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Blues in his soul America's soul-singin'est blues guitarist lays out the lowdown on writing with Clapton, hangin' with Muddy, and spreading the light with Stevie Ray.
For over three decades Robert Cray has been among the world's most influential and popular blues guitarists. Also a virtuoso vocalist, Cray has never been shy about incorporating a healthy dose of soul into his compositions. He's made a fine art of playing outside the lines and moving the music in new directions while never losing the genuine feeling that makes the blues one of the world's greatest art forms.
Since his gig as a 20-year-old with Albert Collins, Cray has shared the stage with two generations of blues greats from Muddy Waters to Jonny Lang. Cray has toured the world extensively and made 15 albums (not including collaborations and collections). His band currently comprises Kevin Hayes on drums, Jim Pugh on keyboards, and Karl Sevareid on bass. His latest album, Time Will Tell, spans a broad spectrum of musical feeling, all unified by Cray's inimitable style.
Fender has recognized Cray's genius by working with him to develop the Robert Cray Strat and the Custom Shop Artist Series Robert Cray Stratocaster. At his home in Los Angeles, Cray carved a few minutes out of his crammed schedule to talk with Musician's Friend about his early days, his creative process, and the joys of being a renaissance blues man.
Musician's Friend: I saw you playing at a club in Ashland, Oregon many years ago and was very impressed with your control of dynamics. Your phrasing and the dynamics of the band allowed you to be in the pocket all the time, you didn't need to get louder to get people's attention.
Robert Cray: Oh, thanks. I think that has to do with what we were trying to emulate. In the early days we were doing a lot of covers and basically we wanted to be Booker T and the MGs [laughs] and a blues band at the same time. When you listen to Booker T and the MGs, there's so much restraint and control of the pocket. Dynamics play a big part. We tried to use dynamics and we still try to do that today. You can grab people's attention by going soft as opposed to loud.
MF: When you were 13 or 14, did you aspire to be a blues guy, a rock guy, an R&B guy?
RC: I started playing when I was 12. I just wanted to play. And the Beatles were the ones who got me into the guitar, like everybody in the '60s. Outside of taking lessons for the little bit that I did, we just tried to copy everything that was on the radio. It didn't make any difference. It wasn't until people like Hendrix and Clapton came out—the first guitar heroes—that we started to try to be like them. After a while it was Buddy Guy; I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be like B.B. I wanted to be like Freddy King [laughs]. I just took it all in.
MF: Did you learn theory early on?
RC: In the early days I learned a little bit of theory but I didn't stay with lessons very long, only about a year.
MF: When you were how old?
RC: I started playing guitar when I was 12, but I did play piano for a couple of years before then.
MF: That makes a big difference. You learn a lot of theory there.
RC: Yeah. But I don't use it anymore [laughs].
MF: Were the lessons you got on guitar scales and modes or ...
RC: No, it was basically songs.
MF: Do you remember any of the songs you were learning?
RC: Oh yeah, man. In the '60s it was like, "Georgie Girl" [laughs] depending on who the teacher was. My first teacher—I didn't know this until later on when I heard John Mayall's Blues Breakers, that one where Eric's reading a comic on the front—I learned songs off of that album in about '65 or '66 when I first started playing guitar. I had a cool teacher.
MF: You're somewhat unique among blues players in that you have a really fantastic voice and a lot of vocal control. Who were some of your vocal heroes growing up?
RC: My parents had a great record collection when I was coming up. So there's all these great R&B singers like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, Otis Redding, and all that stuff. Those are the people I like listening to as well as a lot of gospel music. And one of my favorite singers is a guy named O.V. Wright. He sang gospel, then he went to secular music.
MF: Does your voice hold up well on the road?
RC: Yeah. Actually it took a little while because we've been off a little while. It takes some time to get those muscles you don't use when you're at home back into shape again. But they're back in shape and it's working out pretty good.
MF: Some singers get fatigued from night after night. I find the first night is harder for me. Once I'm in the groove I can keep going.
RC: Yeah, you're right, man, the first night is the hardest one. Then you get going and you learn what you can work with and how to work around what you don't have sometimes. We try to limit the consecutive nights in a row to about four and then take a break.
MF: Are you touring a lot in Europe and Asia?
RC: We're not going to Europe this year, although I got a phone call after I got home yesterday saying, "They want you in Switzerland on Monday!" [Laughs]. "I just got home!" "Well, somebody canceled out. And they'll give you a big amount of money and air fare." I said, "No, man. I'm home until Wednesday. I need my break." But earlier this year we went to Australia for about 10 days and we went to Singapore for our first time. But we went to Europe last year.
MF: Though you're not strictly a blues band, of course, you were part of a wave of modern players—people like Stevie Ray and Robben Ford—who ushered in a fresh new era and expansion of the blues. When that was happening in the early- and mid-'80s, were you aware of the revitalizing impact you guys were having on the music?
