Talking to Robert Cray about his New, Old Soul Album
Veteran blues guitarist and singer Robert Cray has set off on a new U.S. and European tour with an album harking back to the early days of soul music, the kind that filled his ears as a youngster.
“In My Soul” – a title that sums up what is to come – is imbued with mellifluous rhythm and blues redolent of the kind of tunes that came from the Chess and Stax record labels in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s.
“I grew up listening to this kind of music at home. It’s in my blood,” Cray, who is 60, told me before setting off on a tour encompassing the U.S. East Coast, South and Southwest then Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
It is old-style bluesy crooning with an edge, epitomised on the new album by the song “Hold On” in which a stressed-out man travels home to the woman he loves, the only part of his life that keeps him sane when the world closes in. The song, Cray notes in publicity material, was deliberately produced as a “70s Philly kind of thing” – basically richly produced soul of the kind that came from Philadelphia.
Other songs on “In My Soul” include covers of 1960s Stax/Volt artist Otis Redding and Chess’s Bobby “Blue” Bland. The instrumental “Hip Type Onions” is a tribute to Stax’s Booker T. & the MGs.
Cray says producing such an album was not deliberate, it just happened. “This is a departure, (but) the way we record comes together by osmosis,” he said.
It also does not mean that the current tour will be taken over by the “In My Soul” sound. “Having the record just expands our book,” Cray said. Some of the songs will be added to the tour’s set but that the band will not just play from the album.
Whatever it plays, there will be guitar.
Cray, a five-time Grammy-winner and Blues Hall of Fame inductee, is even better known for his playing than his singing, having worked with the likes of Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and John Lee Hooker.
This latest soul offering is peppered with what Rolling Stone magazine has called “razor sharp” guitar work, sometimes stalking the background, other times dominating out front – all the time at the crossroads of blues and soul.
It is perhaps a little ironic, given this, that one of Cray’s unexpected claims to fame was on bass, rather than lead, with the fictional Otis Day & The Knights in the cult film “Animal House”.
But his six-string work is what matters, and what persuaded guitar maker Fender back in 1989 to create a customized Robert Cray Stratocaster for him and for general sale.
It took around a year and a half to get the pick up just right on the Strat, Cray said, adding that he does not know how many have been sold but that he keeps being asked to sign them at shows.
(This is an edited version of a story I wrote for my main employer, Reuters)