Born on August 1, 1953, in Columbus, Georgia; son of an Army quartermaster; married to Sue Turner-Cray.
Education: Graduated from high school in Tacoma, Washington.
Blues singer and guitarist. Formed the Robert Cray Band, 1974; released first album, Who's Been Talkin', on the Tomato label, 1980; released Bad Influence on the HighTone label, 1983; released False Accusations, 1985; released Showdown with Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland, 1985; signed with Mercury Records, 1986; released Strong Persuader, 1986, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, 1988, Midnight Stroll, 1990, I Was Warned, 1992, Shame + A Sin, 1993, Some Rainy Morning, 1995, and Sweet Potato Pie, 1997 with Mercury; signed with Rykodisc, 1998; released Take Your Shoes Off, 1999 and Shoulda Been Home, 2001.
Robert Cray is one of the few blues artists who managed to cultivate a mainstream following in the 1980s and 1990s. In the course of a long-running career that began in the 1970s, he uniquely blended elements of rhythm and blues, pop, and traditional blues to win fans to a more contemporary blues sound. Dan Forte of Guitar Player magazine acknowledged the rarity of a popular blues artist by noting, "Robert Cray is not only making great music, he's making history. With a few exceptions...it used to be that there was the blues and there were the masses, and never the twain shall meet. But Cray, who obviously is respected in blues circles, is a press darling and crossover smash." While achieving critical acclaim, Cray was not without his critics, mostly blues purists unhappy with the "tainting" of the traditional blues sound with other genres. However, Cray made no apologies for his music, and he's been rewarded with four Grammy Awards for his innovative style.
Born on August 1, 1953, Cray did not have the typical upbringing of a blues musician. Cray's middle-class childhood as an "Army brat" stood in stark contrast to the impoverished Southern beginnings and Northern ghetto lifestyles of many blues greats. Like many children of military personnel, Cray spent his formative years moving from one location to another, starting in Columbus, Georgia, where he was born. The constant uprooting made Cray a shy, introverted child; when he convinced his mother to buy him a guitar, he found solace in music as one of the few permanent things in his life. Cray had a number of musical influences, gleaned from his father's voluminous record collection which included gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz, and traditional blues. He also picked up on the Beatles craze in the 1960s. He practiced diligently and joined a band while in high school in Newport News, Virginia. The family eventually settled in Tacoma, Washington.
Discovered the Blues
Cray had some training as a classical pianist as a child, but his first serious musical expression was an eclectic mix of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. "We played rock and roll and R&B," he recalled in an interview with Down Beat. "We used to do a half-psychedelic, half-soul set: we'd do an Otis Redding number, and then we'd do a Jimi Hendrix number, back to back." However, he discovered the music of blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf while searching for inspiration in his father's record collection, and from that point on, he was hooked on the blues. Cray spoke of this turning point in a Musician magazine interview with J. O. Considine: "Then and there is when I became a fanatic. Nobody could tell me that anything was better than blues." Cray tried to communicate this passion to his classmates, even going so far as to convince them to book blues musician Albert Collins for their graduation party. Cray's association with Collins later proved instrumental to his career. In 1969, Cray found a kindred spirit in Richard Cousins, a local musician. The two of them embarked on a study of the blues while playing together in Tacoma bars. Their findings influenced the development of their own music, and they traveled to Eugene, Oregon, in the hopes of finding success in the progressive college town. The Robert Cray Band hit the bar circuit with Tom Murphy on drums, and Cray as frontman on vocals and guitars. Cray was still very much an introvert at this time, and his stage-fright caused his teeth to chatter so badly that Cousins had to introduce each song to their audiences.
