Friday, June 10, 2011

Young Bob

I bet most people who started listening to the blues in the 80's owe at least a small debt of gratitude to Robert Cray.  I know I do.  I've stated many times that the style of music I was looking for at the time combined soulful vocals and serious guitar, but when I first heard Cray's mix of the blues and soul, I knew that was what I was looking for.  The first time I ever heard Cray was on the Grammy-winning Alligator Records collaboration between Cray, Albert Collins, and Johnny Copeland, Showdown!  Though Cray only took vocals on a couple of tunes, I knew I wanted to hear more from him.

A couple of months after I heard Cray, I found his debut release for Hightone Records from a couple of years earlier, Bad Influence.  That disc is one of his best, and is one of the unsung heroes of the blues resurgence of the mid 80's.  At the time, Cray was solid as a singer and guitarist, but still developing as a composer.  Most of his best songs at this time were written by Dennis Walker and/or Bruce Bromberg (as D Amy), but he also covered some strong tunes on this disc as well, one by Eddie Floyd ("Got To Make A Comeback"), and a scorcher by Johnny Guitar Watson ("Hit That Highway").  Many of the originals rank with his best, including the intense "Phone Booth" (later covered by Albert King), "Where Do I Go From Here," and the raucous "So Many Women, So Little Time."  The title track is still a crowd favorite at Cray's shows and Eric Clapton helped put Cray's name out there to the record-buying public by covering it on his August album. 

Good as Bad Influence was, False Accusations is not far behind and in some way, it's better.  This is largely due to the songs, which deal with pretty mature subject matter.  I don't mean that they're loaded with profanity and degrading to women, like "mature subject matter" usually implies these days.  I mean the songs dealt with adult topics, like temptation, lost love, and other disappointments.  "Change of Heart, Change of Mind (S.O.F.T.)" was a fun tune, reminiscent of a Stax tune from the late 60's, and "Payin' For It Now" is a humorous track about one bad decision having a snowball effect.  There are four or five tunes present here that rank with the best that Cray's ever done.  Those are "Porch Light," "Playin' In The Dirt," "I've Slipped Her Mind," "False Accusations," "The Last Time (I Get Burned Like This)," and, my personal favorite, "Sonny." 

If you're unsure of what a blues song should sound like, let me direct you to "Sonny."  It's an absolutely devastating song about a man who vows to take care of his friend's wife while the friend goes to fight in Vietnam.  In the process, the two fall for each other.  When Cray sings, "I'd hang around at night/And feel her lonely, lonely bed," you hear the anguish in his voice that he wasn't strong enough to resist temptation.  Then, to make matters even worse, Sonny comes home from the war.  Unfortunately, he's now blind and crippled, unable to live his life as he did before he left.  As the song closes, Cray's despair is staggering as he sings, "I'm so ashamed of what I've done."  When you sit down and read the lyrics to "Sonny," I'll admit they seem a bit cliche' and hokey, but it's really Cray's performance, from the passionate vocal to the sharp and concise guitar solo, that lifts this song above the mundane.  That's what grabbed me about it anyway. 

False Accusations is not as highly regarded as Bad Influence....some of the instrumentation and production that was supposed to be modern now sounds pretty dated.....which is a pity because Cray's performances on his second Hightone release lift it way above the norm for blues releases at that time. 

Showdown! appeared not long after False Accusations, and won Cray his first Grammy.  Not only after that, Cray inked a deal with Mercury and released what is acknowledged as his masterpiece, Strong Persuader.  While there is some debate about whether it is his best release, it's certainly his most accessible, as many music fans who didn't even own a blues record took the time to seek it out.  To me, it's simply an extension of what he had been doing on his Hightone releases, mixing blues and soul with smooth vocals, sharp guitar, and songs dealing with adult, blues-related topics. 

There are some differences though.  The Memphis Horns back the band on this release and they lift everything a notch on tracks like "I Guess I Showed Her" and the irresistible "Nothin' But A Woman."  Really, there weren't any clunkers among the ten songs, the best two, of course, being the most familiar...."Smoking Gun" and "Right Next Door (Because of Me)." 

The success of Strong Persuader was phenomenal at the time, and even now.  Cray's videos appeared on MTV, the album went gold, and he was able to appear on all the late night talk shows of the era.  Best of all, his success drew a lot of people to the blues that wouldn't have ordinarily looked in that direction, opening the door for other blues artists, who started appearing in commercials, on movies, and on television, a trend that continues over 25 years later.

A nice bonus to Cray's sudden success was the resurfacing of his debut album, which had been released in 1980.  Who's Been Talkin' consists of half covers and half originals.  The covers are all very well done (to me, "Too Many Cooks" is one of the most annoying songs ever......your mileage may vary....but Cray does as well as anyone ever has with it), with a harrowing version of the title track being the highlight and Sam Myers' "Sleeping In The Ground" running a close second.  The originals are outstanding.  "The Score" ranks with Bromberg's best songs and Cray contributes several standouts ("If You're Thinking What I'm Thinking," "That's What I'll Do," "Nice As A Fool Can Be").  Who's Been Talkin' is probably Robert Cray's most blues-based album and we might never have heard it if it hadn't been for the success of Strong Persuader.

Of course, Cray's career didn't stop there.  We will continue to look at his career in future Friday Blues Fix posts.

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