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Blues legend Robert Cray is enjoying his 50th anniversary tour

Blues legend Robert Cray
Turner Cray Inc.
Blues legend Robert Cray

Dave Popkin: It's my pleasure to be joined by one of the greatest blues guitarists, soul singers, and band leaders in the world. A member of the Blues Hall of Fame, Americana Music Lifetime Achievement Award. He's kicking off a 50th anniversary tour. Robert Cray is with me. How are you doing?

Robert Cray: I'm good Dave, thanks man.

How did you use the off time between the tours this year?

Well, just getting settled in at home because you know you're away for so long and you’ve got to spend some quality time with the family. So that's what we did and that it's a holiday season, so we did that too and just settling in, trying to write some material for another project.

I'd love to go down memory lane a little bit since it is the 50th anniversary tour. You started so young. What were your first gigs like like, what kind of venues, what kind of response?

The first gigs that we did, Richard Cousins our bass player and myself, we moved down to Eugene, Oregon from Tacoma, Washington. We ran into a guy by the name of Curtis Salgado that a lot of people know and he had a band that was called The Nighthawks out of Eugene, Oregon. Those guys helped us to get gigs and so some of the first gigs we got. First, we had the audition and we went to this one club whose name I can't remember. We only had about 12 songs and the owner of the club dug it, but he had us move our equipment to another part of the club and play those 12 songs again and that was great, but then Curtis and The Nighthawks we were able to do some double bills at some of the places that they were known at and that helped us to get started in Eugene.

Robert Cray is on his 50th anniversary tour
Courtesy of the artist
Robert Cray is on his 50th anniversary tour

Who were some of the people that you opened for in the early days where you just said, “Wow, I can't believe I'm opening for one of my heroes.”

Albert Collins was working a lot on the West Coast and you know we started the band in ’74. Albert came through in about ‘75 or ‘76 and I had met him because he played our high school graduation party in 1971 in Tacoma actually. He came through and a club owner asked us in Eugene if we would like to back up Albert and we said “yeah man” because we were already doing some of his material anyway. It turned out in the long run that we were able to work off and on with Albert from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Francisco for a period of about a year and a half, whenever he was on the West Coast we were his band.

So that was great and he was like a father to us. When we were on the road with him he would always ask if we had called our parents to let them know where we were and he was that kind of guy. He was really, really great and so we were really honored to be working with him. And we got a chance to work with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. We did several shows with them and in the early days we got a chance to play with Muddy and well, I got a chance to sit in with Muddy on the shows that we opened up when he came through. At the time, Eugene was a place where bands had to stop because they were on their way from Portland or Seattle to San Francisco, so we got a lot of people coming through. We had Otis Rush, we had Albert Luandrew, you know Sunnyland Slim, tons of people came through.

Then fast forward about eight years and you got to do an album with Albert and with Johnny Copeland called Showdown. What was that experience like?

That was great. We were at that point working with Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, they were our producers. Bruce Iglauer and Bruce Bromberg got together and they just said they were going to do this record. So, we got to Chicago and I was standing outside the studio with Albert Collins and we are waiting for Johnny. Johnny was just pulling up so before we got into the building, Johnny was slow getting out of the car. He'd been fasting and Albert and Johnny go way back to the 50’s, back in Houston, and they're old friends. Albert saw Johnny and saw that he was pretty weak and that just made the whole session fantastic because Albert was picking on Johnny the whole time we were recording and we took all that fun into the studio. That was great.

"T Bone Shuffle" from SHOWDOWN – Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Johnny Copeland:

That was a fun record and you mentioned Dennis Walker who passed away about a year and a half ago and some people don't know that name, but what was his impact on your career and your life?

Dennis Walker was a great guy, great producer, and a fantastic songwriter. We recorded a lot of things that Dennis wrote. He was the one that taught me that visual aspect of the lyrics and a song. Dennis really had that. He painted pictures with his stories. We had a good time together.

After Showdown, "Smoking Gun" comes along and the Strong Persuader album and it made you part of the public consciousness, at least with blues and rock fans and mainstream radio. How would your career have been different, if not for that record?