Cray's connection to Albert Collins from his high school days yielded a big payoff when Collins recruited the Robert Cray Band to play with him on his Pacific Northwest tour. In addition to the exposure to much bigger audiences, Cray and his band members gleaned invaluable information from the veteran musician about the financial side of a career in the music business. Cray credited Collins with teaching them how to collect money and deal with the bar owners. During this time, Cray also met actor John Belushi, who was then in the midst of filming Animal House. Belushi gave the young musician a small role in the movie. Cray may have given Belushi some inspiration in return, since the Saturday Night Live actor formed his "Blues Brothers" act shortly thereafter.
Departed from Traditional Blues
In 1978, the band finally attracted the attention of a record label when a promoter for Tomato Records noticed them at the San Francisco Blues Festival. The promoter, Bruce Bromberg, hoped to produce their first album on his own label, but mounting financial problems forced the project to finish on the Tomato label. Unfortunately, Tomato was in equally dire financial straits; it took two years for the finished album, Who's Been Talkin', to hit the stores in 1980, and when Tomato Records shut down shortly after, the recording disappeared with it.
The band returned to the festival circuit for a time, but then reunited with Bromberg to produce their second album, Bad Influence, on Bromberg's HighTone label. Released in 1983, the album brought the band increased attention and tour dates in England and Japan, including a few with music legend Eric Clapton. Cray's use of "evocative melodies and well-drawn characterizations" led one Rolling Stone reviewer to consider the album "the first major effort at revitalizing and advancing the blues song form in many, many years." Larry Birnbaum of Down Beat praised Cray's singing and guitar work: "Cray possesses a rich, supple voice--reminiscent of Bobby Bland and Little Milton--and a pungent, tastefully restrained guitar technique...that combines such influences as Albert Collins, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, Freddy King, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam into a fully personal synthesis." Pete Welding, also of Down Beat, took his praise one step further: "One would be hard-pressed to come up with an album that more perfectly illustrates the contemporary blues at its best, strongest, and most fulfilling." The Blues Foundation recognized the quality of the album by lauding it with four of its prestigious W.C. Handy Awards.
The follow-up album, False Accusations, appeared in 1985 with a slightly different lineup. Peter Boe on keyboards and David Olson on drums joined original members Cray and Cousins. Cray broke new ground in blues music by eschewing covers of blues classics to only include original material on the album. Record buyers apparently liked the departure from the classics, buying enough albums to put it in the top 200 albums of 1985. That same year Cray made an album with guitarists Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland called Showdown, which garnered him his first Grammy Award. The critical acclaim and record sales attracted the attention of executives at the Mercury record label, who signed the band to its first major record deal.
Landed First Major Record Deal
The success bolstered Cray's creativity with his 1986 album Strong Persuader, as he blended rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock and roll with the blues sound. Reviewer Dan Forte of Guitar Player magazine wrote of the album, "On the one hand, [it] doesn't contain a single stock blues tune, but on the other, it's all blues--the blues of the '80s. The singer/guitarist is true to the genre's spirit without resorting to its standard form." The album's use of several genres also made Cray's music more accessible to a broader audience; Strong Persuader went platinum and earned Cray another Grammy. The 1988 album Don't Be Afraid of the Dark continued his success streak by going gold and also garnering a Grammy award.
Although the record sales indicated a strong fan base for Cray's music, Cray expressed disappointment that his albums failed to reach a large black audience. "We're not getting much air play on urban radio stations," he commented in EM. "I can understand why, it's not too modern of a sound. But still I'm a little disappointed." In Cray's opinion, the blues do not appeal to black youths because it is the music of their parents' generation; and it lacks popularity with the older black generation because it is a reminder of harder times.
Cray also defended himself against accusations by blues traditionalists who believed he was glossing the blues into pop for mass consumption. "All the blues greats took chances and developed their own style," he said in an interview with People magazine. "They didn't copy. They dared to be different, which is what we want to do." Cray pointed out that, even if his music brought a newness to the genre, his lyrics were fundamentally blues stories--tales of cheating lovers and lost love.
