Man, I love Robert Cray. That liquid tone of his, that smooth sweet-soul voice that is not quite Sam Cooke but is certainly derived from that source. The churning, chugging, endlessly grooving backing band. Disco hi-hats and the two-stepping blues-plod of the bass. Then there’s the way Cray pinches at the neck of his guitar to squeeze and strangle notes out to form super-slick (but always passionate) solos. He is so great. The master.
And there’s only one major problem with what I’ve written there. (Well, one problem if you subtract the hackneyed attempts at describing this guy’s talent). The real problem is simple; I am not talking about Robert Cray’s career. Or a few of his albums. I want to be. But really, I’m not even talking about one whole album. I’m talking about one song. But what a song it is! I am talking about Phone Booth, the opening cut from Cray’s Bad Influence. In actual fact, I could be talking about that whole album. For it is a sweet, sweet, record and throughout Cray maintains that pinched-note blues-soul style with his guitar and voice. He coaxes some great guitar sounds from his axe, he sings his heart out. It is modern-day blues that is appealing to people who have spent no time listening to the old stuff (and perhaps don’t even like the new stuff). It is music that musicians can appreciate. And music that non-musicians can like too.
I wish I could like Robert Cray more than I do. But one album does not really make a career – unless you are Guns’n’Roses.
I have my mother to thank for introducing me to Robert Cray. In the mid-to-late-1980s my mum would buy a record once a week, or thereabouts. And I loved it. She would buy the vinyl LP on a shopping trip to Napier or Hastings. And then it would get trialed as soon as we got home. The plastic bag would be opened and the record would be pulled from the sleeve. Even when I was about eight years old I can remember reading the sleeve of the LP while it spun on the stereo. And I think, thinking about it now, that this was a layover from the Superman read-along book-and-record that I loved so much when I was super-young.
The house filled up with rather cool, albeit random records. I can remember so many 1980s touchstones coming in to the house: Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms. Split Enz’ End Of An Era. Terence Trent D’Arby’s The Hardline According To…, Lou Reed’s Mistrial, Icehouse’s Man Of Colours, The Proclaimers’ Sunshine On Leith… alright, I never said they were all golden! Just touchstones for me. Things I remember – the experience of the purchase, the first time listening to it. The literal unveiling.
I remember when mum bought Bad Influence by The Robert Cray Band. I still don’t know – to this day – whether she knew who Robert Cray was before she bought that album. It wasn’t his first. But it was the first of his to make it in to the home where I lived. And this was pre-internet – so it wasn’t like sample tracks had been downloaded, or an email recommending him had arrived amid the spam. My parents loved (and continue to enjoy) music. But they didn’t read music magazines or anything like that. So I think my mum’s purchase of Robert Cray was an impulse-buy. Good on her. That’s a trait I have developed that is possibly genetic. I love impulse-buying music. There’s something very satisfying about randomly choosing an album and going home and loving it instantly. It is, when it comes down to it, the musical equivalent of sticking some coins in a pokie machine and getting lucky. The payback with a semi-random album turning to gold doesn’t always happen. But you remember it so well when it does. Like that winning Lotto ticket (of less than $40) from 1993, or whenever…
I still, to this day, love Robert Cray’s Bad Influence album. I am listening to it while writing this. And I play it rather regularly. A few times a year – which is a lot for an album I have been listening to a few times a year for over 30 years. There’s nothing mind-blowing/amazing about it. It’s just solid. All of those things I said at the start remain true – for me anyway, with regard to every listening experience of this album. His voice is great. Never forced, so smooth but not passionless. The guitar playing is great, he’s got a chilled tone, a cool feel – and mixes in some nice R’n’B chops with blues lines that have the bite of Albert Collins and the grunt of Buddy Guy.
But, in thinking of something to write, and in choosing to listen to Bad Influence, I went to my iPod and scrolled through. I have six albums on my iPod by Robert Cray. That’s just silly. The only other one I have listened to it is a double from more recent times, a live concert that features a fair amount of the Bad Influence material (still sounding great) present and accounted for.
The albums from the last few years have been okay. Twenty was really rather good. After years – most of the 1990s – of subdued horn parts and late-night soul taking the sting out of Cray’s guitar. Even the more immediate follow-ups to Bad Influence were not quite as great. I remember mum bought Strong Persuader a couple of years after Bad Influence. We enjoyed that – and eventually replaced the vinyl with a CD. But it’s not as good as the album that precedes it. I bought mum the cassette tape of Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (again, eventually replaced with the CD version) and we used to thrash that when she would drive around in a convertible. But it was never quite the same.
Heavy Picks: The Best Of Robert Cray is not as good as Bad Influence. I seriously think that this one album – that was early on in his career and still rings truer than any notes he has hit and sent out since – speaks volumes. It wasn’t until 2014’s new album, In My Soul that he made something as good (actually better) than Bad Influence. But that’s a long time between drinks. That’s a long run of fine-sounding but lost to anyone-outside-the-cult albums.