all that power." I ask what he feels when seeing and hearing himself described in the same terms as the legends he has mentioned, and when he is placed on a pedestal in regular ‘greatest guitarist’ polls, year in, year out. How does that sit with him? “I don’t even hear that. “He laughs, but is serious.” I can’t hear it. Because of the fact I’m like any other guitar player. Still doing the bow down to everyone else we have mentioned. So I don’t hear it. I’ve been around for a while now, and a lot of people know my name. But I don’t hear what they’re saying.”
So in your mind, you are just another guitar player? Is that what you are saying, Robert? “Yes. In my mind, I am fighting. You know, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I am a guitarist in a band, part of a group. A team.“ So, where does “just another” guitar player and 2011 Blues Hall of Famer keep his stacks of awards he has collected, since his debut album 31 years ago? Pride of place in his US home, where he says he has 25 guitars? He laughs, and tells me that his five Grammy’s are on a shelf in the corner of an upstairs office his wife uses. The rest are “put away in a closet.”
“They are not what it’s all about. Awards make you feel good. For the fact there are people who deem your work worthy. It’s nice for the moment, but as soon as the next day comes you are back on the pile again, clawing your way with everyone else.” At this point Robert’s mobile rings, emitting an eerie Sci -Fi sound, reminiscent of Star Trek. He doesn’t own an iPod though, and prefers to hear music on a turntable at home. Currently listening to Howling Wolf and Elmore James, for inspiration for his next batch of songs. Robert started his own label Nozzle Records, and began to produce himself, at the suggestion of the Mercury Records President when he left that label. After the acclaimed “Live Across The Pond” double CD, recorded at The Royal Albert Hall when they opened for old pal Eric Clapton, Robert released Grammy-nominated “This Time” - the first studio album on his new label. He revealed, he wants to go back to analogue for his next recording, for the “warmth” of tape.
So as a musician and experienced businessman in the music industry, what’s his advice to new artists? “Never pass up the opportunity to play in ensembles. Play together with other people and see how you fit in, and how you can make music together as a whole - a project that is about the music. A lot of times, it’s always about the guitar man up front and some pathetic dummy heads at the back, you know. Everyone just following the guitarist. Get together with a group of musicians and make some music together. You don’t have to play solos in every song. Make it a song. Brush strokes. Make it about the music first. As far as the success thing, trying to be on top of the business. It’s so unpredictable. You never know what anyone’s looking for, or what the radio is going to play. Do what you do, and have fun with what you are doing with every show, and that’s gonna draw. Albert Collins told me to always do what I do and stick to it.“
Some critics and blues purists have criticised Cray for being “too commercial” and selling out. They fail to realise, he did for the blues what Garth Brooks did for country music and maybe Jamie Cullum or Michael Buble did for jazz/big band - putting it slap bang on to mainstream daytime radio, and made it cool. He won younger audiences who got into the blues as a genre, healthy for all blues. “There are always people who will criticise no matter what you do. Can’t please all of the people, and that’s never been my job. We play the music we’ve always done, what we enjoy and we’ve always done that. From word one….out first album ‘Who’s Been Talking,’ the title taken from a Willie Dixon tune that Howling Wolf did. ’I’m Gonna Forget About You,’ was by OV Wright. That showed you where we were coming from, from the very first. Blues and RnB, and every album since then, has always been that.“ So how does he see the future of the blues panning out? More rock and little blues perhaps? “I see a lot of the rock thing going on in blues now, but there’s still people out there holding on to tradition. Those are the ones you don’t hear much about, but they are there. It’s gonna be around. Don’t worry.” Phew, that’s OK then.
Talking of traditional blues, the Grand-daddy of them all was probably Muddy Waters. Robert lights up when he recalls his adventures with Muddy. “We did six shows with him, and one night Muddy was in his dressing room, and I knocked on the door and he said come on in. I talked to him, and sat there being like a reporter, asking him how it was to play with Otis Span and the others. He opened up, and first thing he did was pour me a glass of Piper Heideseck champagne – a certain vintage he loved, with a strawberry in it to keep the fizz.
“Talking about himself in the third person…’that young Muddy Waters’….I got the opportunity to sing 'Mannish Boy' in his encore every night. When I was on stage with him singing “Mannish Boy” it was the coolest thing in the world. To top it off, for the last of the shows, and this sounds like a page from a fairy story book, at the Sacramento blues festival, Muddy comes up and says; ‘Robert, do you think you can play some of that Muddy Waters blues.’ I said I’ll give it my best shot, because one of his guitar players had to leave and go back to Chicago.”
“So I joined his band and played the whole set that night. We were on stage earlier, and Muddy came in from the back of the audience, I happened to look up and I saw the audience parting in a big wave, and Muddy came walking through and made his way to the side of the stage. It was the coolest thing I have ever seen. He was wearing white slacks, a Hawaiian print shirt and suspenders (braces). I was like high from playing on stage with Muddy Waters. He pulled out a wad of money from his pocket wanting to pay me, and I said ‘no, no, no.’ That was the greatest experience, and he was just the nicest person. He had this huge head that you just wanted to hug.”
Robert beams when speaking about Muddy and his vocal hero, OV Wright. “I just love OV Wright. He’s that cross between the gospel and that RnB that I love so much. I like the way he tells a story, leads you into the story, gently builds up and builds up, until he’s squawling at the end of the song. His conviction about the story.” Cray has no idea how many albums he has sold in his career of 20 releases. Strong Persuader sold over three million. He’s been certified Gold and Platinum many times. It’ll be huge units. He admits he has made good money and invested wisely in property in the US.
Robert has the air of a contented man. At peace with himself in his career and personal life. Comfortable. He wears sandals at our meeting, and on stage at night. Comfort again. So has he mellowed as a guitarist, and perhaps lost that raw edge he had when I first saw him way back when? Hell no. Some of his solos during his 13 song set at the Cadogan Hall – aptly a former church and where tonight, the Rev Cray gives us a sermon in classy blues and soul – were just blistering. Shivers up the spine and lump in the throat time. His voice has perhaps a gruffer edge to it at times, but that sweet soul man is still there too.
The guitar-heads in the audience – spot the Clapton tee shirts - young and old, loved it. The champagne and Pimms sippers in the interval loved it. A little unusual to be sat down in hushed reverence at a blues gig. Same type of booted and suited audience attracted to a Clapton gig these days I’d guess. Mr Cray stands behind the mike stand most of the night. No theatrics required. He really does play as part of his band, and gives them smiles and encouragement all night.
Jim Pugh on keys. “One hell of a player,” says Robert. His old pal Richard Cousins back on bass, since leaving the band in 1991. Former Bonnie Raitt and BB King drummer Tony Braunagel behind the kit. Just the four of them. Minimum gear on stage. Moving seamlessly from slow blues to up-tempo stuff – with no set list, calling out the numbers to the band - that’d rip your lungs out if you are a singer or a guitarist and you think you are good.
To be brutally honest, I’d like to see the man break into a sweat and go back to his roots in a small US blues club, and forget plugging a new release. Going back to his influences and playing the stuff he grew up with. But you can bet we’d not be sitting down in designer suits, with the Porshe and chauffer-driven Merc’ sat outside the venue, like tonight.
Just another guitarist? I’m no legend? Give me a break. I’m not worthy……...
Pix: Simon Redley
Words SIMON REDLEY