The five-time Grammy winner, considered one of America’s premier blues players, reflects on his illustrious career.
Guitarist-singer-songwriter Robert Cray
Tavis: No artist is an overnight success, of course, although it can sometimes seem that way, as it did when Robert Cray broke through to the Billboard charts getting national recognition for his fifth album released, “Strong Persuader,” back in 1986.
He now has five Grammys to his name and has just released his latest CD titled “In My Soul” to coincide with the 40th anniversary of his forming his own band. Let’s take a look at Robert and his band performing a song he wrote called “What Would You Say?”
Tavis: Over the years, the songwriting process has become more fun for you or more tedious?
Robert Cray: It’s actually fun.
Cray: Yeah, it is. Because it’s something that I enjoy doing. It’s something that I don’t do all the time, so I keep it fun.
Tavis: When, where, how does the inspiration come for you?
Cray: It can come — well, normally it’s right before going to the studio ’cause I work at the last minute. But the inspiration can come from anywhere, you know. I keep myself open to ideas, you know, during that time.
So I could be like chopping vegetables. I could be in the shower and I can hear music or I could just take a walk around and just let myself be, you know, receptive to ideas as they come along.
Tavis: You’re working at the last minute, as you put it. That’s a creative choice? Was that your way of saying to me you’re a procrastinator?
Cray: I’m a procrastinator [laugh]. But at the same time, though, you know, we do a lot of touring and I find that it’s a little bit more difficult for me to concentrate on what has to happen out on the road and then try to be creative at the same time as far as songwriting is concerned. So I take my time during the off-time.
Tavis: At this stage of the game, that is to say, at this stage in your career, you are prolific when it comes to being on the road all the time. Why tour so much even still?
Cray: ‘Cause that’s when I have the most fun. You know, we make the records and then we go out on the road and we see what we can do with these songs that everybody has an idea as how they’re supposed to go on the record. We try to do something different with them on a nightly basis.
Tavis: Tell me about this new project, the one, “In My Soul.”
Cray: “In My Soul” is — basically, it’s titled because of a Bobby “Blue” Bland song that we picked called “Deep In My Soul.” And we thought the title “In My Soul” would best overall describe the feel of the album, which is more soulful than anything we’ve done for quite a while. And it was great.
We worked with the producer Steve Jordan once again, our third time working with Steve who’s like a big soul music fan. And the rest of the guys in the band are also songwriters and myself as well. We all kind of just by osmosis kind of fell into the same bag at the same time.
Tavis: You been doing this for 40 years now. Every artist, if they’re honest — and I know you will be. There’s nothing wrong with it. Every artist start copying somebody until they develop their own signature sound and their own signature style. Who as a kid were you copying until you became Robert Cray? Who you borrowing from [laugh]?
Cray: I borrowed from everybody.
Tavis: Like? Every like?
Cray: Albert Collins?
Cray: Albert Collins ’cause I got a lot of the bright guitar sound from Albert Collins. I love the minor keys that were done by people like Otis Rush and I love Bobby “Blue” Bland’s, you know, voice and the arrangements that were done by Joe Scott back in the days on the Back — not Backbeat, but Duke Records. And B.B. King, of course, you know. I copied everybody and just let it happen.
Tavis: This project, “In My Soul,” is really a tribute to some of those old labels, I mean, as I hear it. I mean, Stax and some of those.
Cray: Yeah. Stax, Backbeat, Chess, you know, Duke once again. High Records, you know.
Tavis: They put some good stuff out.
Cray: They did. Most of it was [laugh] — everything was good [laugh].
Cray: No. Everything was good. I was going to say most music, you know, by those labels.
Tavis: I want to read this to you. I wrote down a quote that I discovered that is attributable to you. I hope it is ’cause I’m about to say it’s yours [laugh]. I’m pretty sure it’s yours.
But it was really fascinating for me, since we’re talking about your early career, who you were borrowing from until you developed your own signature style. This is a quote from Robert Cray for all you budding young artists who want advice from Robert Cray.
“Never pass up the opportunity to play in ensembles. Play together with other people and see how you fit in, how you can make music together as a whole a project that is about the music.”
That struck me as interesting because you played with so many people over the years and, of course, have had your own bad for all these years. But we live in a world now where it’s all about the individual.
Tavis: And I don’t know that people are giving advice to young people like that, to play in as many ensemble situations as you can.
Cray: I think that, you know, when I said that, I mean for people to — the only way you can make music is to work together. It’s not, you know, we have the Robert Cray Band, but it’s a band, you know, and everybody participates.