RC: It was refreshing to know there were people like Stevie Ray doing his thing and the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Robben Ford and Room Full of Blues and Duke Robillard and all these cats from all over the country. We'd meet up sometimes in the same spots. Or we'd play places that were their haunts on the East Coast or down in Texas or wherever. And they were doing the same on our turf. It was cool to see this whole thing kind of blooming across the country, with the blues societies and the blues festivals and more clubs playing blues. Then for that little while in the latter part of the '80s MTV and the record companies opened up to more roots-oriented music with Los Lobos and The Blasters and a lot of the bands I just mentioned. It was a pretty good time. We were just having a ball, not thinking about anything [laughs] but the next gig.
MF: It was just a synergetic thing.
RC: It was happening because people wanted it and were open to it at that particular time. For bands like ours crisscrossing the country, it was great that we were getting gigs. Playing the kind of music that we were—and I think I'm speaking for all those guys—it was more out of love than for the profit. Because everybody started working in these bands without any idea of selling a lot of records.
MF: You've shared the stage with just about all the living greats, some of whom are no longer living: John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton (a latter day guy). Do you have any favorite road stories about hanging with any of those old heroes?
RC: [Laughs] What do you want to know? I got to sit backstage with Muddy Waters. We did like six or eight shows with Muddy. The first day I walked in and introduced myself. He said, "Sit down, young man." I sat down and we started talking. He drank a certain year of Piper Heidsieck Champagne with a strawberry in it to keep the fizz going. And he offered me a drink and I got to ask him how it was to work with Little Walter and Otis Spann and all that stuff. He just gave it all up freely, man. He talked about himself in third person—"the young Muddy Waters." It was just the coolest thing in the world. He'd ask me to sing "Mannish Boy" with him every night for the encore. Then on the last show I got to play in the band for the whole set, which was a thrill.
MF: Did you find yourself asking a lot of questions of the various heroes you played with?
RC: I did. But not everybody would give up that information. When we did the Blues Summit record with B.B. King, we were there in the studio in Berkeley with B.B. and John Lee [Hooker]. We were just like flies on the wall listening to these two guys. B.B. would go, "John, you remember your house in Detroit back in 1949? And we'd go over there after the show and be down in your basement ..." and John would go, "Ho ho ho, you remember that yuk yuk yuk." And they'd start telling these stories about things that happened in 1949. It was just amazing to sit and listen to these guys reminisce. Just some beautiful stuff. Or when we did Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll watching Keith and Chuck Berry. Keith trying to do everything he can for Chuck Berry and Chuck Berry trying to protect himself from somebody he thinks is trying to rip him off, even though he's known Keith for 40 or 50 years [laughs]. It was hilarious.
MF: How many dates did you do with Clapton?
RC: We've done a lot of shows with Eric over the years. We were just down there for the Crossroads thing, too.
MF: So you got to know him really well on a personal basis compared to other guys that you've just done some shows with?
RC: Yeah, we've gone out to dinner and stuff like that, yeah.
MF: What was it like writing "Old Love" with him?
RC: We just did that in the studio. Eric had the first few chords to the song and an idea of the working title. So we sat there and played and put the song together musically. Then when he told me the working title he says, "OK, I'm going to go home and work on a verse and you go home and work on a verse and we'll see what we got tomorrow." And that's how we did it.
MF: When you're writing, do you normally start with a lyrical idea, a melodic idea, a chord progression?
RC: By myself I start with the music and then as the music's going on, the song tells me what to sing. I get all the music done and finish up the lyric afterward. But if I sit and write with somebody, sometimes it works the opposite way. They have a theme and then we try to construct it. I prefer the first way.
MF: When Eric Clapton covered your song "Bad Influence"—which you wrote with our hometown hero Mike Vannice—did he ask you or was it a surprise?
RC: It was a surprise. We were in Switzerland at the Montreux Jazz Festival. We had already been booked to do some shows with Eric for our first time. But I hadn't met Eric yet. The producer of the show, a guy named Claude Nobs, came from backstage when we were on the stage getting ready for the sound check and says "Hey Robert, Eric just recorded one of your songs, 'Bad Influence.'" I said, "Wow!" Then right behind him comes Eric, so I meet Eric for the first time and we sit and chat about it.
MF: What do you listen to? What's on your iPod?
RC: I don't have an iPod [laughs].
MF: What's on your CD player?
RC: I don't think there's anything in there. But I just got this Eddy Hinton CD. Eddy Hinton did a lot of those Muscle Shoals sessions back in the '60s. He was a great guitar player and a really cool singer. He's a white guitar player but he sounds kind of like Bobby Womack when he sings. He turned down an offer to join the original Allman Brothers Band to do his own thing. I guess he and Duane were good friends.
MF: Who do you think are some of the promising young players these days?
RC: Out of all the young players that I've had the chance to meet, I like Jonny Lang. I think the guy's got his head on his shoulders, he's got a great voice, he's got a great personality, and he's doing it his way.
MF: You want to tell us about your hardtail signature Strat?
RC: Fender approached me about the signature Strat in the late '80s or something. We got the first one in '90. I was using a '64 Strat and I really liked that neck. And I also liked the neck of a '57 Strat I had. So we tried to come to a medium between those two necks. And we worked on the pickups and had them custom wound from the Custom Shop. We wanted not too hot a sound but just kind of a classic Fender sound. And I always wanted gold-plated hardware after seeing Keith Richards with gold-plated hardware on one of his Fenders [laughs]. So I did that. And we also got some nice birdseye maple on the back of the fingerboards on some of them.
