Bluesman Robert Cray is hoping what he’s heard is true–that artists who gain big followings in England soon follow suit in the States.
Cray’s third album, False Accusations hit #1 on the British independent Charts (according to Melody Maker), and has risen into the Pop Top 20 to boot. For the 32—year—old guitarist and vocalist, it means getting stopped by strangers on the English streets. “I like that,” he smiles.
Thrilled as he is by the success of False Accusations, Cray is already looking forward to working on his next album. “I’ve got some nice ideas for it,” he notes. “I just broke up with my last girlfriend–‘Bob not home. Bob gone too much’–so there’s more inspiration now.”
Since starting his recording career on the Tomato label in 1980 with Who’s Been Talkin: Cray and his band have worked an average of 250 nights a year. In 1984, he received four W.C. Handy National Blues Awards, among them Contemporary Artist of the Year and Contemporary Album of the Year (for Bad Influence).
“A lot of those songs on Bad Influence were put together at a time when I was splitting up with this one girl; the song ‘Bad Influence’ was actually written about her. She knows that now, so it’s all right,” Cray says with a smile.
“For this new album, there’s a lot of cheatin‘ and Iyin’ songs. It’s not really that all this was going on, even though some of it was. What we basically try to do is write stories about life situations, and they call it the blues. Love and no love‘just life. That’s what we feel comfortable with.”
Cray was introduced to the rigors of touring at a very early age, courtesy of the United States military. His father 5 Army duties took the family to Georgia, Washington, Alabama, Virginia and Germany during Robert’s childhood. The elder Cray was a lover of blues and gospel music, and Roberts first musical influences came from his father’s record collection as he tinkled at the family piano.
“When I got a guitar in ’65, it was because the Beatles came out and everybody got guitars,” Robert recalls. “I was playing everything that was happening on the radio. I listened to BB. King, Freddie King, started buying records of Magic Sam and Buddy Guy. . .I listened to everything–country blues, Robert Johnson, and even played a little bottleneck for a minute. I was really into B.B.’s sweet touch and Otis Rush’s nice touch–real smooth. And then I liked the crazy style and percussive attack of Albert Collins. I liked the crazy guys and I liked them real smooth, too.”
Gospel singers, blues belters, and even soul-stirrers like Sam Cooke have influenced Cray’s vocal style. “One of my favorite singers is a guy named QB. Wright, who passed on about three years ago. I like cats like Johnny Taylor, Bobby Bland. . .I like those smoother crooners, and again the total opposite–same way I like my guitar players–one way and the other, too.”
From 1966 to ’68, during the days when the soul of Stax Records was at its strongest, Cray was living in Virginia and discovering soul radio, There weren’t any soul stations in the Northwest, where he’d been living. In the late ’60s, he recalls, “you’d hear Sam and Dave and then you’d hear the Lovin’ Spoonful, AM radio was like that. . .In Virginia, though, you had a lot more soul music on the air, mixed with gospel and other things,”
Cray also listened to a lot of music while his family was in Germany, at least in part because he couldn’t understand German television. But he had Armed Forces Radio to listen to, and the family bought a lot of records. “When we were there, my parents were in their early thirties; they’d have parties, and you couldn’t help but hear the music. I just always listened to music, everywhere.”
And he played. “I guess traveling around had a lot to do with it, because when I moved to a new town I was shy about going out and meeting new friends right away, so I would stay inside and play my guitar.”
In 1974 Cray formed a band in Eugene, Oregon, with bassist Richard Cousins and harmonica player Curtis Salgado. They began backing Albert Collins on tours up and down the West Coast–an association that continues to this day: Cray appears with Collins and Johnny Copeland on a new Alligator Records release, Showdown. “Albert’s like ‘Dad’ in a way,” says Cray. “It was really nice to do a record together. We pretty much knew how to back Albert up, so it was real nice to be able to do that in the studio and trade solos.”
Recording engineer Bill Dashiell has worked on all three of the Robert Cray Band’s albums–in between the group’s extensive tours. “It takes so long to do them,” he observes, “because they go out for months on end. You’re working for a week solid and–BAM!–they’re gone again. This latensst album took more than a year to put together.
“Robert’s performance is real consistent, and always good because he’s out there playing all the time. His chops are always kept at a certain level. If anything, sometimes he’s a little tired when he comes in off the road.”
Cray, says Dashiell, “is not studio-oriented, so he doesn’t demand much. He’s interested in the overall performance. In fact, he usually isn’t even there for the mixes because he’s out on the road.” The tracks were recorded in Log Angeles at Sage & Sound and the Music Lab, and overdubs were done in the warehouse-sized room at Haywoods’s.
Dashiell likes to use an M-49 to record Cray’s vocals (“I’m a tube guy”). and he uses the same mic for the room sound on the guitar. He puts a heavy dynamic mic—an SM57 or Sennheiser 421—right on Cray’s guitar speaker, There aren’t alot of effects in the guitar sound. “Those that we use, generally speaking, come right out of the amp.‘ says the engineer. “He might snatch a box from somewhere, a phaser or compressor or something, and then I do the usual amount of squeezing when l record it, and I add a little bit of echo.
“Mainly I try to get it in a nice live room to begin with so it’s nice and beefy Robert likes that treble range—his voice and guitar are always very bright and trebly.”
The Cray Band records together in the studio, preferring to use a minimum of overdubs. Dashiell makes sure the levels are good and conditions optimal even when Cray is doing “reference vocals, because chances are the Singer will nail it on an early take. The same goes for guitar solos. “We put him in a booth, and he sings and plays along says Dashiell. “Sometimes hell get a good guitar solo but we do have the option of redoing it it we need to.
In forging his new blues from the different styles ot music he loves Robeert Cray hasn‘t looked solely to guitarists for instrumental inspiration. “There are certain notes and things by certain people, somebody tunky like King Curtis–maybe Charlie Parker miqht have laid down a line something real simple and short. but maybe I can get an idea from It. You can get ideas from any instrument You can take it and apply it to your own axe.