Robert Cray

No matter what the current trends, Robert Cray has unapologetically been playing his own brand of soulful blues, with or without the Memphis Horns, for many years now – since the early 80s in fact, so it is slightly surprising that he is only 61 as I write this.  Blues flows in Cray’s blood, he served his time and learned the trade; 21 albums and 5 Grammys on, Cray is recognised as one of the legends of the genre, such that he is/was friends with and often played with leading lights such as Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Albert Collins – he even recorded with the late great John Lee Hooker.  But association with other artists is not what Cray is about – he has won a cult and mainstream following on the strength of his talent and skill, as it should be.

Cray follows in the great tradition of artists like Bobby Bland in bridging the gap between the electric urban blues of BB KingMuddy Waters and Elmore James, and the uptempo soul of Ray Charles, Otis Redding and many more, yet is uniquely and distinctively his own man.

This feat he has achieved through a soulful voice and a lyrically fluent guitar style played on his own customised version of the Fender Stratocaster, matched with self-penned songs that tell of broken relationships, cheating partners, people at dramatic and desperate moments in their lives, often attempting to resolve a critical dilemma but often failing.  You wonder what happened next.  For example, read the lyrics of Phone Booth:

I’m in a phone booth, baby
Number scratched on the wall
I’m in a phone booth, baby
Number scratched on the wall
I’m new in Chicago
Got no one else to call

Been walkin’ all day
For old friends I can’t find
Hearts so cold
Had to buy me some wine
Calling you, baby
Took my very last dime

I’m in a phone booth, baby
Number scratched up on the wall
I’m in a phone booth, baby
Number scratched on the wall
I’m new in Chicago
Got no one else to call

Said, “Call big Rita
Anytime, day or night”
You know I’m broke and I’m cold, baby
And I hope you’ll treat me right
I’m in a phone booth, baby
With the cold wind right outside

Then try Smoking’ Gun:

I get a constant busy signal when I call you on the phone
I get a strong uneasy feeling you’re not sitting there alone
I’m having nasty nasty visions and baby you’re in every one, yeah
And I’m so afraid I’m gonna find you with a still hot and smokin gun

Maybe you want to end it, you’ve had your fill of my kind of fun
But you don’t know how to tell me and you know that I’m not that dumb
I put 2 and 1 together and you know that’s not an easy sum
And I know just where to find you with a still hot and smokin gun

I’m standing here bewildered, I can’t remember just what I’ve done
I can hear the sirens whining, my eyes blinded by the sun
I know that I should be running, my heart’s beating just like a drum
Now they’ve knocked me down and takin it, a still hot and smokin gun

Yeah still hot and smokin gun
Yes they’ve taken it
Still hot and smokin gun
Oh they’ve taken it
Still hot and smokin gun
Knocked me down, taken it

More than that, Cray’s performance is always engaging and charismatic, the sort that sends a shiver down your spine.  Seeing him perform in Manchester in the 90s was certainly a highlight (see great gigs), such that I can remember it vividly all these years later – the total hush that greeted a slow blues for example.  Then the ecstatic climax of encores, finishing with Our Last Time and then I Was Warned, memorable for the remarkable use of vibrato in the final guitar solo.

The man is clearly a hugely accomplished player, band leader, songwriter and singer, but he left me with a strong emotional connection with the songs, surely the mark of a great performer in any genre.  If you aren’t familiar with the man, or don’t generally enjoy blues at all, do take the time to sample Cray’s back catalogue – you may be surprised how entertaining it proves to be!

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