By Mark Bialczak/The Post-Standard
Sure thing, Robert Cray quickly says, it was quite wonderful to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame this spring.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a breach of style for The Robert Cray Band to perform Friday at the M&T Jazz Fest at Onondaga Community College.
“We’re blues. Rock. All of the above and then some more. R&B. A little touch of gospel,” Cray says during a phone interview from his home near Santa Barbara, Calif.
How do so many styles fit this guitarist, singer and songwriter?
“I grew up in the 1960s, listening to everything on radio, when radio used to play everything,” says Cray, 57.
In 1987, it seemed like everybody in America was listening to Cray’s break-out song, “Smoking Gun” from his hit album that came out the year prior, “Strong Persuader.”
Says his biography at allaboutjazz.com:
“Robert Cray is one of the few blues artists who managed to cultivate a mainstream following from the get-go. In the course of a long-running career that began in the 1970s, he uniquely blended elements of rhythm and blues, pop, and traditional blues to win fans to a more contemporary blues sound. While achieving critical acclaim, Cray made no apologies for his more popular music, and he’s been rewarded with four Grammy Awards for his innovative style.”
That style has allowed a discography that now tops 20 albums. Cray can’t quite believe it.
“To me, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long,” he says. “It takes a while for those records to run their course. You get older, but you feel the same inside.”
Cray says there’s no secret to success, just hard work creating good songs.
“I would like to believe, anyway, that songwriting is what’s more important than anything else,” Cray says. “I hope my songwriting is getting better. I want the main focus to be about the songs. And the whole thing about The Robert Cray Band is that it’s a true band sound we’re after, as opposed to a guy with a guitar with some underlings behind him being a drone.”
One of those oh-so-important band mates during the 1980s was Syracuse drummer Dave Olson.
They remain friends, says Cray, who adds that current drummer Tony Braunagel is only the second since Olson left in the late ’80s.
“The last time we came through,” Cray says, “Dave showed up at the (Turning Stone) casino. He made the mistake of coming on his birthday. We have a tradition for people in the inner circle. We pie them on their birthday. And we pied Dave.”
Olson, whose post-Cray career included an album with Kim Simmonds and Savoy Brown and now includes setting the beat for both Dr. Kildean and The Funky Blu Roots, says he learned his lesson. He may indeed go to the jazz fest on Friday. “It’s not my birthday,” he says.
Cray says the anything-goes-musically rule still governs at home, even for his 4-year-old son.
“When I’m in a car, if my (4-year-old) son wants to listen to radio, which he always does, I put on an FM station and cruise on,” Cray says, adding that his son’s interests range from James Brown to Thelonious Monk to Thomas the Train from the PBS children’s show “Thomas and Friends.”
When Cray’s in the car himself, though, it’s “news talk radio.”
“I try to put (the music) out of mind, to get clean from it,” he says. “We have this running thing with the band. We get picked up to go to sound-check on the day of a show and a runner picks us up and has the car radio on. We ask them politely to turn it off, because we’re part of this group called Musicians Against Music.”
Cray laughs a big laugh.
He’s satisfied with life.
“We never expected this (level of success) to happen because of the kind of music we play,” he says. “We got really lucky with the situation we were given. We got a big fan base that allows us to play a lot of places, in this country and out of this country. This is any band’s dream. We’re doing pretty well.”