“It was such an honour to record with those amazing musicians. Musicians with such a history. And in such a legendary studio. A studio with such an incredible history itself.” Robert told Apt613 from a hotel room prior to his appearance in Frankfort, Kentucky.
The five-time Grammy winner, and Blues Hall of Famer, who plays Algonquin Commons Theatre on August 25th, traveled to Memphis to record a classic soul album with Hi Rhythm, the band that helped create that sound.
They recorded in Royal Studios, a former theater, where legends like Syl Johnson, Otis Clay, O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles, Al Green, and many others recorded with the venerable producer, Willie Mitchell.
“They’re celebrating 60 years in operation this year. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
“It was such an honour to record with those amazing musicians. Musicians with such a history. And in such a legendary studio.”
While Mitchell has passed away, the core of his Hi Rhythm band, used on many of those landmark sessions, was still available – Rev. Charles Hodges (organ and piano) and Leroy “Flick” Hodges (bass), along with Archie “Hubbie” Turner (keyboards).
“It was a soul, rhythm and blues, fantasy camp for us. Those guys have been playing in that room for 50 years,” says Robert’s producer Steve Jordan.
Robert has always recorded with the musicians playing together in the same room (”It’s the only way.”). The result is an overall feel that mirrors a live situation. With these musicians, there was an additional looseness to the recording process.
“Steve would come in and just start on the drums. Maybe for twenty minutes. We would join in when we wanted, and see what developed. We had songs to work on, but we could work on the interpretation. We’d just see where we could take them.”
The result is a very tight sounding album. Robert’s vocals are particularly highlighted, especially on the tearjerker “You Had My Heart”. As producer Steve points out, “people gravitate to his guitar playing first, but I think he’s one of the best singers I’ve heard in my life. Not only because of his singing ability, but his interpretations. He’s an honest soul.”
“We’re always trying to see what we can do with a song. Take it a bit further.”
Robert is not as confident about his vocals. In a 2014 interview he called his vocals “a work in progress” and said that he was not always comfortable singing. Did he still feel like that?
“I do. You try your best. You hear what you’ve done, and say ‘that’s ok’. But we can always improve it when we’re playing live.”
“That’s what we’re always trying to do. The record means that there is one version of the song out there. We’re always trying to see what we can do with a song. Take it a bit further.”
As a songwriter, does he ever consider a song as being finished? Is it finished when it’s recorded, or should a song be considered a recipe that musicians can refer to and see what results?
“The latter. A recipe. That’s a very good way to think about it.”
It has been 40 years since The Robert Cray Band came together in Eugene, Oregon. With the group’s 1980 debut release, Who’s Been Talkin’, word began to spread across the Northwest US and down in to California.
“We were just road rats,” Cray says with a chuckle. “We’d take a break for two weeks to record, then go back out.”
On one of those breaks, Cray went into the studio with Albert Collins and Johnny Clyde Copeland. They recorded Showdown!, an album that has become essential to any electric blues collection.
With the 1986 release of Strong Persuader, and the single “Smoking Gun”, the band’s tunes were put in heavy rotation on mega rock radio stations across the US. Their fanbase grew quickly. Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and BB King have sung Cray’s praise. Bonnie Raitt has called him “a badass who puts on one of the best shows you’ll ever see.” John Lee Hooker was a big fan.
“The first time we played with Hooker was in Montana. We were opening the set and he was playing solo,” Cray recalls. “We’d never met him before but he just walked on stage and started playing with us. We dug the hell out of the guy, and after that we were friends.”
Having been bridging the lines between blues, soul and R&B for this long, how would he describe his music?
“That’s a hard one. We have so many interests and have included so many influences over the years. I’d say that we play blues and R&B.”
With that in mind, is there an album that would best represent the Robert Cray Band?
“Again, that’s very hard to say. We have horns on some. Some lean towards soul. I’d say that the best thing is to dip in and listen. Find what you like.”
Who does Robert listen to?
“I keep my ears open. I still listen to Sarah Vaughan, to jazz. Hendrix. The Beatles. Actually I’m old enough that I’m a Beatles’ song (When I’m Sixty Four). It’s no secret that when I started, I wanted to be George Harrison. And, of course, Jimi was an influence. I was so glad that I saw him twice. I wish he was still around. It would be so interesting to see where he would have taken his music.”
Just as Hendrix was an influence to him, what would he advise young guitarist who are following in his steps?
“The most important thing is to be open. Listen. Don’t just listen to guitarists. Listen to singers. To Coltrane. Play with others. And don’t rush to success. Success will only come when you’re having fun.”
Robert Cray Band last appeared in Ottawa at Jazzfest in 2012. What can we expect when they pay us a visit this time?
“We’re looking forward to being in Ottawa. It’s been much too long. We’ll be looking back and covering everything really. No two nights are the same for us set-wise. And sometimes, we just decide while we’re on stage that we want to play a song. This’ll be the quartet – Richard Cousins on bass, Terence F. Clark on drums, and Dover Weinberg playing keyboards. It’ll be fun.”
And now that he’s a Beatles’ song, how does he feel about where he is in life and in music?
“Everything’s cool. I’m happy. We’ve always be able to do what we wanted to do. We’ve played what we’ve wanted. We’ve met some fantastic people. And we’ve been able to pay the bills. That’s a good thing”.
The Robert Cray Band performs at Algonquin Commons Theatre (1385 Woodroffe Ave) on Friday August 25 at 8pm. Ottawa blues staples The Lucas Haneman Express will open the concert. Tickets cost $55–60 online.