By Dan Pearson Contributor
Robert Cray may not have been present at the birth of the blues, but he was there for the birth of the Blues Brothers.
The 57-year-old, five-time Grammy Award-winner blues master will be at Metropolis on June 18, and will share some cultural history he knows well.
It happened when he was living in Eugene, Ore., in 1977.
“We would play Monday nights at the Eugene Hotel and John Belushi would come in and see us,” said Cray. “He was hanging out with our good friend Curtis Salgado, who wore the prescription Ray-Bans and the taint (soul patch). And Curtis started schooling Belushi on the blues thing. The Blues Brothers dedicated their first album to Curtis.”
The Blues Brothers debuted on “Saturday Night Live” on April 22, 1978. The introduction by Paul Schaffer included the acknowledgement “with the support of fellow artists Curtis Salgado and the Cray Band” before Belushi and Dan Aykroyd launched into “Hey Bartender” as Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues.
Cray’s connection to Belushi emerged next when the comic was in Eugene filming his role as Bluto in “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”
Though un-credited, Cray was recruited to play bass in the on-screen band, Otis Day and the Knights, that rocked out to such songs as “Shout” and “Shama-Lama Ding Dong” at the infamous Toga Party scenes.
“Yes, I was ‘knighted,’ ” recalled Cray. “It was fun.”
And that Belushi connection doesn’t end there. Cray band drummer Tony Braunagel had a recurring role as Tony in 31 episodes of the ABC sit-com “According To Jim,” which starred Jim Belushi.
By all accounts, it looks like the Robert Cray Band still has plenty to “shout” about.
“No,” said Cray, “everything’s cool,”
Indeed it is. Cray was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in a Memphis ceremony in May. Fellow inductee performers included John Hammond, Denise LaSalle, Big Maybelle, Alberta Hunter and J. B. Lenoir.
“Well it is pretty cool being recognized,” said Cray, speaking from his home near Santa Barbara, Calif.
“It was great because the whole foundation was there and people that I had worked with over the years, some of my good friends.”
Cray launched his band in 1974 in Eugene, where he attended high school. Before that, with his father in the U.S. Army, Cray lived in Virginia, Germany and California.
His first band was called Steakface.
“It was a high school band with Richard Cousins,” he said. “My good friend Bobby Murray, the guitar player who played with Etta James, was in that band too. We had a huge following but we only played two shows. Given what’s going on with the internet, you can really keep that thing going.”
Playing music ultimately won out over Cray’s junior high school dreams of becoming an architect.
But he’s fine with music now.
Cray admits it is difficult to pin down the sound of his band, which he launched in 1974 in Eugene.
“It is kind of hard to put a tag on it because there are so many different flavors that come out of the band. It could be anything from a jazzy kind of blues to Caribbean flavored,” he said. “In all, it’s something that relates to real live situations. Real music, I guess you would call it. “
His 2010 DVD/CD “Cookin’ In Mobile,” he explained, “showcases our current line-up. We changed the line-up in the latter part of 2008. Then we had the opportunity to make a live DVD with HD-Net so we took advantage of that opportunity.
“Jim Pugh (from Chicago), our keyboard player,has been in the band since 1989. Richard Cousins, our bass player, came back to the band after being away for a long time. (Cousins had left in 1991.) Also we added the drummer Tony Braunagel.”
Band of writers
“Richard goes way back, so we did songs like ‘Smokin’ Gun’ and ‘Right Next Door,’ Cray said. “We were also covering songs from the 2009 studio album we recorded, ‘This Time,’ that showcases the newer material of the band. All the band members contributed to that one, as far as the writing is concerned.”
As for what the Robert Cray Band will play at Metropolis, it is yet to be determined, but that’s cool too. Cray said the group has about 40 original tunes in their songbook and it is always growing.
“We don’t use a set list,” said Cray. “We just go out and we call them.”