In 1987, Robert Cray was at the peak of his popularity. His most recent release, 1986's Strong Persuader, had crossed over to the Pop charts and had won him recognition worldwide, earning him a Grammy in the process. He made stylish music videos (basically unheard of for blues artists at the time, dozens of appearances on TV, including talk shows, commercials, the coveted musical guest spot on Saturday Night Live, and was in high demand as a live act as well. The sky seemed to be the limit for Young Bob.
Don't be Afraid of the Dark, the follow-up to Strong Persuader, was a disappointment on several levels. I can remember being really excited to see it finally arrive in the record store, but a bit puzzled when I saw the sticker on the package that read "File Under Pop." Warning bells began sounding immediately, even before I removed the plastic wrapping. Trust me, it's NEVER a good sign when a blues record sports that sticker.
While there were a few good songs.....the title track opening the disc is a great soul/blues track with strong backing from the Memphis Horns, and "Don't You Even Care," "I Can't Go Home," and "Acting That Way" are all solid selections.....you can't help but wonder if some of these songs would have even made the cut on his previous recording. Everything sounds either a little bit forced or just a bit off track. Every once in a while, I will still take this one out and give it a listen, but it still leaves me cold.
Midnight Stroll, was much better, with more of a focus on the soul side of the blues. Cray's vocals, already a major factor in his success, were better than ever before as he ripped through songs like "These Things," "Move a Mountain," and "Bouncin' Back." There were also some great songs that were perfect fits to an already impressive repertoire, like "Consequences," "The Forecast (Call for Pain)," "The Things You Do To Me," and the funky title track. Apparently, with Don't be Afraid of the Dark, Cray and the band were physically and creatively spent due to the success of Strong Persuader, the subsequent appearances and demands in support of it, and the pressure involved with making the next release even better. With Midnight Stroll, the pressure was off and the band seems rested and relaxed and they sound fantastic. It definitely has earned a place in the upper echelon of Robert Cray recordings.
Midnight Stroll, Cray decided to expand his sound within soul and blues, something a lot of others in his genre wouldn't do...messing with a successful formula. At times the results were mixed, as might be expected, but never boring. Take Cray's 1992 effort, I Was Warned. When the songs were good, such as the opening cut, "Just a Loser," with that great guitar break from Cray, or the Memphis soul sender, "I'm a Good Man," and the deep southern soul of "The Price I Pay," "A Picture of a Broken Heart" (co-written by Boz Scaggs), and "On The Road Down" (co-written by Steve Cropper), they were very good. However, the melodramatic title track left most people scratching their heads, and there were a few other songs that sort of faded into the background. Still, this was overall a solid effort with some nice performances by Cray and the band (who was now without bass player and longtime Cray bandmate, Richard Cousins).
Shame & a Sin was Cray's next release, in 1993, and was the first Cray self-produced album. Guiding forces Dennis Walker and Bruce Bromberg was no longer a part of the Cray team, and the Memphis Horns were replaced by the Miami Horns. The majority of the songs for this release were written by Cray and his bandmates. There was a lot more emphasis on the blues, and Cray's songs are very good, including "1040 Blues," about having to pay taxes, "Some Pain, Some Shame," and several light-hearted songs as well, such as "Stay Go" (one of my wife's favorites) and "I'm Just Lucky That Way." For me, the highlights were the harrowing "I Shiver," one of Cray's best songs ever, and a wonderful cover of Albert King's "You're Gonna Need Me," which featured some scorching guitar work between Cray and his mentor, Albert Collins, recorded only a few months before Collins' death. Cray's previous two releases had been considered too slick, smooth, and clean by many critics. Shame & a Sin has a rougher, edgier sound than his previous releases. If I were ranking his releases best to worst, I would put Shame & a Sin in the Top Five, around #4 or 5.
(Okay, okay......my Top Five - 1. Strong Persuader, 2. Bad Influence, 3. Midnight Stroll, 4. Shame & a Sin, 5. Who's Been Talkin').
Cray's final two releases for Mercury, 1995's Some Rainy Morning (the Cray band w/o horns) and 1997's Sweet Potato Pie, were largely forgettable. Cray's performances were top notch as always, but the best songs were usually by someone else. On Some Rainy Morning, the highlight was Syl Johnson's "Steppin' Out," and on Sweet Potato Pie, the standout was an obscure Otis Redding tune, "Trick or Treat." Both of these recordings leaned more heavily toward the soul side of blues, nothing wrong with that at all, but the material was just not up to the standards of his earlier work. One of the better Cray originals was the sparse and soulful opening cut on Some Rainy Morning, "Moan."
Sweet Potato Pie. He landed at Rykodisc, where he had a bit of a resurgence, continuing to make subtle expansions to his style (Take Your Shoes Off is #6 on my list). Then he moved to Sanctuary Records, where he began to insert the occasional political commentary on a few songs, mostly protesting the war in Iraq. Currently, Cray records for Vanguard, where he has settled into a comfortable groove with his mix of urban blues and Memphis soul. No one does that better than he does. Though his star had faded a little bit, he is still considered one of the top draws on the blues circuit and one of the main reasons that many blues fans became blues fans in the first place. We will look more closely at this later period of Young Bob's career in a future post.