Tin-eared critics have frequently damned him as a yuppie blues wannabe, whose slickly soulful offerings bear scant resemblance to the real down-home item. In reality, Robert Cray is one of a precious few young blues-based artists with the talent and vision to successfully usher the idiom into the 21st century, without resorting either to slavish imitation or simply playing rock while passing it off as blues. Just as importantly, his immensely popular records helped immeasurably to jump-start the contemporary blues boom, which still holds sway to this day.
Blessed with a soulful voice that sometimes recalls '60s-great O.V. Wright and a concise lead guitar approach that never wastes notes, Cray's rise to international fame was indeed a heartwarming one. For a guy whose 1980 debut album for Tomato, Who's Been Talkin', proved an instantaneous cutout, his ascendancy was amazingly swift -- in 1986 his breakthrough Strong Persuader album for Mercury (containing "Smoking Gun") won him a Grammy and shot his asking price for a night's work skyward.
Robert Cray was born on August 1, 1953 in Columbus, Georgia. An Army brat who grew up all over the country before his folks settled in Tacoma, Washington, in 1968, Cray listened intently to soul and rock before becoming immersed in the blues (in particular, the icy Telecaster of Albert Collins, who played at Cray's high-school graduation). Cray formed his first band with longtime bassist Richard Cousins in 1974. They soon hooked up with Collins as his backup unit before breaking out on their own. The cinematic set caught a brief glimpse of Cray (even if they weren't aware of it) when he anonymously played the bassist of the frat party band Otis Day & the Knights in National Lampoon's Animal House. Cray's Tomato set, also featuring the harp of Curtis Salgado, was an excellent beginning, but it was the guitarist's 1983 set for HighTone, Bad Influence, that really showed just how full of talent Cray was.
Another High Tone set, False Accusations, preceded the emergence of the Grammy-winning 1985 guitar summit meeting album Showdown! for Alligator, which found the relative newcomer more than holding his own alongside Collins and Texan Johnny Copeland. Strong Persuader made it two Grammys in two years and made Cray a familiar face even on video-driven MTV.
Unlike too many of his peers, Cray continued to experiment within his two presiding genres, blues and soul, on sets for Mercury such as Midnight Stroll in 1990, I Was Warned in 1992, and Shame + A Sin in 1993. After switching to Rykodisc in the late '90s, Cray released Take Your Shoes Off in 1999 and Shoulda Been Home in 2001, proving that the "bluenatics" (as he amusedly labels his purist detractors) have nothing to fear and plenty to anticipate from this innovative, laudably accessible guitarist.
Touring regularly with the likes of Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, Cray stayed active in the studio as well, signing with Sanctuary Records and releasing Time Will Tell in 2003, Twenty in 2005, a pair of live albums, Live from Across the Pond in 2006 and Live at the BBC in 2008, and This Time, which was issued by Vanguard Records a year later. Cray released his third live album in four years, Cookin' in Mobile, in 2010. The material that comprised the album was taken from a single performance at the Saenger Theatre in Mobile, Alabama in February of that year. The Kevin Shirley-produced Nothin But Love, a solid outing featuring narrative songs that circle around the trials and tribulations of love, appeared in 2012.
The set that made Cray a pop star, despite its enduring blues base. Cray's smoldering stance on "Smoking Gun" and "Right Next Door" rendered him the first sex symbol to emerge from the blues field in decades, but it was his innovative expansion of the genre itself that makes this album a genuine 1980s classic. "Nothing but a Woman" boasts an irresistible groove pushed by the Memphis Horns and some metaphorically inspired lyrics, while "I Wonder" and "Guess I Showed Her" sizzle with sensuality.
Words: Bill Dahl
This 1993 release was Robert Cray's ninth album and is a real return to the Blues having played a lot more soul on some of his releases in the preceding few years. No greater statement of intent for the Blues than his great cover of Albert King's You're Gonna Need Me. On this self-produced album all the rest of the tracks are written or co-written by Cray with the exception of I'm Just Lucky That Way which was written by his band.
2003's Time Will Tell is Robert Cray exploring his musical options. There's everything from the Blues and Soul to a little psychedelia and a nod to Sly & the Family stone. Most tracks are self written or composed by long-time keyboard player Jim Pugh. This will not be the first Robert Cray album to pull off the shelf, but it is well worth exploring.
With 1986's Strong Persuader, guitarist and vocalist Robert Cray stepped to the front of the line as a smooth and intelligent practitioner of the blues genre. Strong Persuader almost worked as well as a greatest hits set, with the brilliant Willie Mitchell-influenced "I Guess I Showed Her" being best of a perfect ten. With that standard being set, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is marred by it's lack of potent material and a tired-sounding band and Cray. The title is a steamy track punctuated by the Memphis Horns. The edgy and methodical "Don't You Even Care" finds Cray again on the losing end of a relationship.
1992's I Was Warned is a mix of the Blues and soul with a healthy dollop of R & B. Robert Cray's voice is always souful, no matter what he sings and his fabulous smooth guitar playing throughout makes this an album worth investigating. The Memphis Horns appear on this album and they add their own brand of Southern funk to many of the cuts, the best of which are, "He Don't Live Here Anymore," "Our Last Time" and "On the Road Down," co-written by Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MG's fame. This is Memphis R&B, Blues and Soul of the highest order.
This 1990 album was billed as Robert Cray and The Memphis Horns and reached no.51 on the American album charts. It was a much more soulful album and, by definition, a less blues-full album than any other of Cray's releases. That does not make it an album not worth exploring - it is just not the Blues. As with any Robert Cray record it is full of great songs and every one of them is superbly performed.
Typically well-produced and well-played outing -- mostly originals, with smoldering covers of Syl Johnson's "Steppin' Out" and Wilson Pickett's "Jealous Love" for good measure. Cray's crisp, concise guitar work and subtly soulful vocals remain honed to a sharp edge.
Words: Bill Dahl
Robert Cray's follow-up to 2003's Time Will Tell is another step away from his traditional Blues/Soul base. It's full of sophisticated production and clever songs and is way more laid back than his 1980s recordings. On many respects Robert Cray is a modern day version of Albert King, mixing the Blues with Soul, while content to explore his own road; a road that many of his fans are happy to explore too.