Obviously, the record did a lot for us, but when that record came out we were working so hard I didn't think that we were able to work any harder than that. We had already made a trip or two to the UK and we had the Bad Influence and False Accusations albums out and our name was getting really popular. So, I guess that was the impetus for the major record label to pick us up. Who knows. We would have still been playing music because we were we were into it, because we love doing what we do. Obviously then Strong Persuader, it's on a different level.

"Smoking Gun" official video from Strong Persuader:

I have all your records, but the one that I kind of gravitate back toward a lot is Midnight Stroll. It came out a few years after Strong Persuader. You played Bouncing Back when I saw you recently in Connecticut. So many great songs on there: "These Things," "Consequences," "The Forecast (Calls for Pain)." You've played those songs a lot over the years. What collided musically for you at that point that made that such a special record.

A lot of personnel changes going on at the particular point. Kevin Hayes came in playing drums, Jim Pugh came in playing keyboards, Tim Kaihatsu was in the band, I think, at that point. All these guys were we added, all these different songwriters, along with still having Dennis Walker and Richard (Cousins) and I was still writing. So we had all this music coming to us. "Consequences" was one written by Kevin Hayes and his sister Bonnie. We just had all these things happening. So, I think that's what made that record and when I go back and I look at the band in different phases, I mean we had different versions of the Cray band. There was the Bad Influence band there was the Strong Persuaders, as Richard calls them. We had the Midnight Stroll band and then things change and so that's why that one particular record stands out.

And the horns on there.

The Memphis Horns, yeah, yeah.


"The Forecast (Calls For Pain)" from Midnight Stroll - Live in Bloomington, IN – 8/21/22:

Off the air last time you and I talked about Otis Redding and you'd done "Try a Little Tenderness" before. Just in terms of your singing, who are your main guys, your main people that that you still just go to and really gravitate toward?

I was listening to O.V. Wright last night, as a matter of fact. And, you know, when I was hanging out with Curtis Salgado quite a bit, we'd sit and we'd listen to Otis Redding and O.V. Wright and Sam and Dave and all that Memphis stuff. Gospel music too. We'd listen to the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Blind Boys of Alabama and Mississippi and just all that gospel music and gospel-influenced soul music. Sam Cooke, all that stuff is very inspirational. I still listen to that stuff all the time, like I mentioned.

O.V. Wright – Medley – "God Blessed Our Love/When a Man Loves a Woman/That’s How Strong My Love Is":

It all makes its way onto your records. The 50th anniversary tour starts in February in Florida makes its way north to New Jersey, of course, in the middle of February, a mainstay stop for the band. Is there any particular feel or direction for this version of the tour that you're thinking about and crafting as you as you hit the road?

You know we're always looking to pick and choose things that we've done in the past that we haven't done for a while, just to flavor things up and after the 50 years we've been together the book is quite large and it's always nice to pick out stuff and do something haven't done for a while. Then change that up. As a matter of fact, kind of on a nightly basis we'll do a few of the favorites, but we always try to pepper it up with something different on a nightly basis.

You mentioned you were doing some writing and sometimes these records take a little bit of a different slant, it might be a funky thing or a little gospel, a little soul, straight blues. What are you writing lately?

A little a bit of everything because I like a lot of different things and a lot of styles cannot be denied. And when you when you sit down to write stuff you don't try to block yourself, tell yourself you're going to do this one particular style for this next record. Just keep your head open and let what's in there come out and in your heart as well. So, we'll see when it comes down to the picking and choosing of the material after it's laid down and see where it goes, but it should be all over the place that's good, that’s how we like it.

What do you still like best about what you do, because 50 years, it's a long time. It's a lot of hotel rooms and bus trips and flights and all that stuff, but where's the magic for you still?

Soon as you soon as you start playing. OK, what have you got today? How hot, where's your voice, how's it gonna go? Are you going to be able to hit those high notes? When we look at one another on the bandstand and we're there on the side in the wings before going out, just kind of checking one another out and see what we're gonna do and turn around and look and laugh and just have fun. That’s what keeps this going, I think.

Robert, we really appreciate all the time and your support of WBGO over the years and I look forward to seeing you in Wayne at William Paterson University, that's February 16th. Best of luck on the tour and congratulations on 50 years.

Thank you so very much Dave. Appreciate it.

Thank you.

<b>Dave Popkin</b> is a WBGO News/Music contributor, veteran sportscaster, educator and musician <br/>