Bluesman Robert Cray explains his eclectic 40-year career—and his band’s ability to effortlessly straddle traditional blues, rock and R&B—this way: “We get excited about music still. You never know what might pop up when someone is writing something new.”
The five-time Grammy Award winner, and member of the Blues Hall of Fame, has reached a level of success almost unheard of for a blues artist. His 1986 album, Strong Persuader, went gold, an unusual milestone for a blues record. Its breakout track, “Smoking Gun,” was popular on MTV and was a top-40 hit. Fifteen of his 20 albums have made the Billboard charts.
Now the man with that inimitable voice that rolls effortlessly from falsetto to a gut-wrenching growl is out with a new album, 4 Nights of 40 Years Live, which takes audiences along for a ride through a career that started when he was a teen back in 1974. Back then, Cray says, he and another band member had to hitch from Eugene to Salem in Oregon so they could rehearse.
“We would go to different towns and play at a club for four nights, and we would meet people,” Cray recalls, “and we couldn’t afford to stay in hotels, so we would ask if we could sleep on their floors or couches or spare rooms if they had them.”
Cray says one of the things he likes about the new album, which is out in a variety of formats—ranging from two LPs plus an MP3 to two CDs and a DVD, in addition to a digital release—is that it includes old video footage of the band from 1982. That’s just two years after the group’s 1980 debut, Who’s Been Talkin’.
“It’s funny to look back and see how thin we were in those days,” Cray says, laughing. But he also says that the album shows how the band began melding different types of music from the beginning. “It shows that was set up early on by us doing the ‘T-Bone Shuffle’ or something funky because when we started up this band, we were not differentiating between Elmore James and James Brown.”
The CD also features four recent performances from the Los Angeles area, as well as interviews with Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. The Cray Band did a few tour dates with Clapton, and it has also performed with the legendary John Lee Hooker and B.B. King.
“Robert Cray is one of those interesting artists who basically doesn’t pay too much attention to categories, and that’s a good thing,” says Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli. “What he brings to [the blues] is a breath of fresh air to a very traditional music form.”
Santelli is a blues historian and the author of The Best of the Blues: The 101 Essential Blues Albums, and The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia.
“Unlike John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, both of whom were very true to traditional elements of the blues,” Santelli says, “what Cray has done, and others as well, he broadened the dimensions, and definitions, of what blues should be.”
But Santelli worries about the future of the blues, because he believes that its audience is shrinking and the all-important demographic of young people isn’t being exposed to the music.
“At the Grammy Museum, one of my principal missions is to make sure young people that come through here hear elements of the blues, and we explain to them that the blues are the bedrock of all American popular music,” Santelli says. “However, it’s not available to them, and with so much music out there just at their fingertips, it’s hard to get them to understand that there’s this great form out there called the blues, and it’s beautiful and you should know about it.”
At the soon-to-be-open St. Louis-based National Blues Museum, Executive Director Dion Brown is also focused on engaging young people.
“Our vision is to reintroduce it to a young generation,” Brown says. “Right at the beginning we will create a national blues museum band … which will show them the correlation between the blues and the current genre of music.”
But Brown doesn’t think the blues are in any danger of vanishing.
“This city is blowing me away with how much live blues music is played,” he says. “I think blues will always be here.”
So does Robert Cray.
“The music survives because people such as myself, or people who are coming up, will do their take on it, and be inspired by what’s happened in the past,” he says.