Everybody can contribute as far as the songwriting is concerned for this band. It brings a bunch of variation to the songs that we’re capable of doing. You find your place in the band. I like to use, for example, one of my favorite ensembles is Booker T. and the M.G.s. You know, just even…
Tavis: Speaking of Stax.
Cray: Yeah. Just an ensemble, you know, four pieces. Baddest cats that walked the planet, as far as a band, and they can back anybody and they did, you know. And I think that’s the best way to put yourself. I like being a part of the band. I like standing back there listening to the bass and drums and see where I fit in, you know. So that’s how the music works for me.
Tavis: Since you were here last, Booker T. has been here and we had a great conversation and he came and he brought his Hammond B3 and he worked it out one night [laugh]. We had a wonderful time with him when he came through.
When you look out in the audience over 40 years of doing this at a Robert Cray Band performance, who do you see? What do you see? Is it the same? Has it shifted over the years? Who comes to Robert Cray concerts these days?
Cray: It’s shifted. It’s shifted a lot and we have a lot of long-time fans who are now bringing their sons and daughters or they come on their own and they say, well, my dad turned me on to your music when I was, you know. Or the parents are saying, you know, well, we brought him into the world listening to your music, and things like that.
And to me, it’s like this big circle going around and around because I can remember, you know, being a youngster and watching Buddy Guy and Junior Wells pull up in the van to the back of the venue they were going to play and just being the biggest fan in the world, you know. So it goes around.
Tavis: How do you process? How does it feel when you — and I know there are other artists who have the same experience. I was at a James Taylor concert the other night and I’m always amazed — again, I see this at a lot of concerts I go to, but J.T. comes to mind immediately.
I’m always amazed at the parents who, again, bring their kids to the concerts ’cause they want their kids to be exposed and turned on to…
Cray: The music they enjoyed.
Tavis: Yeah, to stuff they enjoyed, and good stuff, stuff that still holds up. So you got all these kids running around at a James Taylor concert ’cause their parents are bringing them. How does that feel for an artist, though, to look out and to see young people or to meet young people whose parents have brought them to see you?
Cray: It feels great, you know. It puts a smile on my face and a lot of times we get the opportunity to meet both parents and the young kids, you know. So for me, when I get the opportunity to meet the young ones, I extend my hand so they don’t — you know, a little bit nervous and stuff, you know, and the parents are like, you know, proud and everything. This is the music I listen to. You know, it’s great.
I mean, if the kids enjoy what you’re doing. Because I know at the same time, though, too there was a period where when I was listening to my parents’ music and then I went off and did something else. But if the kids are coming to your show, it’s a good thing.
Tavis: What do you think it is about your sound that’s resonated with your fans all these years that keeps you on the road, that keeps people coming out to see you? What are they connecting to in your music? What do you hope they’re connecting to?
Cray: Well, I hope that they’re connecting to the stories, you know, ’cause I think that’s the most important part of what we do and why we do it.
Because I’m a big fan of the blues and rhythm and blues and those are the songs that tell the stories of peoples’ lives, you know, whether it’s about love or whether it’s about how people are living, how they’re coping with like the mortgage crisis or the wars going on and that kind of thing. At least, that’s what I hear from people.
Tavis: How do you think the blues are being treated and regarded these days by a new crop of artists? And I ask that because I could throw some names out and you could throw some names out of people who I think are continuing the tradition, but it’s not lost on me that these guys that we love are getting up in age.
B.B. King is 88 or 89 now. I go see Buddy Guy every January when he plays in his own club in Chicago. Buddy’s still doing it, but these guys are getting up in age now and I’m wondering what happens to the tradition in the months and the years to come?
Cray: Well, the tradition is going to change. It always has been change, you know. You know, we changed it too. We brought in the influences that affected me when I was coming up.
I mean, I listened to Jimi Hendrix and I listened to The Beatles as well as the other names I mentioned earlier. And there’s people coming in now who listen to — they have their heart in the root, you know, but also are listening to current music as well and they bring it into the fold.
And that’s what I think is needed to keep the music going. It’s going to change. I mean, change is — you know, there’ll never be another Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters. I mean, that’s just what it’s all about.
Tavis: And there’ll never be another Robert Cray [laugh], thankfully, for us. He’s still here and got a lot more concerts in front of him and a lot more good records to come. He’s got one out now. It’s the new one from the Robert Cray Band. It’s called “In My Soul.”
As you heard him say earlier, probably the most soulful thing they’ve done in a while. So if you love Robert Cray and you love soul, which are really inseparable anyway, you’re going to love to add this one to your collection. Robert, always good to have you on this program.
Cray: Thank you.
Tavis: It’s good to see you, man.
Cray: Thanks for having us.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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