Born: August 1, 1953 in Columbus, Georgia
Robert Cray was an esteemed blues guitarist long before a mid-1980s breakthrough that saw his soulful guitar style splashed across television screens playing MTV. Cray made his bones performing behind the mercurial blues guitar legend Albert Collins as part of his touring band, and came of age as a bluesman through the experience of constant touring throughout the Pacific Northwest and the California coast.
Although many blues purists resented his seemingly "overnight success" when Cray's 1986 album Strong Persuader went Platinum, the truth is that Cray helped to popularize the blues at a time that the genre was floundering. Cray's unique blending of blues, rock, and soul music opened the door for many artists to pursue a similar soul-blues sound, and the guitarist's popularity with less-fanatical music lovers has helped blues music make its way into the 21st century. With the benefit of historical hindsight, Cray's body of work will one day be seen in the same light as legends like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy.
High School Rock 'n' Roller
Although he was born in Columbus Georgia, Cray was an "Army Brat" whose family moved around during his childhood. Cray began playing the guitar in his early teens, and he performed with several rock bands like Foghorn Leghorn and Steakface in the Tacoma, Washington area during the early-1970s. Even at an early age, Cray could hold an audience in the palm of his hand, and his addition of songs from artists like Jimi Hendrix, Spirit, Fleetwood Mac, and Quicksilver Messenger Service provided plenty of opportunities for the young guitarist to hone his chops.
Cray was attending high school when he got interested in playing the blues, spurred on, perhaps, by the performance of Albert Collins at his high school graduation. Along with his friend and band member, bassist Richard Cousins, Cray got a gig backing up Collins as part of his touring band during the late-1970s. Around this time, Cray appeared in an uncredited role in the hit movie National Lampoon's Animal House as the bass player in the Otis Day and the Knights band.
The Robert Cray Band
The guitarist formed the Robert Cray Band during the late-1970s with Cousins, keyboardist Pete Boe, and drummer David Olson. Constant touring throughout the Pacific Northwest and down the California coast made the band a tight outfit, and they went into the studio in 1978 to record their debut album, Who's Been Talkin'. Harp player and friend of the band Curtis Salgado lent his skills to the album, which would be released in 1980 by the independent Tomato Records label.
More touring would follow before Cray and his crew would be signed by roots-rock and blues label Hightone Records. Cray recorded the critically-acclaimed albums Bad Influence (1983) and False Accusations (1985) for the label before hooking up with his former mentor Collins and fellow Texas guitar legend Johnny Copeland for the Grammy Award winning album Showdown! Cray's performance alongside the two seasoned blues veterans was his "coming out party," and led to a major label deal with Mercury Records for the guitarist.
Cray's Strong Persuader
Working with producer Dennis Walker, who had helmed both of his Hightone releases, Cray's 1986 album Strong Persuader would prove to be the guitarist's commercial breakthrough. An inspired mix of blues, soul, and rock music, the album yielded the smash hit "Smoking Gun," and would peak at #13 on the Billboard magazine's Top 200 chart on its way to selling a million copies. It would also earn Cray an unprecedented six Blues Music Awards. He would follow up two years later with the Platinum-selling Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark album, which would earn Cray his third Grammy Award.
Along with the commercial emergence of Texas blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cray's success and constant touring helped to kickstart the blues revival of the 1980s. Cray would engage in better than half a dozen European tours during the decade, creating a strong fan base in the U.K. He would tour as the opening act for Eric Clapton, and record with blues legend John Lee Hooker. Meanwhile, album releases such as 1990's Midnight Stroll, 1992's I Was Warned, and 1995's Some Rainy Morning would remain strong, even if they failed to match the expectations created by his first two major label albums.
Cray had always incorporated heaping measures of soul into his blues and blues-rock sound, and in 1997 he traveled to Memphis to record his major label swansong, Sweet Potato Pie. Although his days as a pop star were behind him, his music would still be embraced by the blues community, and subsequent albums like 1999's Take Your Shoes Off and 2001's Shoulda Been Home would garner the guitarist another Grammy and widespread critical acclaim. His friendship with Eric Clapton would lead to a performance at Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival and a world tour during 2006 and 2007.
Cray continues to record and tour the globe on a consistent basis, releasing albums like 2003's Time Will Tell and 2005's Twenty that showcase the soul-blues style that he helped pioneer. In 2009, Cray released the acclaimed This Time album, accompanied by his old friend Richard Cousins, with whom he has performed for the better part of 40 years. Nothin But Love followed in 2012, with the retro-styled In My Soul album in 2014.
Recommended Albums: Cray's Strong Persuader is the guitarist's best-known album, but blues fans would also enjoy his equally-impressive previous album, Bad Influence. Of Cray's more recent work, This Time represents one of his best latter-day efforts. The guitarist's In My Soul is a fine collection of soul-blues music with plenty of Cray's bluesy fretwork and underrated vocals.
Robert Cray - Select Blues Discography
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- Who's Been Talkin' (Tomato Records, 1980)
- Bad Influence (Hightone Records, 1983)
- False Accusations (Hightone Records, 1985)
- Showdown! w/Albert Collins & Johnny Copeland (Alligator Records, 1985)
- Strong Persuader (Mercury Records, 1986)
- Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark (Mercury Records, 1988)
- Midnight Stroll (Mercury Records, 1990)
- I Was Warned (Mercury Records, 1992)
- Shame + A Sin (Mercury Records, 1993)
- Some Rainy Morning (Mercury Records, 1995)
- Sweet Potato Pie (Mercury Records, 1997)
- Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc, 1999)
- Shoulda Been Home (Rykodisc, 2001)
- Time Will Tell (Sanctuary Records, 2003)
- Twenty (Sanctuary Records, 2005)
- Live From Across The Pond (Nozzle Records, 2006)
- This Time (Nozzle Records, 2009)
- Nothin But Love (Provogue Records, 2012)
- In My Soul (Provogue Records, 2014)