MF: Did you do something on your old Strat to fix that bridge so it wouldn't be a rocking vibrato anymore?
RC: Yeah, if I remember right there was a block put behind it in the back. And I never used what I call the swizzle stick anyway [laughs]. They always would go out of tune because I play sideways so much.
MF: Do you use your signature guitar exclusively?
RC: Pretty much. I use the Strats, and every one is just slightly different. Then I also use a Steel Deville, which is a guitar made by a guy named James Trussart. It's shaped like a Tele with a Gibson-scale 22-fret neck. But it's hollow. I've used it over the years and I used it on this new album on a song called "Survivor." It's pretty cool. You can loosen and tighten the body. And it kind of gives you a Dobro sound.
MF: Loosen and tighten the body? I don't know what you mean.
RC: There's screws from the back to the front. You can loosen the body for a more open sound, or tighten it and tighten up the body sound.
MF: How many guitars do you carry on the road?
RC: About six.
MF: Are you a collector?
RC: No. I have a few things but I'm not a big collector. I have a Fender Six [Super Six Reverb Amp], a Country Gentleman. And I have another one of James' guitars that's steel but it's perforated front and back [laughs]. It's pretty cool. What I'm also using on stage now is a fake electric sitar where a guy put a block of wood right in front of the bridge on this Tele-shaped guitar. It sounds pretty good. I've got a Telecaster neck on it. It's a lot of fun.
MF: And you're playing through, what, a Bassman and a couple of Matchless amps?
RC: Well, now I've changed to using a Vibro-King in place of the Bassman. And I'm still using the Matchless Clubman 35s with 4x10 cabinets, two of those.
MF: Any tricks to getting your tone?
RC: It's all in the hands, man [laughs].
MF: It is, isn't it [laughs].
RC: I was talking with somebody about that last week and they go, "You see the kids who go to concerts and stuff and they see what Eric Clapton plays on stage. They can go buy an Eric Clapton guitar and buy all the stomp boxes and whatever people say they need to get that sound. And they go home and play and wonder why they don't sound like Eric Clapton" [laughs].
MF: You're probably tired of talking about it, but everybody's interested in your role in Animal House with Otis Day and the Knights. What was it like being on the set with those guys?
RC: It came about, we were playing at a club called Murphy and Me's in Eugene. And a lady came up after the show and asked me if I wanted to be in a film. I said, "Yeah, right," that kind of thing.
MF: Did she tell you who was going to be in the film?
RC: No. I had no idea. One Saturday afternoon we were down in Eureka and I had a message and I called back and they said, "We're making this film and we know you're going to be back in Eugene on Thursday, so could you make rehearsals at such and such a hotel?" But we didn't know anything. There was no working title or anything. We just got fitted for these clown outfits [laughs] and listened to the music and worked up some dance steps. And all the musicians there were like Sonny King, the sax player who used to live up in Portland; Robert Bailey, who's doing great in Nashville now; and Ron Steen, who's a world-class drummer up there in Portland—all these cats who we've known.
MF: So the music was already prerecorded.
RC: Yeah, it was prerecorded. DeWayne Jessie is an actor and he played the lead singer. I was playing Richard Cousins' bass, and he was pissed off that he wasn't in the film [laughs]. We always laugh about that. Today is actually Richard's birthday, he's 50 years old.
MF: But that band eventually went on tour.
RC: Well, DeWayne Jessie took it on the road. I heard recently he was at some big Republican fund raiser. But Belushi was in town for the filming of Animal House and he came in to see our splinter band that featured Curtis Salgado and myself. And Curtis became close friends with Belushi and turned him on to all that blues stuff. So Curtis is credited for starting up the Blues Brothers idea.
MF: Weren't there some scenes when you were on the set with Belushi and all those guys?
RC: Yeah, "Toga Party" and "The Dexter Lake Club." It was pretty cool. A lot of waiting around, though.
MF: You had no idea it was going to end up being a legend like it is?
RC: No. Not at all.
MF: So what are you working on right now, album-wise?
RC: Nothing yet. But we're trying to work something out to get into the studio later on this year.
MF: Do you write in the studio?
RC: No, we put it together before we go in. We can't afford to waste any money [laughs].
MF: You sketch things out while you're on the road?
RC: I do a little bit of that, but I mostly put everything together when I'm back at home. Moving around on the road I don't get focused enough to write. There's a lot of waiting around time, but I get too antsy. I'm not relaxed. I need to be relaxed to sit and write.
MF: If you weren't a musician, what would you want to be doing for a living?
RC: I don't know, man. I like to garden. Maybe I could do that, be a gardener. Not one that's cleaning up but the professional gardener, farmer type. Or an architect. I always wanted to be an architect when I was younger.
MF: Did you help design the house you live in?
RC: No [laughs]. The house was made before I was even conceived.
MF: Thanks a lot for your time.
RC: You're welcome, thank you.
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