Interview: Robert Cray lets his guitar do the talking

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By Gig Scene Editor Graham Chalmers

Robert Cray is a terrific musician but a lousy interviewee.

Having lost the chance for various reasons to talk in person to the most successful blues guitarist of the post-70s era (the closest I get is a transatlantic conversation with his agent in LA), I have to resort to the poor man’s interview - a Q&A by email.

The five-time Grammy winner, now aged 60, can’t much need the publicity anyway in the build-up to his latest UK tour which takes in Harrogate’s Royal Hall on May 8.

He’s sold more than 12 million records, afterall, a phenomenal amount for a bluesman.

Perhaps the only musician born too late to join rock music’s 60s and 70s boom yet still considered by old-time legends like Eric Clapton as an equal as well as a friend, he’s not a man known for courting publicity.

Born in Georgia, he formed his first band as a teenager in the early 1970s. But it took him more than a decade of hard graft on the regional ciruit in the US before he made his mainstream breakthrough with the Strong Persuader album in 1986.

In that long build-up to fame, he did skirt the big-time on a couple of occasions, once appearing uncredited as the bass player in the house band in director John Landis’s classic frat-house comedy Animal House.

When asked what it was like to be backing the movie’s outrageous stars John Belushi and Dan Akroyd ( look out for Cray in the scenes where Otis Day and the Knights are performing Shout and Shama Lama Ding Dong to a crowd of drunken students in togas) Cray merely says:

“I was in the movie. Other than that, no comment.”

Once Cray did make it big, his rise was rapid. By 1987 he had a much more prominent role in another big movie - as the main guitar player in Chuck Berry’s band in Hail Hail Rock n Roll on songs like Roll Over Beethoven and Brown Eyed Handsome Man where Cray gets to sing vocals.

In fact, only Keith Richard is afforded more screen time in this glorious Berry-based documentary, other than Chuck himself, obviously.

It had to be said, however, the rock n roll legend does comes across as hard work.

What was he really like, I ask Robert.

“Chuck was great. Chuck is Chuck Berry” is his only reply.

Never exactly a hard listen, Cray’s latest tour will feature songs from his hugely enjoyable new album In My Soul.

As the title suggests, the tracks are less blues-orientated than normal, though his mellifluous guitar playing remains as important to the end result as ever.

I suggest that the new collection of lesser-known soul songs, his 17th studio album to date, could have been recorded at the famous Royal Studios in Memphis, such is its warm, authentic feel.

Was he trying consciously to sound like Otis Redding and Al Green this time round?

For once, his response is a little more expansive.

“We weren’t aiming for that. We tried to treat every song as its own groove. Granted, we’re big fans of the music from Royal Studios and, of course, Steve Jordan as well.”

Still baby-faced when he first achieved world-wide success in the 80s, was his head ever turned by fame?

The answer comes like a hammer hitting a nail.

“I’ve always been a musician, first and foremost.”

Robert Cray clearly likes to let his guitar do the talking.

Tickets for Robert Cray at the Royal Hall are available on 01423 502116 or online at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk