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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Just play music because you love it, and play what you want to play. There is no way to predict what is going to sell. You don't have to put on makeup or spandex. You don't have to read up on the hot trend. Just play because you love it.
"The idea of recording live is special because you have everybody's energies concentrated in one spot," explains Cray. "They are not separated by an overdub or somebody trying to figure out something. It is best when you are all there at the same time hitting or missing it. When you record live you want to find the proper settings where you can get the best from your instruments. That is always best served when your stuff is cranked up! When you are in a traditional studio you don't want to do that because you run the risk of blowing out the super sensitive recording microphones."
"You have just got to let it flow, naturally," continues Cray. "If it goes up and down just let it be. Because you are all playing together, that is the way it is supposed to be."
The Mojo Workers & The Festivals
Robert Cray has won five Grammy Awards, his first in 1986, which propelled him to stardom. When he moved to Virginia and found his roots it wasn't just the music that came calling. The people who pioneered the genre were calling as well. He worked with John Lee Hooker on his record Boom Boom and a friendship ensued.
Robert Cray by Rod Snyder
"John Lee Hooker would call me up on the telephone just to see how I was doing," says Cray. "He was just a genuinely funny man. There was a couple times where he would call me up and pretend he was a woman on the other end of the phone. 'Helllllooooo [Cray stretching in a hi-pitched voice].' All I could really do was laugh and ask, 'John is that you?' He was a great guy."
It was his work within the circle of the blues pioneers and interpreters that led to his eventual involvement in Eric Clapton's roundtable of guitar gods at the Crossroads Festival.
"I have been invited a couple times. It is a great experience. Eric does a great thing and just to be considered a friend to him is an honor. This year they asked if we wouldn't mind being the house band for the blues segment."
"The Festival has been going on for a long time and it lived a good life for a while," offers Cray. "I see it slowing down. It might be one of the only ways now for people to see some of the masters that are left. On their own, some of these guys might not get that great of a draw. What Eric does by bringing out guys like Hubert Sumlin [Howlin' Wolf] is serving a great purpose."
"When I am up on stage it's a good feeling but at the same time your mind is racing at a billion miles an hour," observes Cray. "You are trying to find someplace new to go. If you have time to hear yourself in the room you are not spending enough time trying to dig into something new."
Flavors of the month are a dime a dozen. The artists that truly matter are the ones who keep going. What allows a musician to command longevity? What makes them relevant? With Robert Cray thriving for more than 30 years, I wondered if he had any advice for the younger generation of artist.
"Play because you love it," Cray says. "Play only for that reason. That is what makes me happy. I play because I love it. Nobody can predict who is going to be a star, and that shouldn't even enter the equation. Just play music because you love it, and play what you want to play. There is no way to predict what is going to sell. You don't have to put on makeup or spandex. You don't have to read up on the hot trend. Just play because you love it."
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