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Featured Interview – Robert Cray

Legendary blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Robert Cray explores his musical roots on his latest album In My Soul which was released in April. As one could gather from the title, Cray delves into his soul influences with a helping hand from friend and producer Steve Jordan. Cray previously worked with Jordan on 1999’s Take Your Shoes Off which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

When asked what rekindled the musical partnership with Jordan, Cray replied, “Well I called up looking for him and I wanted to work with Steve. I enjoyed working with Steve the times we had the opportunity to do so. If I had my way I’d work with Steve a lot more often. He’s a really good organizer and has great ideas. He’s really into sound, you know, the sound of the whole project and just an overall good guy.”

In My Soul had an interesting creation process thanks to Jordan’s producing methods. Cray recalled.

“Well the guys in the band and myself, we wrote some songs and we didn’t present the songs to one another until like three days before going into the studio. Under orders from Steve, we were told not to over-rehearse the material. And then there were two suggestions that Steve came up with before we went into the studio…I believe about a month or so…Steve sent me an e-mail and said, ‘Man, I know you’d kill it if you did the Otis Redding song. What do you think of it?’ And I said, ‘I love that tune.’ Then a couple weeks after that was another suggestion with the Mable John song ‘You’re Good Thing is About to End’…because that’s part of the producer’s job is to look for material as well, so he came up with that suggestion and, of course, who doesn’t like that song?

“So that was the other thing that Steve came up with. And then, just by osmosis, the guys in the band and myself, we had songs that were like soul…rhythm and blues…and so that’s how the whole album came together. Then while we were in the studio I wanted to do a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland tribute, so I came up with ‘Deep in My Soul’.”

The new record marks somewhat of a change of pace for the blues guitar slinger in that there are prominent horns on several tracks as well as the soulful cover selections themselves. Cray doesn’t see as much of a difference, but does acknowledge that there’s more soul on this outing.

“Everybody knows that it’s not a strange thing for us to do this type of material, but this record includes more of it than we’ve done in the past. I guess it was just what was in the air at the time. (laughs) Soul was in the air!”

A musician that has as storied a career as Cray does has worked with numerous producers along the way. Most recently Cray had worked with famed producer Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Joe Bonamassa, Aerosmith). When comparing Shirley and Jordan as producers, Cray said, “Well, the sound is different. They have two different ways of looking at things. Steve Jordan’s sound…he’s more of a classic sound as far as like…if we were able to use tape, we would have used tape. We ran the computer at a high speed, like at 192, so it’s almost like high definition and then we ran the sound through a Studer machine to get a really nice sound.

“We used some vintage mics in the studio. We used…of course Steve’s a drummer, so we used a vintage kit. Drum kit. And of course we brought the old Magnatones in and the whole barrage of older amplifiers and things like that, so it’s a whole different process than working with Kevin. Kevin does everything really quickly. He’s like…get it and gone…which is basically how we do it with Steve too, but it wasn’t as much of a concern about the microphones and the gear and all that.”

In My Soul also finds Cray experimenting in ways that he has not on prior records. For instance, Cray shares lead vocals with drummer Les Falconer on the upbeat take on Otis Redding’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”.

Cray recalled, “That was a clue that I gave to Steve. I said, ‘Steve, you know Les can sing?’ And he says, ‘Good to know. I’ll figure out something for him to do.’ I said, ‘That would be great.’ Because I had seen him for the longest time when he was with Keb’ Mo’ singing background and then I’d hear him on the bus singing some songs and stuff. I was listening and I go, ‘This guy can sing!’ So Steve came up with the idea of kind of doing the Sam & Dave on that one song and it was pretty great. It was Les’ first time ever singing on a record too, so he was over the moon.”

Currently Cray and his band are in the middle of a US tour with support coming from either John Hiatt or Mavis Staples depending on the tour stop. Cray said that the In My Soul material has been coming off quite nicely so far in the live setting.

“We’ve been getting a really great response from the audience and, of course, we’ve been playing just about all the songs actually. I think there’s one we haven’t played yet…the bonus track “Pillow”. I mean, we’ve worked it up, but we haven’t performed it in front of anybody yet. Everything else we do. But, you know, on a nightly basis we don’t play all of the songs. We kind of mix them up and play some of the old songs. We’re getting a really good response. It’s been a lot of fun.”

The tour is also an opportunity for Cray to reconnect with his old friend John Hiatt.

“We’ve done shows together over the years. Tim our tour manager and myself, we were just talking about that there’s video of John and I singing ‘When Something Is Wrong with My Baby’ from the show Night Music when that was on the air…the show that David Sanborn had back in the early nineties. We paired up to sing that…so it’s been a while that we’ve been doing things together.”

No chat with Cray would be complete without discussing another old piece of video footage, namely his cameo in the film Animal House as the bass player for Otis Day and the Knights. How did a guitar player end up being cast as a bass player in that film?

“Well, the casting director just went through different clubs and what not and picked out musicians that she thought would fit the bill for the movie. She already had a guitar player, so she wanted me to be on there so I asked Richard (Cousins, Cray’s longtime bass player) if I could borrow his bass. (laughs) And he’s still on me about that to this day. The music was already pre-recorded. We just danced and lip synched to it.”

Throughout his career, Cray has played with a veritable who’s who of the blues at events like Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still get anxious when sharing the stage with the genre’s greats. Does he still get nervous in these situations?

