They grew up in the same small county in Arkansas, barely 20 miles apart, and their families played together in the same band at one time.
Yet it wasn’t until some years later, when they were both established blues stars, that they met face-to-face for the first time.
Larry McCray and the late, great Michael Burks.
“My oldest sister, Clara, was a musician and her and Michael Burks’ dad used to have a group together. But me and Michael was too young – he was born in ’57 and I was born in ’60 – to know anything about each other in those days,” McCray recently said. “I finally hooked up with Michael around ’92. We were both grown and playing music by then. I was in Memphis and they had been telling me about this bad bluesman … you know, this cat was really bad, he won the Albert King Award and everything. Well, I still didn’t know who he was and then one day I went down to see the guy and it was Michael Burks. As soon as we met, he said, ‘Larry McCray? Are you Clara Mae’s brother?’ And then we got to talking and reminiscing and put all of those early years together.”
The blues community was stunned when Burks suddenly passed away in 2012, just as the guitarist was starting to work his way to the elite level.
“After that (first meeting in Memphis), we always had a good time whenever we got together,” McCray said. “It really hurt me about Michael (passing away). He was a great musician, but he was an even better person and that’s what really counts.”
More than just Arkansas roots and family ties bonded Larry McCray and Michael Burks. Both are highly-touted guitarists that bring heart-felt intensity and well-honed technical ability to their chosen profession of blues axe slinging. Both were never afraid to depart from the same-old, same-old approach to guitar playing, either. In McCray’s case, that means injecting his blues with a few other tasty influences.
“I’ve always loved other forms of music, as well. Like reggae, funk and rock-n-roll. I left Arkansas and moved to Michigan in 1972, and by the time I was old enough and able enough to play pretty decent, heavy metal music … you know, Motor City music, the hard stuff, that was what all the people was listening to,” he said. “And if you couldn’t dabble in a little of that, they wouldn’t even give you a chance to be heard. So you had to do a little of that, and then when you get ‘em in, you throw something else on ‘em. That’s how we did it. We played enough variety to get the people in the door and then once we had them in there, we put other things on them and that’s how I developed my style.”
Seeing Larry McCray on the bandstand is not just about seeing an evening full of guitar pyrotechnics – although there is plenty of that to go around. Maybe he’s never completely received all the credit he’s due, but McCray’s vocals are an equally-important part of the sonic tonic that he creates, balancing out his fiery guitar work with some really soulful vocals.
“That was always my design. That’s how I always wanted my blues to be interpreted, because I came up studying the music of B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King and Albert Collins – all when they were in their hey-day,” he said. “And the ones that came before that, like Elmore James, Guitar Slim, Furry Lewis, Roosevelt Sykes and Ray Charles … that’s where my blues vocabulary comes from. And all those cats could really, really sing. So my vision was to take that kind of blues music and deliver it with the same kind of intensity that rock-n-roll or heavy metal has, and put some soulful vocals to it, that’s what I was after. I mean, just because you’re playing blues guitar doesn’t mean that it has to be wimpy guitar, you know? I wanted to bring some force with it.”
McCray has been a recording artist for well over two decades now and as the music industry has changed dramatically over that time frame, he’s had to deal with a lot of ups and downs and twists and turns – as so many others have had to contend with, too – along the way.
“The biggest thing that I’ve noticed being affected is on the promotional side of music. Once upon a time, it wasn’t so hard to get a (promotional) budget from a record company; they were more lenient … they weren’t so tight with the cash,” he said. “Nowadays you have to solicit really hard to get a budget and to get a label behind you. But most of them want to bury you so far in debt that’s it’s questionable whether it’s even worth it at this level – ‘this level’ being the level of promotion that this genre of music gets.”
When he first burst onto the big stage in the early ‘90s, McCray did so in a big way. He was the first blues artist inked to Virgin Records’ new blues subsidiary – Point Blank Records. After McCray hooked up Point Blank in 1991, the label would go on to sign such artists as Albert Collins, Kinsey Report, John Lee Hooker, John Hammond, Pops Staples and Johnny Winter. That’s a pretty cool notch in the belt to be at the head of that parade.
“We were just out there doing what we did and I was at a party one time and this guy was there and wanted us to go down to Detroit and record an album and do this and do that. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all that before.’ So I blew the guy off. A couple weeks passed and he called me back and I blew him off again. Well, the third time he called, he said, ‘Man, you’re just gonna #&#!-up everything I’m trying to do for you’,” McCray said. “So I finally figured that since the guy wasn’t letting up, he must be for real. So I gave it a shot and we went a made a record and then Virgin got a hold of it and that’s how things came to be.”
