Interview with Robert Cray.
Soulful vocals, dexterous guitar playing and inspired songwriting make bluesman Robert Cray a triple threat.
The five-time Grammy winner, fresh off a world tour opening for Eric Clapton, has been playing guitar since 1965, but it was his 1986 album, “Strong Persuader,” containing the hit “Smoking Gun,” that launched him into stardom. His latest release, “Live From Across the Pond,” was recorded during his weeklong engagement with Clapton at London’s Royal Albert Hall last May.
Cray, 53, was at home in Los Angeles when he phoned this week for some easygoing chat about his beginnings in music and life on the road.
What’s it like playing outdoor shows in the hot summer?
Once you get past the sweat-breaking point, you’re OK. It’s just uncomfortable until then. You’ve got to drink plenty of water beforehand and try to keep yourself quenched pretty good while you’re up there. Once you’re sweating, you really don’t care anymore.
How long have you been with the guys in your band?
It’s been almost 18 years. Kevin (Hayes), our drummer, and Jim (Pugh), our keyboard player, came into the band in 1989. Then Karl (Severeid, the bassist) came into the band about ’91, I think.
Nice to have that continuity, I imagine.
It’s fantastic working with the same people over the long haul, and taking the songs you know so well and just trying to mess them up, you know (chuckles). And have fun with them.
Is it challenging to play this kind of charged-up music night after night after night?
No. The thing is to just put yourself in the moment and see where it takes you. That should be your rule for life anyway.
What’s it like being on the road? Lots of wear and tear?
It’s not bad. I get along with the road fairly well. I’ve been doing it for a bit. The main purpose in life on the road is trying to eat decently. That’s the main quest: Eat healthy. So you do your research and remember places you’ve gone to the last time. Sometimes it’s regional food. And you get out and get a good walk, sometimes go to the gym.
Did playing guitar and singing always go together for you?
Yes, they did. I started playing guitar first, but at the same time, I was singing like any other kid would do.
Can you remember the first blues song you ever heard?
We had a lot of music growing up at home, so I wouldn’t know what that was. We had Bobby Bland and John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, those records, I remember. Some of the first records I took from my mom and dad’s house were Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. We grew up with Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan and a lot of gospel music as well, Sam Cooke and all that.
Did you sneak some rock ’n’ roll records into the house, too?
I did. That’s what got me going. I started playing guitar in ’65, so I played everything that was on the radio, the Beatles and Motown and everything. And then Jimi Hendrix was in my life, too.
I cannot imagine what “Purple Haze” must’ve sounded like in 1967.
I was completely stunned. We had a mid-morning assembly at school -- I was living in Newport News, Va., at the time -- and this guy who was in the same grade as me, it was like seventh grade, played guitar and he was able to borrow his big brother’s amplifiers, which were Marshalls back in ’67. And he his band played this assembly, and the first thing they opened with was “Purple Haze.” It was so cool it was disturbing, and I just went nuts. Then I went home and joined one of those record clubs from TV Guide like Columbia House, and I ordered everything that had a weird cover. (Chuckles)
How did you progress to playing blues?
At first, I wanted to play everything that was on the radio. We all did. We were just open. Music was music and we didn’t separate by genre. But then when I was a senior in high school, I ran into a couple of my buddies who were getting into the blues. They were listening to Buddy Guy and Elmore James and B.B. King and I got completely hooked. There were all these cats with these great names. And then we started hearing about Robert Johnson and his so-called association with the devil. I started playing all these records and reading books and listening for the double-entendres in a lot of the songs. At 16 years old, it was really cool. It was pretty incredible. That’s when I started stealing my parents’ records.
Do you enjoy making records in the studio?
I enjoy it. But it’s a controlled situation and there’s nothing better than playing those songs live. With time, you get the opportunity to know the songs a lot more and experiment with them. When you’re in the studio, they’re all brand new and you’re just trying to get a good sound.
I know you just finished a long tour with Eric Clapton. I imagine you guys are pals.
He’s just a great guy. To me, Eric is shy, kind of an introvert, and he’s been around for a long time. Some of the first things I learned from my guitar teacher was stuff from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton. (Eric) just loves to play. He’s got a lot of respect from myself and tons of other people.
Do you and him ever sit around and play guitar?
We haven’t in awhile, but we have.
Show each other a lick or two?
That kind of thing never happens. You talk about what you did that day and how the family is.
You’ve met all of the living blues legends. Have any of them given you advice on career longevity?
Nobody really talks music. I watch somebody like B.B. King, and what I get from him is he’s having a really good time. He’d rather be doing nothing else than playing music and being on the road. It’s just something that’s totally natural to him -- get back on the bus, go to the next town. He’s the kind of guy who will play in Chicago one night, then do a show in Frankfurt (Germany) the next, if he can get there on time. I don’t think B.B. plans to retire. Plus he’s in his 80s. He just loves it. It was the same thing with John Lee Hooker. He just loved playing. (Laughs) John had a harem around him all the time.
Do you think your fingers will still work so well when you’re in your 80s?
I look at those guys and theirs do. You’ve got to keep them in shape, keep moving them around.