Prior to 1986, Robert Cray was just another talented blues guitarist wondering where his next gig was going to be. But after the Strong Persuader album and the hit single "Smoking Gun," Cray became a viable commercial proposition across several genres. Cray has parlayed that success into a four- decade-long career that has earned him four Grammys and a spot in the Blues Hall of Fame.
Speaking from a hotel room while on tour and in anticipation of his performance on Sunday, August 31 at the Bedford Blues and BBQ Festival, Cray spoke with DC9 about his love for the blues, his cameo in the film Animal House and how he's maintained such a loyal following for all of these years.
DC9 at Night: How did you get introduced to the blues?
Cray: Well, I grew up listening to blues music at home. I rediscovered it again with some teenage friends of mine. We were about 15 or 16 years old.
Who in your family was the blues fan?
Well, my dad had the B.B. King and John Lee Hooker records. He also had records by Bobby Blue Bland, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. We would sit home and listen to a lot of gospel music that was played on Sundays.
Is blues the only form of music to originate in America?
Blues is the root for most American music. When we go abroad, people look to America for the music they enjoy. That could be blues and country and rock and those are all a part of American music. Those kinds of music are known worldwide.
You are a renowned guitarist, but a lot of rock bands can get by with an average guitarist. With the blues, it seems you have to have an excellent guitarist.
It all depends on your approach. I mean, what kind of blues music you are playing? There are blues bands that have a front man who just basically plays guitar. And then there are bands that are more band-oriented. There's a difference I think. There are people who play in an ensemble and there are guys who are up there with a guitar in their hands trying to be the guitar player.
You are playing an outside blues festival this weekend. Does the summer heat effect how long you play?
It doesn't affect how long we play. It's hot and you get sweaty and that's a part of it. It's going to be fun. When you are up there on stage and you are sweating in the heat, it's a good feeling, especially when you are doing something that you love.
How did you end up with a cameo in the film National Lampoon's Animal House?
I lived in Eugene, Oregon where they did most of the filming. I was at a gig, finishing up a four-day run and a lady asked if I wanted to be in a movie. They had gone around and asked other musicians as well in Eugene and Portland. Outside of the lead singer who was played by Wayne Jessie, the rest of the people were musicians from other bands.
That pretty much makes you a musical and cultural icon.
[Laughs] I guess it does. It's a cult movie. People still talk about it.
1986's Strong Persuader was the album that really exposed you to a national audience. Did you feel something special when you were making that album or was that just another album you made that happened to be successful?
It was definitely the latter part of your question. We had taken a couple weeks off from touring. We had been doing some very heavy touring following up the Bad Influence and False Accusation records. Both had been doing well in the U.K. We headed back to L.A. to record another album for Hightone Records. We made another record and then we got back on the road. Between the time the record was recorded and we went on the road, we heard that Hightone was going to sign a deal with Mercury Records. The rest for us is history.
Is "Smoking Gun" a song you have to play live every night?
It's one of the songs that everyone wants to hear. There are times when we don't play it. There are times when we think about why we have to play it. There are other songs on that record that we can get away with playing outside of "Smoking Gun."
You appeared in the Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. Was that as tense of a situation as it appeared on screen?
Well, it was a tense experience for Keith Richards. For me, it was great. I was the new kid on the scene. Chuck was really personable and friendly and cordial with me. He invited me up for a cup of coffee. But for Keith, this was this thing about doing a movie for his hero. Chuck knew that, but at the same time, Chuck was not going to let Keith Richards, the little school boy, be in charge. Chuck was never really trusting of anybody. He couldn't even trust a good friend like Keith Richards. That's just how Chuck deals with everybody.
You've received five Grammy Awards and have been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Do these kinds of accolades mean anything to you?
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They are great accolades. It's fantastic that people dig what you do and want to reward you in whatever way they can. These are high honors and that is cool, but at the end of the day, you have to play tomorrow. And that's the way I look at it.
Your most recent album, In My Soul, debuted #1 on the blues charts. How have you maintained such a dedicated fan base?
I think that having the Strong Persuader album and having been on Mercury Records gave us great exposure. That helped develop a big fan base. We've been able to play our music in a lot of different places outside of this country. That is the wish and dream of any group of musicians. We consider ourselves lucky to have been able to do that.