BLACK ROCKERS UNITED MEDIA

 

ROBERT CRAY: BLUES GUITARIST VANGUARD

N. Kali: This is Victor Patton's first interview with Black Rockers United: Robert Cray!

"Back in 2005, I had the opportunity to interview five-time Grammy Award winner and blues guitarist Robert Cray prior to his show at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, California.

Cray rose to prominence in the mid-1980s with his platinum album Strong Persuader, which yielded a whopping eight hit singles, according to Allmusic.com.

Guitar enthusiasts also know Cray from his work, being featured in Taylor Hackford’s documentary on Chuck Berry, where he performed alongside Berry, Keith Richards, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt and several other legends.


Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n Roll (1987)

During my discussion with Robert, he spoke in depth about his time as an “adopted son” of blues legend Muddy Waters, his songwriting process, being inspired by Howlin’ Wolf, and what motivates him to create new music.

At the time of the interview, I was working for a publication called Today’s Local News in San Diego, California. The interview has never run in its entirety, and the newspaper folded just a few years after I spoke with Robert.

The #BRU Spotlight is the first time this interview with Robert has been presented online, in its entirety!

Victor A. Patton, Aug. 8, 2020"

       


INTRODUCTION 

VP: Just wanted to let you know that it’s definitely an honor to speak with you today. I am a guitarist myself and I play a little blues, so this is a highly anticipated interview for me, to say the least.

Robert: Well thanks.

VP: I listened to the new record, “Time Will Tell.” As always, the guitar playing is on point, not to mention some mighty nice sitar playing on “Up in the Sky.” What do you like about the sitar, and how many instruments do you actually play?

Robert: Well, I only play guitar, you know, but on some demo stuff I might mess around with bass and stuff like that. This electric sitar is set up just like a guitar. The only thing is there is a big wooden block right in front of the bridge that catches the strings as they vibrate that gives it that sound.

Back in the 60’s a company called Coral came out with an instrument of that sort, but they also had 13 drone strings on it as well. But this one that I use looks like a Fender Telecaster.

VP: Do you play it on tour?

Robert: Yeah. I just got it right before we played that song. It was just a matter of getting used to the way the strings vibrate with that big piece of wood underneath the strings and just catching the timing.

VP: Was it hard to pick up?

Robert: Nah. No.

VP: On “Time Will Tell” you open with the song “Survivor” which is a little political and also the song “Distant Shore ” is very political. Why was it important to address politics and war on this album and have you caught any flack for it?

Robert: It’s important to address it because just like anything else that matters to people, the way you are living your life, blues, and all things associated with life—love, lack of love, money, no job—it’s current and it affects everybody.

So, just sitting down and writing it just came out. The song “ Distant Shore ” was actually written by Jim Pugh, our keyboard player and I wrote the song “Survivor.”

Neither one of us knew we were writing songs that were that current with the war thing in mind. We got one letter—the guy said he wasn’t going to buy any more Robert Cray Band albums. Just one. But everyone has an opinion and you are entitled to have an opinion and being an American entitles you to have that opinion.

VP: Absolutely. You’re widely known as a blues guitarist, but your music is very multidimensional. On this record I hear a lot of different influences. How would you describe your music?

DECIDING A SOUND

Robert: Well, that’s always been the hard thing. Like you said it’s hard to put your thumb on any one thing. For myself and the rest of the guys in the band, we’ve all grown up listening to a lot of different things.

Growing up my parents had a really great record collection where we listened to a lot of jazz music, people like Ray Charles or Sarah Vaughn. Then we went to blues B.B. King and John Lee Hooker.

My mom was into the singers—Sam Cooke, Bobby Bland and then my dad also liked gospel music that he would listen to on the weekend. And then as kids do you go off into your own.

In the ‘60s I listened to everything that was on the radio from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix. So with all that in [my] background, and getting the blues bug as a teen—it’s all screwed up.

VP: So that’s when you picked up the blues, as a teenager?

Robert: Yeah. Like I said, we had the records at home and whatnot. But I really got the bug as a teen in high school.

VP: What was the first record album that you bought?

Robert: First record album–I joined the Columbia record club and I think I got “Are You Experienced” and the first Creem (album) and things like that. But I had 45's before that, when we lived in Germany. My dad was in the army.

I think the first single that I bought was from a group called The Jarmels. It was called “A Little Bit of Soap.”

VP: What kind of music did they play?

Robert: It was just a 45, this dance kind of song, you know.

VP: At what point did you actually pick up the guitar?

Robert: In 1965. I got a guitar after everybody else in the neighborhood did. Everybody wanted to be like the Beatles.

VP: Of course. Where were you born and raised?

Robert: I was born in Columbus, Georgia right outside of Fort Benning. We stayed there for about a year, but we spent a lot of time in Washington state and it got to be where we always went back to.

Then we went to Fort Ord near Seaside, California and off to Germany, then back to Washington state, to Virginia then back to Washington. So basically I grew up in the Pacific Northwest.

VP: At your level of guitar mastery, are you still discovering new methods of playing?

Robert: Well, first of all there’s no mastery [laughs]. Well, yeah, so in that case there’s all kinds of new ways that I am learning all of the time.

And you hear a lot of great people and their approaches and what they do and there’s a lot of interesting ways to go about things. And I learn a lot of stuff.

We just came out of the studio a couple days ago from mixing a record that we are going to try and release this spring. And there’s all kinds of ideas that pop up and new approaches, different sounds and things like that so you are always learning.

THE CLASSICS ERA

VP: Howlin’ Wolf was an inspiration to you. What was it about Howlin’ Wolf that inspired you particularly?

Robert: First of all the guy’s name, you know? When I got the blues bug as a teen, we bought these records and we looked at the covers and the guy’s name was Howlin’ Wolf and we just laughed this was really cool, you know. You heard this guy howlin’ like a wolf.

Then you hear his story about how he’s a tail dragger and he wipes away his tracks, sneakin’ in and out of windows and making his midnight creep and things like that in all of these songs. So there’s a persona, this third person persona, this evil character, the voice goes along with it.

It will scare the hell outta ya. And then the grooves on top of that are just unique. The guy’s a work of art. Just awesome. This good friend of mine told me about this DVD that was released in 2003 called "The Howlin’ Wolf Story: The Secret History of Rock N’ Roll". Have you seen that?

VP: I haven’t...

Robert: Pick it up. You’ll get the picture.

VP: Did you ever get a chance to meet Howlin’ Wolf?

Robert: I never did. I had the opportunity to work with Hubert Sumlin, who worked with Howlin’ Wolf. Hubert Sumlin played with Howlin’ Wolf for quite a long time. Hubert played on Clapton’s Crossroads (Festival).

VP: I do remember that. Speaking of the Crossroads Festival, you played with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, you mentioned Hubert Sumlin—so many great musicians and guitar players.

What was that like, performing with so many legends on one stage?

Robert: That was a lot of fun. Actually, doing the thing with Eric, Jimmy (Vaughn), and Robert Randolph was on there too, Buddy. I’ve known those guys for a while. So that’s calming. We don’t see one another that often, it’s like ‘hey, what’s happening, how’ve you been?’—and stuff like that, so that’s pretty cool.

The thing about playing with those guys is we’re playing the songs, and that’s the most important thing. Now, just being there at that festival [laughs], it’s alright when you know somebody, because you feel comfortable.

So when you don’t know these masters like John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck and you’ve never met them before it’s like, you’re in awe–you can’t help but be.

And there was guitar player, after guitar player after guitar player. Some of them I’ve met before and some of them I haven’t. Some I got the opportunity to meet, it was pretty cool.

VP: You’ve worked with so many great musicians. Is there someone you haven’t worked with that you would like to work with?

Robert: Well, it’s kind of like if something pops up, if it happens, it happens. I really haven’t made an effort to play with anybody. I don’t have a list, you know what I mean?

I’ve had a lot of great opportunities, and I kind of like leaving it that way. But I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of people. Just to be on the same show.

EXPANDING TASTES

VP: I grew up in the Run DMC generation, so I didn’t really—really—discover blues until I got my first Muddy Waters album about 10 years ago. Do you find that more and more young people are discovering the blues?

Robert: Yeah, I think so. I see a lot of young people come to the shows, and they’ll say ‘my dad turned me onto your music.’ My dad turned me on to a lot of music. And there’s a lot of music out there.

You can’t absorb everything. When it’s time you’ll bite into something different. That’s how it’s been for me. It’s great. When your taste buds are ripe, you’ll dig into it man. I like listening to a lot of different things.

I listen to bee-bop, I listen to reggae, I listen to Brazilian music, I listen to music from Indonesia. It’s like that. Different tastes–I like different foods too.

VP: I mentioned Muddy Waters earlier. He called you an adopted son.

Robert: He had plenty of adopted sons and daughters. Which was an honor for anybody that he asked.

MORE INFLUENCES

VP: What was Muddy like, and how does he inspire you today?

Robert: Muddy, you know, when you discover Muddy’s music, it’s a really cool thing. And we had the opportunity to work some shows with Muddy. I forget exactly how young I was–I was in my 20s. And I just had a lot of questions. I had read a lot of things and I had a lot of questions.

Since we were playing some shows together I knocked on his dressing room door, and he said ‘Come on in young man.’ I sat down and asked him a few questions and he opened up. He started about Little Walter and all the great musicians that he worked with.

And he would talk about the young Muddy Waters and all the women and all that [laughs]. This guy was cool–he was so cool. And he was sharing his champagne with me.

He liked (Piper) Heidsieck Champagne of a certain vintage and he would put a strawberry in it and the bubbles would keep fizzin’.

He was neatly dressed, you know, white slacks with suspenders and Hawaiian print shirts. He was just really cool, man. At that point in his career he was making the money that he deserved and it was cool. And he invited me on stage every night to sing the song “Mannish Boy.”

And on one of the gigs I actually got to play in the band for the whole set. He said ‘Robert, you think you can play some of that Muddy Water style blues?’ and I said ‘Man, I could try’ [laughs].

VP: Were there any other old blues guys of Muddy Waters’ generation that you came across?

Robert: Yeah, there’s a lot of guys over the years that I got to meet. Jimmy Rogers. Lot of people. Lots of great guitar players over the years.

VP: I know the (Martin) Scorsese series (The Blues) shined a lot of light on the history of the music. Do you see a lot of musicians taking an interest in the history of the blues?

Robert: Yeah, but I think a lot of the musicians have done the research. You really can’t help it once you’re into that kind of music. It just begs for you to go back and find out why this music exists. Why are these people singing in double entendre? That’s the thing that got me going.

You listen to some of those older songs like when someone like Tampa Red sings the song “Play With My Poodle” you know, things like that. Or even Dinah Washington (Long John Blues), talking about her dentist, how he’s real mean when he drills me [laughs]. Things like that.

Things like that you want to know about so you go and you find these books. I was listening to this radio station in Los Angeles, where I live, and I was hearing a book by this writer named Elijah Wald, this book that’s coming out.

 

It’s talking about the blues history and I haven’t picked it up yet but I heard him on the program talking, and he was talking about Robert Johnson and his music.

Everybody talks about Robert Johnson being a great blues player, and he was–but he wasn’t just a blues player. When they asked him to record the songs that he did, people wanted him to just play blues, because that’s what they were looking for. So Robert Johnson, who made a living as a musician, played everything.

He played everything that was on the radio, all of the current songs of the day and what not. These people wanted him to make a blues record. So there things like that that we are finding out more and more about that are highly interesting as well.

There’s another older gentleman who actually had the opportunity to play with Robert Johnson who is still touring now, and he said the same thing.

(He said) ‘we’re musicians, you know, we hoboed, we’d run into each other here and there, we’d set up on the street in Memphis or someplace like that, or Arkansas and we would play. We would play what the people wanted to hear.’ It’s pretty interesting.

VP: Was there any other profession that you ever considered other than music?

Robert: I was just talking about that yesterday. I did. I wanted to be an architect [laughs].

VP: Oh, really?

Robert: I got into mechanical drawing, and I thought it was so cool. We were talking about it yesterday. Talking about the cardboard, drafting table and all of the tools I had gotten at Sears and all that stuff.

But then I joined the band and that was it. The sound was just too cool.

VP: So it was all she wrote after that?

Robert: That was it (Bio).

VP: So was that when you started touring the Pacific Northwest during the early 70s?

Robert: No, no. The first band I was in was when I was in Virginia in junior high school. I was 13 or 14 or something like that.

VP: What was the name of the band?

Robert: It was called “The One Way Street.” We played everything that was on the radio. We played “Young Rascals” to “Purple Haze.” [Laughs].

VP: How many of you were in the band?

Robert: I think there was five in the band. Our bass player also played saxophone. One of the guitar players played bass. And then we had a singer.

VP: Now as far as your training, did you ever have any training or was it all pretty organic?

Robert: It was all pretty organic. I started off taking lessons and also played piano for a couple of years before I started playing guitar.

VP: How about your voice? I hear Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf but I also hear Sam Cooke and early R&B influence. Did the singing come naturally?

Robert: It was all a part of that stuff that I listened to growing up. I listened to Sam Cooke. I tell ya when we were kids and we lived in Germany, we spent 2 ½ years there. And so this was the early 1960s...we were pre-teen kids so we had to go to bed early before 8 o’clock.

My parents had this great big stereo with the 45 spindle and they would put a stack of 45's on when it was time for the kids to go to bed. So you would go to bed hearing that music just drilled into your head.

So when I got to be in my mid-to-late teens, and albums were still out you could go to something like K-Mart or whatever and Elmore James records and Sam Cooke records were something like a $1.99 back in those days and you bought tons of them.

All of those records that my parents would buy, I would buy all those Sam Cooke records and I still have them to this day. It’s hard to beat Sam Cooke. He’s beautiful, man.

VP: Yes, I have a few Sam Cooke records myself.

Robert: Plus my dad had all of that gospel stuff. There’s a lot of cool things in some of that gospel stuff. The Silvertones, the Sensational Nightingales, Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Alabama, the Dixie Hummingbirds. On and on and on. All kinds of beautiful stuff. I still love this stuff. Those were my lessons.

VP: Are there any new artists that you are listening to?

Robert: They might be new to some ears, but they’ve been around for a while. I really love this guy named Eric Bibb. He’s really really good. We’ve done some shows with Eric when he’s done solo.

He sometimes travels with the band, and sometimes it’s just him and his bass player. It’s really cool. He’s a really talented player and he’s been around for a while. He’s my favorite of all the guys out there now that deserve more attention.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

VP: By music industry standards you’ve been to the mountaintop. You have five Grammys, numerous platinum records, your name is internationally recognized. Do you ever ask yourself ‘where do I go from here?’

Robert: You gotta keep going. They’ll forget about you in a minute [laughs]. You know, there’s so much music. It’s a lucky thing for us that we’ve been able to accomplish what we have, which is building an audience in more than just America.

That’s the good thing for us. We’re a band that’s more reliant on touring than selling records. Especially for the type of music that we do and the types of radio formats that it gets played on, which are very few these days. The thing is to keep the name out there and keep this thing going.

VP: Do you get more love in Europe and internationally than the U.S.?

Robert: I am not going to say that, but I think that it started out that way. The recognition factor was more open over there than it was over here. I am sure a lot of people will tell you the same story.

It’s because of the radio and people’s acceptance of what’s American is more open over there than Americans are to their own music.

The blues, jazz musicians are always gone over the summer because the French, Germans and Brits—they love American music. It’s our Rock N’ Roll, it’s our blues, it’s our jazz and they’re huge fans of it.

VP: I know in the past some of the critics who were purists were kind of negative towards you because you pull from many different influences. Was it difficult for you to hear the negative?

Robert: No, it’s not difficult for me because I know a lot of these people [laughs]. And I know–it’s too bad because there’s a lot of great music out there. You suffer if you just hold back and play for just one particular audience.

And you actually cheat yourself, because you don’t know what’s in there behind it. And the purists cheat themselves because they are only looking in one certain direction. I don’t pay any mind to it. I gotta be me.

VP: It’s just like you said with Robert Johnson–how he considered himself a musician first and foremost.

Robert: Yeah. And see, the public’s perception of Robert Johnson is that he’s a blues singer. But you actually put on the recordings, how many of those songs are blues songs?

When you hear “(Hot Tamales and) They’re Red Hot,” that’s not a blues song. You can hear with the chords that he’s playing on that, that’s not a straight blues song.

And then he plays “Come On In My Kitchen” and makes the song slide sound like the wind howling. Yeah, that’s the real deal.

VP: Do you ever mess around with any alternative tunings or slides?

Robert: Yeah, but I don’t do it in public [laughs]. I stick to my forte.

VP: Any alternative tuning you find interesting?

Robert: Yeah, Spanish tuning. I just stay there man.

VP: What’s the creative process for your songwriting? How do you come up with a great song?

Robert: Well, you’re lucky if you come up with a great one, but I’ll tell you how I get started. I just let it come. I try to make time that I can devote to writing, during a break or something like that.

I try to keep my ears open and accept things when they come. And I hear things in the shower, like a lot of people do.

The shower, man, it makes good music. And then I’ll run out, grab my guitar, tape recorder, some paper and stuff and get to putting it down. And that happens like that.

And sometimes it’s just the music, a story will come and it happens like that. There’s a lot of different ways that it happens. You just have to be perceptive.

VP: Robert Cray, it’s been an honor talking to you, and we’ll see you on the 29th.

Robert: Thanks, Victor, take care man.

Robert Cray Official Site/Music


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