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February 19, 2014IM -
“I try to take my time to get my point across and don’t get too hyped up,” Cray says. “I understand the role I play. I’m a guitar player and I’m part of a band. I like being a part of the band instead of just the frontman. I think the kind of music we do helps in that. We play soul, blues; it’s not all guitar driven. I like to play rhythm guitar sometimes.”
Growing up, Cray didn’t have many interests besides music. His father, Henry Cray, was in the Army and the family spent a lot of time traveling, and lived in Germany for two and a half years in the early ’60s. “All we did was buy and listen to records,” he re-calls. “My dad would listen to a lot of gospel music on the weekends, during the week he would listen to secular music—Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker. My mom was big into the singers at that time—Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.”
Cray started taking piano lessons during this time, but it didn’t last that long, he says. In 1964 the family moved back to America, to Washington State. That was the same year The Beatles took their fi rst trip to the US. “I got a guitar like everyone else in the world,” remembers Cray. “And that’s what started it.”
He took lessons, but eventually gave up and decided to teach himself. He’d play with kids in his neighborhood and they would learn songs together. “My thing was I never stopped,” he says. “I just kept playing guitar.”
His musical infl uences continued to develop. “Living in Washington State in the 1960s, I got the chance to see Jimi Hendrix a couple of times,” says Cray. “Some friends were listening to Otis Rush, I started reading books and was hyped up into the life of Robert Johnson. As a teenager, all that stuff was pretty cool. It just took over and then I got into the blues phase.”
Cray formed a band, which struggled to play gigs in and around Tacoma, Washington. In 1974, they packed up and left home for Eugene, Oregon. The Robert Cray Band was formed led by Cray, with Tom Murphy on drums, and Rocky Manzanares on harmonica. They occasionally got some opening gigs, and managed to branch out from Eugene, playing throughout the West Coast.
In 1977 the band played the San Francisco Blues Festival and that same year Cray was asked to play the role of bassist for a frat party film and made his cinematic debut in National Lampoon’s Animal House.
Around the same time, The Robert Cray Band also recorded its first album. The group toured extensively and released two follow-up albums. In 1986, Cray won his fi rst Grammy Award for Showdown, a collaborative album with Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland.
As Cray’s career really started to take off he was glad to have the AFM behind him. “I fi nd that it’s very benefi cial to have the legal protection, especially with contracts,” he says.
Throughout the years Cray has recorded more than 15 albums and has toured extensively throughout the world with a changing lineup of musicians. Today The Robert Cray Band includes Cray, keyboardist James Pugh of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), and drummer Tony Braunagel of Local 47 (Los Angeles).
“Now we’re a little bit older,” says Cray. “Experience plays a part in what we write and sing about. We pay more attention to what’s going on in current events.”
Songs now focus on subjects like personal relationships and sometimes political themes. For example, the song “Twenty,” tells the story of a soldier. Cray sings, “Standing out here in the desert, trying to protect an oil line, I’d really like to do my job but this ain’t the country that I had in mind.”
Cray explains, “Years ago, I never thought I’d be writing songs about a war or that kind of thing. But here we are now, I’m in my mid-50s, and those things are important.”
Cray says he prefers playing live to sessions in the recording studio. “I’d rather be on stage because everything changes every night,” he says. “I look at something I’ve been doing a while and I get a chance to change it. The studio is fi ne, too; it’s where I am creative.”
He says he’s always happy to return home from a long tour. “I’m a little bit restless. It takes me a little while to unwind when I get home, but I do,” he explains with a laugh. “We have this joke in the band, we’re part of this group called ‘musicians against music.’”
Currently, Cray is working on a new record, which he is producing. “I have to listen to everything on a daily basis,” he says of the process. “Your ears get tired. You really need to take a break and listen to it with new ears.” He says he hopes to release it in July. In the mean time, they’ll play some new songs along their tour.
There’s been changes and also some constants for Cray since his career began some 30 years ago. While he doesn’t listen to much new music, instead opting for the classics of jazz, R&B, and good country, he says, “I can now afford to go buy records.”
Cray also doesn’t spend much time looking back on his career. He’s constantly trying to move forward and there’s no time to stop, but he is still proud of his accomplishments.
“I’ve had the chance to play with a lot of people and I’ve had a lot of great moments on stage,” he says, remembering some of the legends he’s gotten to play with like B.B. King of Local 71 (Memphis, TN), Muddy Waters, and Eric Clapton. “You have these fantasies of playing with these people when you are really young, then you get the chance to meet them.”