Blues-rock icon Robert Cray finds that change keeps him going

Written by
Special to the Register

Before blues-rock icon Robert Cray won five Grammy Awards, sold millions of records and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, he was an aspiring musician in the Pacific Northwest — where fate would lead him to the “Iceman” and “Animal House.”

Cray’s high school class voted for Texas blues guitarist Albert Collins, a.k.a. Iceman, to play their 1971 graduation dance. After the shindig, Cray talked to Collins and the veteran encouraged him to play the blues.

“It was the coolest thing,” said Cray, 60, during a telephone inter­view from Los Angeles. “Albert was one of my heroes.”

That evening eventually led to the formation, in 1974, of the Robert Cray Band featuring Cray on vocals and guitar and longtime friend Richard Cousins on bass. Their interpretation of the blues became the talk of the circuit, and in 1976 Collins asked them to accom­pany him for an 18-month tour, a musical appren­tice­ship that resonates with Cray.

“It was like living a big dream, backing up Albert,” he said. “He was like a father figure for us youngsters.”

Cray was invited to appear in a movie yet to be titled. He accepted the offer, thinking it wouldn’t happen. A few months later, he was portraying the bassist in the fictional band Otis Day and the Knights. The movie was the 1978 comedy classic “Animal House.”

“It was pretty cool being on the set,” Cray said. “I borrowed Richard Cousins’ bass for my part.”

Cray recalled the night “Animal House” actor John Belushi got up on stage.

“One night, we were playing with Curtis Salgado in a band called the Cray-Hawks at the Eugene (Oregon) Hotel when Belushi sat in. We didn’t know who he was because we worked Saturday nights when ‘Saturday Night Live’ was on. He did his Joe Cocker impersonation that night and we befriended him. Shortly after that, he formed the Blues Brothers Band.”

Cray’s early 1980s albums further secured his standing in the blues community, but it was 1986’s “Strong Persuader,” featuring hits like “Smoking Gun” and “Right Next Door (Because Of Me),” that exposed fans worldwide to his stinging guitar leads and soulful vocals.

Cray and peers like Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunder­birds helped introduce a generation of mainstream rock fans to the blues during the synthesizer age.

“Nobody thought of breaking through then; we just wanted to play the music that we enjoyed playing,” Cray said.

Following the success of “Strong Persuader,” Cray recorded with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and John Lee Hooker. He also released several acclaimed albums of his own.

The bluesman will soon begin recording a new album to be released next spring. Meanwhile, his band (Cousins on bass, keyboardist Jim Pugh and drummer Les Falconer) continues to tour, further exploring their material for audiences.

“We like to take something that’s laid out on record then take it someplace else live,” Cray said. “It changes every night. That’s what keeps me going, baring my soul.”