Robert Cray

Taking the music higher

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By Ted Drozdowski  

Bluesman Robert Cray's been taking his music "Higher" for years. Not in a spiritual sense. He's a master of songs about earthy subjects like hard luck and infidelity. Especially infidelity. Since his 1986 breakthrough hits 'Smoking Gun' and 'Right Next Door (Because Of Me),' Cray's gotten more mileage from cheating than Monica Lewinsky.

But Cray's aim has become more soul-full. The "Hi" he's been aiming for is Hi Records - the great '60s and '70s Memphis label that minted Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and other hits while updating the sound of that great musical city's soul cornerstone, Stax Records. The Hi label, under the guidance of producer Willie Mitchell, spiked Stax's Memphis soul stew with fluid dance beats, more intensely driving horns and, in the case of Green, a vocal style overtly born of the gospel church. And that recipe has had Cray audibly enthralled since his 1990 Midnight Stroll, which teamed him with Hi studios veterans the Memphis Horns for the first time.

Nine years and four evolutionary albums later, Cray mastered the Hi sound on his Take Your Shoes Off album. The guitar playing that was the instrumental signature of his earliest albums and hits slid to the back burner in favor of Cray's sizzling emulation of vintage Memphis soul music. His voice, always strong, at last took on the growl-to-falsetto command of a young Al Green - and the sanctified drama of the great O.V. Wright - on titles like the lonely moan "What About Me," the painfully resigned "Love Gone To Waste" and the prisoner-of-love howl, "Pardon."

But the magic's really in his arrangements. With their heavy kick drums, fatback horn grooves and juicy Hammond B-3 organ flourishes, they retain the down-home aura of skillet grease and grit that Hi Records eventually lost tilling the financially fertile fields of disco in the mid-'70s.

"I guess you'd call me a bit old-fashioned," Cray says of his musical tastes. "I prefer the classic sounds. I love old soul records and I still hear a lot of blues. Always Howlin' Wolf, and my reggae and my Thelonious Monk records."

Indeed, Cray's predilection for classics lead him to songs like Take Your Shoes Off's "24-7 Man," which has the testifying punch of an old Little Johnny Taylor hit. He's even dipped directly into the Hi Records gene pool to enlist Willie Mitchell. Mitchell penned "Love Gone To Waste" and wrote the tune's sweeping horn lines. Nonetheless, the core of the blues tradition still burns in Cray's music. Not as much as when he cut his debut Who's Been Talkin' for Tomato Records in 1980. That album and his next two LPs for the then-fledgling Hightone label found Cray singing and playing under the spell of his influences Albert Collins and Albert King. Texas string-snapper Collins was an early champion of Cray. He even enlisted the young Washington-state-raised bluesman's band as his back-up unit for gigs in the '70s. And King's sway over Cray's guitar playing is obvious, especially when Cray covers one of the late Stax veteran's songs.

One of Cray's finest takes on King is "You're Gonna Need Me" from 1993's excellent Shame + A Sin. It ties the influence of both guitarists into one bundle. Cray laces the song with quavering guitar lines and accents that resonate of King's delirious way with wild string-bending and vibrato. Then Cray slices into a solo with a mile-wide six-string scream that's pure Collins. "For me," Cray explains, "those guys are unavoidable. They've been my favorites forever."

You can also hear some of Collins' insistent way of pig-piling needle-sharp notes on Take Your Shoes Off's "Tollin' Bells." That's an obscure number by the prolific tunesmith Willie Dixon, whose work as a creative force behind Chess Records in the '50s and '60 helped define Chicago blues. But Cray's arrangement walks away from tradition. A basic shuffle is offset by jarring piano chords that set up a counter-rhythm. And Cray's singing, full of rich pauses and slow-poured vowels, seems to stop time altogether. Yet his guitar glistens through, weaving spider web melodies with deft command. The performance proves that while Cray's playing less guitar these days, he's a better player than ever.

He's also a happier artist. Although major-label Mercury helped establish Cray as a hit-maker in 1986 when "Smoking Gun" reached the Top 40, he switched to independent label Rykodisc. "The last few records we made we'd go into cities and people would say, 'Oh, we didn't know you had a new record out.' That's important for bands like us that do a lot of road work. You need to go to record shops and see your CDs in the bin. On major labels the huge acts get the deserved attention, but you hope to get a little attention. Rykodisc don't put out a lot of records, and the records they do put out get a lot of attention." And an artist as soaring and soulful as Robert Cray deserves plenty of attention, from everyone.

Robert Cray's been recording for decades now. Contributing writer Ted Drozdowski recommends these titles as part of Cray's on-going legacy:

Take Your Shoes Off: Cray's most soaring and soulful effort. This CD perfects Cray's ambition to reproduce the grandeur of the classic arrangements of the Memphis soul scene of the '60s and early '70s while adding instrumental colors like Cajun accordion and baritone guitar to his arrangements. Cray doesn't scrimp on his prickly signature guitar solos, either.

Sweet Potato Pie: His final album for major-label Mercury finds Cray in a creative holding pattern. Engaging, but not as exciting as his two previous efforts.

Some Rainy Morning: Solid songs split the difference between blues and soul. Cray re-exerts his guitar playing here, after pushing his vocals to the fore with Shame + A Sin. Yet he loses none of the impact of his emotional writing to the six-string derring-do.

Shame + A Sin: An artistic breakthrough in which Cray focuses hard on the Memphis soul sound and, at his best, comes off like the successor to the late, great vocal legend O.V. Wright. "Don't Break This Ring" and "Some Pain, Some Shame" are particularly beautiful examples of his new-honed command of gospel-style and fluttering vocal beauty.

I Was Warned: A collection of hard-luck stories in the blues tradition, played and sung with the confidence of an artist by now firmly embedded in the music's stratosphere.

Midnight Stroll: Cray's first rendezvous with the Memphis Horns finds him leaning away from the guitar-solo-laden blues that were his initial instrumental trademark. Instead, Cray relies more on the soulful inclinations of his singing style to carry the day. And he succeeds.

Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark: An equally strong follow-up to the album that made him a star.

Strong Persuader: After years of foundering in blues dives and on small independent labels, Cray's career soared with this major-label debut and its Top 40 hits "Smoking Gun" and "Right Next Door (Because Of Me)." The blues renaissance of the '80s/'90s starts with this album.

False Accusations: Another solid effort from Cray's days in the trenches.

Bad Influence: This is Cray's best early recording, full of smartly written cheating songs that established him as the blues' suave young prince of infidelity (and, consequently, guilt). Eric Clapton later covered the title track.

With Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland:

Showdown!: Cray is now the only survivor of this session, which teams him with Texas guitar-slingers Collins and Copeland. Despite the potential for old fashioned, six-string cutting contests, the mood of the disc is more friendly than competitive. But when Collins and Cray do strop their Fenders, the fretwork gets furious.

Ted Drozdowski is a freelance journalist and musician based in Boston. His work has appeared widely in such publications as Rolling Stone, Musician, and the Boston Phoenix.