By Steve Wildsmith
Twitter: @RobertCrayBand

Before Robert Cray and his bandmates hit record during sessions for “In My Soul,” the album the elder blues statesman released this week, producer Steve Jordan gathered them around the control booth.

They were preparing to cut the track “Pillow,” a bonus song on some versions of the record, and Jordan wanted to set the right tone, Cray told The Daily Times this week.
“We set up the studio and treated every song on its own, but before we tackled every song we made sure that everybody was in the spirit of the mood we were trying to create for each and every song,” Cray said. “For ‘Pillow,’ Steve took us into the control room and put on Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’ album. He played a few tracks, and we went back to cut ‘Pillow,’ and it just took off. Out came the electric sitar, the gumbe drum, the vibraslap. All of that stuff is important.

“Steve, he creates the situation where he makes everything fun. We’re gonna get vintage drum gear, vintage guitar amplifiers and make sure every song has its own sound. If we want that Fender Rhodes (piano) sound, we’re not going to get a keyboard that has all these different effects; we’re going to get a Fender Rhodes in there. We want to have all these things at our disposal and try to make each and every song have its own face.

“When Steve comes in, we all play together in the same room; we’ll find the pocket and groove on it for a while as he makes suggestions, and when we’re locked in, he’ll say, ‘Let’s cut it!’” added Cray, who brings his band to The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville next Tuesday. “That’s how we do it, and Steve’s always there, playing guitar or piano or the drum or just dancing.”

It’s evident that Cray is a meticulous craftsman, and that’s one reason he’s held is such high regard in the worlds of blues and rock. A native of Georgia, he started playing guitar in his early teens, and by the time he was 20, he had decided to pursue a life of music. In 1974, he decided to form a musical unit with his friend Richard Cousins; although they parted ways in 1991 and reunited before the recording of 2009’s “This Time.”

It didn’t take Cousins long, however, to get back that old magic — after all, as much of a guitar monster as Cray was when they first started playing together, Cousins had to be able to hold his own in order to get recruited into the backing band of blues legend Albert Collins. The two young men played with Collins for a few years before striking out on their own, launching the Robert Cray Band in 1980.

“Richard has always been kind of a musical director, and he’s always voiced his opinion on how things should go,” Cray said. “While I’m at the microphone, Richard is holding down the fort. There’s a slight musical competitiveness between the two of us, and I think that’s a healthy thing.”

Mercury Records signed the band a couple of years later, and in 1986, Cray’s breakthrough album was released — “Strong Persuader,” which featured the hit “Smoking Gun.” It reached No. 13 on the Billboard 200 chart, the first blues album to do so since 1972, and went on to sell more than a million copies. He’s gone on to release more than a dozen records since, and “In My Soul” upholds the standards Cray has established for his work over the years. It’s a smooth shot of blues with the traditional R&B and rock flourishes that Cray traffics in so deftly, and his voice, rich and warm and soulful, is as strong as it’s ever been.

As he’s gotten older, he said, he recognizes the need to service the song. Each tune needs to be a vehicle for communication — of love, of longing, of frustration, or heartbreak — with the audience. And while he’s more than capable of holding his own as a hotshot guitarist — Eric Clapton considers Cray a peer, after all — showboating for the sake of turning his electric guitar into an engine of primal screams doesn’t matter nearly as much as it did when he was a younger man.

“I put that stuff behind me,” he said. “There’s a place for a solo, but it should be, in my book, a part of the broader picture and not the main focus. It’s fun to have a good solo break, but now the focus is the band. We have a band that works together; it’s not just me and a few sympathetic guys behind me. That doesn’t work anymore for me.

“I’m still an explorer in the sense that I understand a lot more than I did when I was younger, and I think the rest of the guys do as well. We know that the song is the most important part of anything we do, and we work for the song. We’ve dropped the premise of trying to do the same thing we did on a record; we just throw that out the window, because we’re going to mess it up, so the goal is to do something different than what we already know. That’s purposeful.”

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