Who was/is Robert Cray ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
Anointed the primary savior of the blues by the mainstream press, guitarist Robert Cray had the looks, the voice, and the guitar chops to do the trick. The Beatles were Robert's original inspiration for taking up the guitar in fifth grade, but he got hip to Albert Collins (who played at his high school graduation!), O.V. Wright, and a plethora of other blues and soul greats, greatly impacting his musical maturation.
"That comes from listening to a lot of different kinds of music, and being a big fan of R&B singers and gospel singers," says the Stratocaster-wielding Cray. "I'm not torn between the two, but I enjoy the two."
Born August 1, 1953 in Columbus, Georgia, Cray was an Army brat who grew up all over the country before his family settled in Tacoma, Washington in 1968. Cray and bassist Richard Cousins put together a band in ‘74 and backed up Collins before going on their own. Producer Bruce Bromberg caught the young band, co-fronted by harpist/vocalist Curtis Salgado, in San Francisco at the 1977 NAIRD Convention.
"They're going along and they're playing these songs, and it's kind of cool because it's some soul stuff, not what most blues bands were doing in those days," says Bromberg. "All the covers were fairly obscure. And then Robert sang a couple. He was playing a Gibson in those days. The first album was made on a Gibson, not on a Strat. He sang like two songs, and my bell rang, man. I said, 'Oh, man!'" Work soon began on Cray's debut album ‘Who's Been Talkin',' which came out on the Tomato label in 1980. "They didn't really have any originals. I think Curtis had like one song. I told 'em, 'You ain't gonna get anywhere singing other peoples' songs,'" says Bromberg. "I flew Robert down for a few days, tried to write some songs with him, and then cut him with some local guys." Salgado shared vocal duties on the set.
Tomato soon folded, and the Robert Cray Band's head-turning 1983 encore album ‘Bad Influence' was released on Bromberg and Larry Sloven's fledgling HighTone label. Only two covers this time with a set of uniformly great originals, and Salgado was gone so Cray sang them all. "We didn't have any money," says Bromberg, who co-produced with Dennis Walker. "Their road manager had some money, and he loaned us money to do the first sessions. They would come in off the road, and we'd just take 'em to some little room and cut the stuff pretty much live." ‘False Accusations,' their next HighTone set in 1985, kept momentum building.
With the 1986 emergence of Cray's ‘Strong Persuader' album on Mercury rather than HighTone (major label acceptance at last), Cray embraced mainstream stardom, fueled by regular play on MTV (Cray's handsome visage was as easy on the eyes as his pop-accessible blues/soul hybrid was on the ears). "‘Strong Persuader' just took off; sold like 100,000 in two weeks," says Bromberg. The set was cut in Los Angeles, Bromberg and Walker producing and the band now made up of Cray, Cousins, keyboardist Peter Boe, and drummer David Olson, bolstered by the Memphis Horns. The smoldering Smoking Gun, penned by Cray, Cousins, and Bromberg, was a #22 pop hit in early '87, and ‘Strong Persuader' sold platinum and won a Grammy. Now the Robert Cray Band was selling out concert halls.
"It was real scary," laughs Cray. "Because coming out of the clubs, everything started happening really quickly, when the 'Strong Persuader' thing came out. We were kind of like, 'What the hell is going on here?'" Cray hasn't let up since. He remains one of the idiom's top-selling artists. He and Bromberg long ago parted ways, but his ex-producer sees Cray as more than a sexy, soulful singer. "I still think he never gets credit for being as great a guitar player as he is," says Bromberg. "Whatever we did, it was a new sound at the time."