Perhaps in the hopes of attracting more African Americans to his music, Cray gave his 1990 album, Midnight Stroll, a more funky sound with the addition of the famed horn duo of Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love--known as the Memphis Horns--and several new musicians. Critics and fans embraced his new sound. Bill Milkowski of Down Beat wrote of the album, "Robert Cray is capable of rising above polite radioplay fare and delivering an honest-to-goodness soul-stirring performance.... [He] digs deep on Midnight Stroll and comes up with the genuine goods."
Became a Record Producer
Cray released I Was Warned in 1992 and then caused a stir in the blues community by creating the traditional blues album Shame + A Sin in 1993. Blues purists hailed his turn away from the contemporary blues that made his career to more traditional stylings as a positive move. The album was also Cray's first as a producer, and he used the creative freedom to get what he termed "a funkier barroom blues sound." To achieve this effect, Cray purposefully detuned some of the piano strings and removed the bass drum head from the drum set. He also invited his old friend Albert Collins to join him on one of the tracks as his first-ever guitar guest.
Cray's 1995 album Some Rainy Morning was also self-produced with Mercury's backing. As with Shame + A Sin, the newest album offered a grittier, more pared-down sound. He dispensed with the horn section in order to allow for greater spontaneity in recording, and some of the tracks were cut live. Cray linked his influence as a producer to the album's more pronounced blues and R&B sound; with full creative control, he was able to expand the sound of the two genres he most enjoyed playing. The 1997 album Sweet Potato Pie was his last record for the Mercury label.
Cray decided to end his 13-year association with Mercury in the late 1990s in order to further expand his creative boundaries with independent label Rykodisc. The result was the album Take Your Shoes Off, released in 1999. Cray left the producing to Steve Jordan, who opted to showcase the smooth vocal stylings of the blues musician, rather than his guitar work. Jordan told Billboard magazine, "Everybody thinks of him as this guitar player that can really sing, but he's a really great singer too. And that's what I tried to show people." The product was much more soulful than previous albums and did not include many of Cray's trademark guitar solos. A People Weekly reviewer called the album, "A head-first dive into the familiar waters of '60s and '70s soul music, with its gospel-flavored vocals and funky rhythms in the tradition of Otis Redding and Al Green." Traditionally based in the Bay area, Robert Cray and his band recorded the album at a studio in Nashville. Reviewers noted the Memphis sound of the album, which saw the return of the Memphis Horns. The album won a Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album. It also marked the 25th anniversary of the Robert Cray Band.
Jordan was at the helm again for Cray's 2001 album Shoulda Been Home. Cray's soulful voice grabbed the spotlight; the fact that his guitar work was not the focal point gave the other band members greater freedom to experiment with their own instruments. That same year, Mercury re-released Cray's debut album Who's Been Talkin'; as part of its Blues Classics: Remastered & Revisited.
Cray's impressive career in music has included many highlights. He has worked with such music legends as B.B. King, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Willie Dixon. Almost all of his albums have either been nominated for or won a Grammy Award. His songs also have appeared in the movies When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996), and Mother (1997). Never content with playing the blues the same way twice, Cray's daring innovations have placed him at the top of the blues business.
Multiple W.C. Handy Awards from the Blues Foundation; won Grammy Awards for Showdown, 1985, Strong Persuader, 1986, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, 198), and Take Your Shoes Off, 1999.
* Who's Been Talkin', Tomato, 1980.
* Bad Influence, HighTone, 1983.
* False Accusations, HighTone, 1985.
* Showdown, Alligator, 1985.
* Strong Persuader, HighTone/Mercury, 1986.
* Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, HighTone/Mercury, 1988.
* Midnight Stroll, PolyGram, 1990.
* I Was Warned, Mercury, 1992.
* Shame + A Sin, Mercury, 1993.
* Some Rainy Morning, Mercury, 1995.
* Sweet Potato Pie, Mercury, 1997.
* Take Your Shoes Off, Rykodisc, 1999.
* Shoulda Been Home, Rykodisc, 2001.