By: Martin Halo
Climactic notes scream off the fret board and reach deep into the souls of men. It's not quite religious, but it stands defiantly as the strut of the gods. The American roots interpretation of blues, soul, and gospel has shaped the cultural landscape of almost a century's worth of recordings. It serves as its belly, its pride, and its nerve. When it shows itself, it hypnotizes the peasants like a charmer's flute enticing the attention of a snake.
It was a mucky morning in New York City the day Robert Cray placed a phone call just after breakfast to this journalist. His voice is unlike any other I have heard. It is soft, and echoes pure satisfaction. Usually when the artist population gets thrown to the mercy of the press either they are playing constant defense or they try to pack their life story into a 20-minute conversation. Not Robert Cray, he was humble, laidback and seemed to be fully content looking back at his musical legacy.
Origins & Philosophies
Born in Georgia, Cray is the product of a military family that moved to the great Northwest at the age of just 11 months. It was the music flooding out of Seattle in the late part of the 1950s that first shaped Cray's audible aura.
"My father was in the army and because of that we were all over the place. I spent my childhood in Washington State, Tacoma to be exact, 30 miles south of Seattle," says Cray. "The music scene out there was cool. In the '60s there was a wealth of great music coming out of there, such as The Wailers (the garage band, not the legendary reggae group), The Sonics, and Merrilee Rush. That was the '60s. A lot of great people stayed in the area like Hendrix and Ray Charles. Even Howlin' Wolf was stationed in the army up there."
"The Beatles made me want to pick up a guitar," Cray explains. "Back in those days radio stations played a lot of local music. Pretty much every city had a sound and that carried on from the '50s through to the '70s. There was the sound of Philadelphia, and there was the boardwalk sound of the Carolina Coast. You could hear Miami coming miles away. There was Chicago, and then there was Texas. Syndication and mass media has basically smothered that out. Now you hear the same stuff everywhere."
"When I first started playing music, I was particularly influenced by the music of the Northwest, until I moved to Virginia. That is when I started hearing the soul thing. It was the late '60s. I thought I had it together until I heard Jimi Hendrix. He messed me all up and changed me completely," laughs Cray.
If it's true that one's soul is represented in music, then attempting to understand what makes an artist tick is crucial to truly hearing their sound.
"I believe in sincerity and honesty in music," says Cray. "When I listen to music that is what I want to hear. I want to hear somebody who invokes 100-percent total conviction. No bullshit because anybody could do the bullshit thing. I don't want to hear that. I like it pure, and straight to the point. That is what attracts me to people who I like. I like B.B. King. He is straight to the point with not a lot of notes. He has a way of talking to you, not at you. I have a lot of respect for John Lee Hooker, for the way he does his thing, and even the singer O.V. Wright for his gospel influence."
"But, the business is changing," says Cray. "There is a whole generation of kids who have grown up wanting to be in the business just to be famous and not because of the love of music. There is a whole generation or two forgetting about the past and not going back to get those roots. I wholeheartedly believe that to be true. A reporter asked me once about recording and I told her that we go in and record as a band, that we go in together. I was telling her that when we were in the studio and while recording I passed by another sound room in the same building. I heard these drums going off while the rest of the band was standing outside the door. I kind of curiously asked, 'What's going on?' They said their drummer was recording his parts. I had to ask, 'Don't you guys play together?' One of the kids called me weird and said, 'What's wrong with that?' What's wrong with that? Well, to me, that is not how you make a record. I didn't feel old. I didn't feel cool. I felt pissed off!"
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