Of all the blues artists who have successfully brought their music into the Top 40 mainstream, no one has flown under the radar longer than Robert Cray.
Part of a military family, the Georgia-born, Tacoma-bred and now Santa Barbara-based guitarist, singer and songwriter was exposed to a bevy of different musical styles growing up, and he has brought all of those influences to bear over his four-decade career, quietly amassing a portfolio of 20 highly acclaimed albums and five Grammys. He was also inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
That’s not bad. But how did he get there?
“Every Sunday, my dad would listen to gospel music all day and night,” Cray says. “During the week, my mom played people like Bobby Blue Bland and Sam Cooke. And then when The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix came out, it all suddenly made sense to me.”
Rooted firmly in the blues, Cray’s rock-solid guitar playing sears like that of his blues idols – Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Albert King and especially Albert Collins. But he describes a chance meeting early on with lap steel legend Sonny Rhodes that propelled him into worlds other than the blues.
“We were all in our 20s, and so we thought we knew a lot of stuff,” Cray says with a laugh. “Then Sonny turned us on to the deep soul music of Overton Vertis ‘O. V.’ Wright [perhaps best known for ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’] who we had never heard of before. It totally flipped us out and showed us a whole new realm of possibilities.”
Now widely revered as a master instrumentalist, Cray’s arsenal doesn’t stop there. His effortless and crystal-clear soulful tenor splits the air with sonic possibility, reminiscent of the voice of the late, great Marvin Gaye. And his concise lyric-writing style juxtaposes the emotional misery of love gone bad with the possibility of new love going well. It’s an expressive mix of blues, funk, soul and R&B with silky smooth vocals dancing above gutsy, earthy blues music.
The great Bonnie Raitt once called Cray “a passionate badass who puts on one of the best shows you’ll ever see.”
“She a badass herself,” Cray says. “Over the years I’ve watched her show up many a guitar player who thought they knew what they were doing. A compliment from her means a lot.”
Robert Cray Band 8pm Friday, Nov. 15. Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St. Monterey. $33-$65. 649-1070, goldenstatetheatre.com.