I first encountered Robert Cray in the mid 1980’s when a friend bought tickets to see him play at Newcastle City Hall and insisted that I go too. I’d never heard of him at the time, but went along out of curiosity. To say I was blown away by the quality of his guitar playing would be a massive understatement.
In the ensuing years, he’s re-visited the North East countless times, won five Grammy’s and his latest album, Nothing But Love is his 20th. The Robert Cray Band will be at the Sage Gateshead on March 11th and the Blues Legend kindly agreed to chat to me about his life, career and the new album.
“I was born in Columbus but because my Dad was in the Military we moved around a whole lot as I grew up - Washington when I was 5 years old, California for a while and Germany, eventually moving back to Georgia when I was a young teenager. My parents were both music lovers and there was always a lot of music (Jazz, Gospel, Rhythm and Blues) in our house; sometimes on records but mostly the radio. I was just entering my teens when we finally settled in Washington State, and that was when I first heard the Beatles. By the end of that year I’d formed my first band with some buddies, playing Hendrix, Sam & Dave, the Young Rascals covers at parties and High School dances.
In 1968 when I was about 16 a buddy of mine began playing Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy records and it changed everything for me; and the rest of my friends. At the end of that year my classmates voted for the Blues guitarist Albert King to play at our Graduation Prom and I actually got to meet him and shake his hand. I already had an electric guitar and spent all of my spare time poring over guitar catalogues; so after meeting Albert I begged my parents for a Gibson SG Standard like his; and they eventually gave in – I can’t begin to tell you how I felt the first time I handled that thing. I didn’t meet Albert again until 1977 when we opened for him at the San Francisco Blues Festival. He liked our set so much he invited us to tour with him for the next 18 months or so and he became a close friend, right up until he died in 1993. It was at the same Festival that I first met Bruce Bromberg who then worked for Tomato Records and produced our first album WHO’S BEEN TALKIN’; but the label had financial problems and it didn’t get released until 1980.
I’d started writing songs in 1974 with Richard Cousins, who I’d first met in 1969; goofy things, that thankfully have all disappeared but eventually my songwriting evolved when I realised the creation of a successful song comes from the ensemble parts; which lays the foundation for my solos; and we still used that very same formula when recording NOTHING BUT LOVE, which is our 16th album.
Bruce and Dennis Walker have been great friends and mentors over the years; taking a lot of the day to day problems away from me so I can concentrate on the music; which has been an enormous help.
The subject matter for the songs has evolved over the years and become more refined and in tune with what’s going on in the World today. Obviously we still write love songs; but sometimes as a songwriter you feel you have to comment on the politics that goes on around you.
Side Dish came about one evening when I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen and the first snippets came to me; so I jotted a few ideas down and over the next few days the song evolved into a fun little thing with a few double entendres in to spice it up. Ideas for new songs can come at the strangest of times!
Won’t be Coming Home is very personal to Hendrix Ackle and he and Richard Cousins have created a lot of really striking images on that song; and it was our Producer Kevin Shirley who suggested Bobby Parker Jr’s Blues Get Off My Shoulder. Everyone in the band grew up knowing that song and, for a while, we were actually afraid of recording it because it was already so perfect, anyway. Kevin persisted and, when I hear it now or play it, I realise what a great choice it was!
For Sadder Days I had to put myself in a position to remember back to my younger days and how you feel when a relationship comes to an end. I already had the words written when the melody came to me while I was listening to a Beatles album, but I don’t think you can really tell which one.
All of the other tracks have similar stories and influences, with no style of music out of bounds at home or on the tour bus. When we’re touring Richard and I still love discovering old record stores where we pore over the racks looking for albums and CD’s to add to our collections. Even when we are in Europe, we buy so much stuff we have to ship it back separately because it weighs so much.
I still love touring and, even after all these years, nothing beats playing on stage - seeing and hearing the reaction of an audience to your songs, especially the new ones. When we come to Europe, we will obviously include new songs like Sadder Days and Won’t be Coming Home to the set. But, we wouldn’t get out alive if we didn’t play our older tunes like Smoking Gun and Right Next Door. My favourite part of every concert is when the audience calls out for their favourite songs. In Europe, it always tends to be the most obscure things we’ve ever recorded! I’ll hear a title we haven’t played in years, and look across to Richard (Cousins) and he’ll nod and away we go.
# a recorded version of this interview is available as part of my weekly radio show The Jumping Hot Club http://www.mixcloud.com/JumpingHotClubRadio/jhc-radio-show-episode-...