His tenure with Point Blank may not have led to overnight superstardom or untold riches, but the time that McCray spent on the label ended up providing a lot more than money could ever think about buying.
“The one thing that they did for me that they can never take away and has been with me ever since is, I got close with Albert King, Albert Collins, Gary Moore and Pops Staples. It was to the point that I could call any of them on the telephone if I wanted to talk to them or just say ‘Hi.’ And that meant the world to me,” he said. “We did a promotional tour with Pops Staples and when something would come up when we were short on rooms or needed to double-up, they’d ask if I minded rooming with Pops. I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Of course I will.’ I used to love talking to Pops. He would talk about everything from Martin Luther King to back to when he was starting out with his daughters … Pops was just so wise and had so much road experience. He was a great guy to talk to.”
Fans of McCray that have been eagerly awaiting a follow-up to his 2007 self-titled album shouldn’t have to wait much longer to get another helping.
“I’ve got a new album coming out and I’ve asked Derek Trucks to guest on it. It’s something I’ve not done before – it’s a full covers record. It’s all classic rock tunes,” said McCray. “We did about a dozen tunes and we did it all in our own way, so they’re really different from the originals. But we didn’t take them so far away that you can’t recognize the songs.”
McCray gives his patented blues treatment to tunes like “Night Moves,” (Bob Seger) “Wild Horses,” (Rolling Stones) “Can’t You See,” (Marshall Tucker Band) “Them Changes,” (Band of Gypsys) “The Needle and the Spoon,” (Lynyrd Skynyrd) “Stealin’,” (Uriah Heap) “Waitin’ for the Bus,” (ZZ Top) “Unchain my Heart,” (Joe Cocker) “I’m No Angel,” (Gregg Allman) and “Love the One You’re With” (Steven Stills).
Plans are for McCray to re-enter the studio and start work on an album of original material as soon as his covers project is unleashed on the blues-loving public.
Burks was known as the ‘Iron Man’ for his legendary marathon gigs on the bandstand. While McCray didn’t have a super-hero tag like his good buddy did, with the epic schedule and pace that McCray put himself through for many years, it seems like the ‘Man of Steel’ might be appropriate. When it was daylight, McCray busted his ass on a General Motors assembly line all day long. When it was dark outside, McCray busted his ass driving to gigs, playing gigs and then driving back home from gigs, all night long. The next day, he would wake up and repeat the whole process.
“I used to think I was a Superman back when I was young and I later found out you can only hold up for so long like that. I ran myself all the way down. I mean, I used to play a gig in Chicago and then drive back home the same night, just for kicks,” he said. “We would take a gig one night here and have to drive 10 hours by the next morning to get where we had to be for the next gig. I did stuff like that for years before it finally caught up to me. Now, I’m trying to be a little more selective, because I’m getting to the point in age where I need to be more selective.”
Music has been a part of Larry McCray as long as he can remember, and most of it originated right in his own living room back in Stephens, Arkansas.
“Yeah, my sister played guitar – she got it from my grandmother – and my daddy was a harp player and a singer and played a little guitar. And then was a man that had a slicked-down process on his head named Mr. Lewis and he had an electric guitar and he would bring it over to the house sometimes and play with my sister and dad,” said McCray. “That’s the first people I ever saw playing instruments. My sister Clara was quite popular down in that area, like in a little five- or six-town span, they all knew her. All the gospel or the blues groups would get Clara to play in; she was involved in all of that.”
Even though the landscape his undergone massive changes since he released his first album – Ambition – back in 1991, and even though blues music continues to fight to find its niche, Larry McCray will continue to play, and to champion, the music that he’s loved ever since he was a youngster.
“Blues music has always been like a stepchild in the music industry and has never really gotten the same promotion that other forms of music have gotten. It seems like there’s a lack of knowledge these days as to what is and to what isn’t blues music, too,” he said. “The whole scene is really saturated, really watered down. Not to take away from anybody that’s trying to be creative with it, but there are people that don’t have many skills that get out there and learn three (chord) changes and call themselves a bluesman. That’s really an injustice to the music, because people that don’t know think that’s what the real blues are all about. That’s a really strong injustice and misrepresentation of the music to the people that have worked hard to establish something and to change the attitude of people that don’t like blues music. A lot of people automatically think they don’t like blues music before they’ve even ever heard blues music, because they see what they think the music has come to. That affects a lot of things.”!
Visit Larry’s website at: http://larrymccrayband.com/
Photo by Bob Kieser.