Robert Cray talks past, present, future ahead of SMF show

Written By: Chad Faries
Twitter: @RobertCrayBand

Robert Cray is a modest and mild-mannered man with a voice as clean and pronounced as his guitar playing.

While discussing the musicians he grew up listening to like Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker, he doesn’t mention that just after a decade of picking up the guitar, he would be playing with them.

He doesn’t mention his five Grammys, or his occasional screen appearances (he was the bassist for Otis Day and the Knights in “Animal House”) or even that Fender has not one, but two signature Robert Cray Stratocasters.

Whenever he talks about music, it is always a plural “we,” recognizing that he is part of a unit. He was gracious enough to give DO a bit of his time to talk about his youth and his music, which never fails to excite.

DO: Can you tell us a little about your early memories in Columbus?

Cray: Well, I left Georgia earlier than you might think. My dad was stationed at Fort Benning when I was born and we were on our way out by the time I was 11 months old, so no real memories.

Well, then this is a homecoming!

Cray: Yeah, I suppose it is.

Since your father was in the military, I know you traveled a lot growing up. How do you think that affected your character and in turn, perhaps your music?

Cray: You know, the fact that we moved around so much … It puts you in a strange place, so that when I did get my first guitar at 12 years old, I had a new friend, and it put me in a place. I didn’t have to “move” anymore, so to speak, because I had my friend. But also, in those moves — this was the ’50s and into the ’60s — we experienced a lot of different music. In the Pacific Northwest outside of Tacoma at Fort Lewis, where we moved after Columbus, there was a local music scene: The Fabulous Wailers, The Sonics, Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts, and that kind of thing that I heard. And then when we lived in Newport News, Va., we were listening to music in the mid-’60s that was Stax (Records), and all of that. Then we lived in Germany in the early ’60s, where we didn’t listen to anything but the Armed Forces Radio Network, but we bought a lot of records at that particular time. My parents had a great record collection built up through those couple of years.

Any records you might tell us about that we might think weren’t part of that collection?

Cray: Well, I bought my first record when I was there. It was by the Jarmels. And that song was called “A Little Bit of Soap.” But you know, we had records by Sam Cooke, Bobby Bland, Jackie Wilson and all that stuff in the early ’60s. Ray Charles was very popular. My parents also had records by Sarah Vaughn, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and all that stuff, too. All that music was being played when we were told to go to sleep, like most kids. And we had bought a really nice Grundig Stereo System with a tape deck and a record player. You could stack 45s on the spindle. It was the days when the Mash-Potato and The Twist were out and we could watch our parents do the dances.

Is this going to be your first time in Savannah?

Cray: No, I had actually been in Savannah once before but it has been a long time. I remember being in City Market watching people shuck field peas and I bought a hand-woven basket. I still remember all that and I am looking forward to seeing it again.

You will play at the Lucas and we want to make sure we are a good audience. What can we do to be a good audience for you?

Cray: Well, you know, you get feedback from the audience, whether it’s a call and response thing, or someone is shouting out songs, or simply the applause — you just see it and feel it. I don’t doubt there will be a good response when we are up there.

Outside of music, what are some of your biggest influences?

Cray: Well, yeah, there are current events that have inspired some of the songs that we do. On a couple of our records, we talked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; we’ve talked about hunger and people living on the streets.

The blues in general has always been full of powerful narratives, both within the music itself and in the lyrics. What role does storytelling have in your music?

Cray: Well, I think that it is imperative to have a good story, something someone can sink their teeth into and follow along, whether it’s personal or political. For us, it is the most important part of the music. And I always like to believe that is where we have shown more growth over the years that we have been around — getting to that story.

I teach at Savannah State University, a historically black university with an excellent independent radio station, WHCJ 90.3. Our station director, Ike Carter, is a bit of a blues historian and all-around ambassador to music. He wanted me to ask you where you see yourself as a successor to some of the great Texas bluesmen like Zuzu Bollin, Freddie King, Albert Collins, and Lightning Hopkins.

Cray: Well, I think they are all unique in their own way and that is the way I always treat that. I don’t place myself with anyone else, because everyone does their own thing. That is what everyone should be judged by — doing their own thing.

Tell us a little about the new album, “Nothing But Love.” What makes this album unique?

Cray: Well, first of all, it is a new incarnation of the band with a new drummer, Les Faulkner, who has been with us just over a year. And then a returnee to the band from the ’70s, Dover Weinberg, on organ and piano. So, this record is showcasing this particular unit. But, in a way that is different from previous records in the fact that we have dipped over just by chance into an R&B thing, which covers a larger spectrum of R&B than what we have attempted in the past. “Hold On” is more Philly sounding, and then we have a Bobby Blue Bland cover, and the Mable John song “Your Good Thing Is About to Come to An End,” that Lou Rawls made famous, and Otis Redding’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”… But the rest of the songs we brought in not knowing what directions the songs or the record would go. Everyone just seemed to be on the same wavelength as what the cover tunes suggested, so we ran with that.

What are you listening to now? What music out there excites you?

Cray: Well, me and the bass player, Richard Cousins, are on this kick of going into record shops and picking up old vinyl. Through doing that, there is a lot of rediscovery. Finding, you know, Grant Green records, Pat Martino, Groove Holmes, old Blue Note records and old R&B, looking for Johnny Nash and Howard Tate. Stuff that kind of got away from us for a little bit.

So you are moving forward by looking to the past.

Cray: Exactly, there is a lot to be learned and sometimes you forget what has always been in front of your face.

When was the last time you were surprised about something?

Cray: Hm. Let me think on that.

The reason I ask is coming from the point of view of an artist, be it a writer, or visual artist, or musician, surprises are often the things that shake us up a little and knock something lose and we turn it in to something creative.

Cray: Yeah, exactly. Let me think on that.

Fair enough. Then I have to ask a question for my Mother who has been a fan since Strong Persuader. People always want to know the story behind the story, so Mom wants to know if there is a real woman behind “Because of Me.”

Cray: I know that answer! I can gladly tell you that I wasn’t the writer for that song. I was telling the story for someone else.

Well you did an excellent job telling the story. So, what’s next with the band?

Cray: Well, we are just getting going. We got the new record, we are touring the states now, going to Europe in May and we are coming back and touring more. This is what we do. We are gonna make another record with the same unit. Like I said, the unit is new, and we are just getting our feet underneath us. It’s gonna be a ball.

Article Source: dosavannah.com