Cray exclaimed, “Hell yeah! (laughs) I have a lot of respect for those guys, you know? As we all know, they’re fantastic musicians…fantastic people and I’m a fan. When I’m there standing on stage if it’s Buddy (Guy), or B.B. (King), or Eric (Clapton)…somebody like that, I’m just hoping I don’t mess up and trying to keep my composure. (laughs)”

Speaking of Clapton, Cray reminisced about his fondest memory of their friendship so far.

“Just the fact that he came in to see us back in the eighties long before anybody knew about us really. He came to sit in with us back when the Bad Influence album was out. Willie Dixon came in with an amplifier and said, ‘Eric’s coming in. He wants to sit in with you guys.’ (laughs) And we were at a small little club and all of a sudden Eric shows up. We were playing the song ‘Bad Influence’. I guess Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn turned him on to the ‘Bad Influence’ album because at that particular time ‘Duck’ was playing bass with Eric.

“So he sat in with us and so I call ‘Bad Influence’…Richard was standing next to Eric and he was trying to tell him the chords and Eric says, ‘Man, I know the chords.’ (laughs) Really funny. Then that’s pretty much when we became friends, so that was the first time around. That was a lot of fun. So that really showed what kind of person he really is and that’s what I remember.”

Cray also had the fortune to be part of the Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll documentary on Chuck Berry as part of an all-star back-up band featuring the likes of Clapton and Keith Richards. Cray said that he never had the arguments with Berry like Richards famously did in the film.

“Not with me. I was the young kid on the block and I could do no wrong. ‘Hey Robert, want to have some coffee together?’ ‘Yeah, sure! Great!’ (laughs) He was not a problem at all. The thing with Chuck…and you see it in the film…the thing is, Chuck is Chuck Berry. It shows how untrusting he was after all the things that have happened to him over his career. Keith was pouring his heart and soul into doing everything he possibly could for his hero, but Chuck has to be that guy to…be untrusting and he also, at the same time, has to be over top of Keith Richards. So, that’s why he treated Keith that way and Keith still loved him like a puppy dog.”

Cray continued, “So, it was wild to see, but every once and a while Chuck would give in and it would be fun. Chuck did all kinds of crazy stuff during that whole thing. We had the rehearsals and I had the setlist of the songs I was going to perform on and we rehearsed for a whole week and all that. And then the day of the taping at the theater, I got my list and I’m standing next to Eric…and it had all these other songs that I had never performed on. Some of them were Eric’s tunes and Eric looked at the list and he goes, ‘Are you ready?’ (laughs) And Chuck did that on purpose. He did it just to stir the hornet’s nest, you know? That’s just how he is.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan was yet another blues legend that crossed paths with Cray. Along with Clapton and Stevie’s brother Jimmie Vaughan, Cray shares the unfortunate distinction to have played with Stevie at his final gig at Alpine Valley. Cray’s recollections of his last moments with SRV are fond ones.

“We had the weekend. We were there for the weekend. We had a ball because we hadn’t seen one another for a while and we were on Eric’s show and Jimmie (Vaughan) was there. We sat at a table and chatted about how the tour is going and everything like that. Then I remember the jam at the end…’Sweet Home Chicago’. And we all walked back towards Eric’s dressing room and we had to take off. I could hear Eric and Stevie both saying to one another, ‘Oh no, you’re the best.’ ‘No, you’re the best, you’re the best.’ And with that I said goodbye to both of them and I took off, but we…that weekend we just had a ball playing together. We posed for Fender guitars, we did a picture together…Jimmie, Stevie, Eric and myself. We’d been friends, but you move in different circles sometimes, you know? You don’t see one another as often as you’d like and so it was just a good reunion. It’s just sad that it had to close out that way.”

Clearly Vaughan is considered a legend and an influence to countless guitar players, but Cray laughs at the idea that many also put him in that category.

“Oh that’s silly man! (laughs) How could that be? People say that they’re influenced by me and our band…things like that…and it’s nice to hear. It’s great, I’m glad we have fans. But, I don’t know how to take that. It’s a cool thing. I mean, it’s fair…it’s great. I’m a big fan of other musicians myself, you know?”

Part of Cray’s charm and appeal is his humbleness and reserved presence on stage. Early in his career he struggled with shyness as a frontman. Cray’s not so sure he’s conquered that bashfulness, but he did stress that experience is the best defense against it.

“Well I don’t know that I’m totally over it and I hope I never get that way, but I guess it’s just a matter of playing the shows and starting to find the feet underneath you. Feel a little bit about what you’re doing on stage. I think that’s what helps.”

With a new record under his belt and in the hands of his fans, Cray hopes that his audience will look at In My Soul as a time marker for this spot in his career.

“Well, for us, it’s another era. Every time we put out a record it’s like a photograph of where we are at the time. A musical photograph, so to speak, with the current lineup and I think also, as we get a little bit older, how we look at the world in certain ways. Last decade we talked about the war in Iraq and how people are living with the mortgage crisis and we even touch on a couple of those topics in the song ‘What Would You Say?’ on this record. But at the same time, with the soul music we’re paying homage and playing tribute as well to some of our heroes and showing the respect. Showing where we come from.

“That’s what I hope people get.”

Artist Interview by Steve Patrick

SEE MORE AT BLUES BLAST MAGAZINE