After his band gently fades out on his Eighties hit "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," Robert Cray leans into the microphone to deflect any continued association between himself and the song's marriage-ruining main character.
"That song is about Richard Cousins," he tells the crowd, referring to his bass player and long-time friend. "You know that, don't you?"
When his Grammy-winning album Strong Persuader came out in 1986, Cray was a little more forthcoming about similarities between himself and the "young Bob" mentioned in the song. But prior to his show at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, California, Cray told Rolling Stone he wasn‘t the one carving notches on his guitar.
"I'm not really that guy," he said, a little embarrassed about it now.
Being happily married with a six-year-old son might have something to do with his changing tune. And like many maturing artists, Cray, 60, prefers to focus on more serious matters, leading to songs about war in Iraq and, on his latest album, Nothing But Love, the recession.
While touring to promote that album, the blues-soul hybrid is already writing his next one, which promises to have even more political material.
"Syria is very topical," he said backstage. "But I don't talk about it specifically. I talk about the thing in general."
Cray was more specific about his beginnings, his brief role as a fictional musician in the movie Animal House and a few more things about "Right Next Door."
A lot of the songs from the last album deal with hard times, and I know you had a lot of hard times starting out. How do you most identify with those people you wrote about?
For us, the hard times were in relationship to where we were at the time as a band. I don't really consider those hard times. Those are learning days. The thing about hard times on the new record is about what's going on nationally, with the mortgage crisis that took a lot of people out of their homes and people losing their jobs.
Where did it all start? Was it a slow build, or was there one thing that helped you out?
In 1976, we had just done this run at this one club in Eugene – four days – and the club owner said, "Albert Collins is coming through, and he doesn't have a band. Would you mind backing him up?" And we were like, "Hell no, we don't mind backing him up." We were doing some of Albert Collins' songs in our set. And so when Albert came through, we got to meet Albert and became his backup band for about a year and a half.
I saw somewhere that Albert Collins actually played at your high school graduation?
Our class had an opportunity to vote for either Albert Collins or a group called Crow, who had this song called "Evil Woman," and our class voted for Albert Collins, which was fantastic. I was already a fan. After the show was over, I walked up to him and I said, "Thanks for playing the gig." He goes, "Young man, do you play guitar?" And I said, "Yes, sir." And he said, "Well, keep it up." And that was '71. In '76 we were playing with him.
Did you remind him?
I did. He said he remembered, but I don't think he did.
When you were in Animal House, did you think that was your big break?
No. That was filmed, I think, in '76 or '77. I was living in Eugene, Oregon, and some lady asked me if I wanted to be in a film. It was after a gig was over at this club, and I sarcastically said, "Yeah, right." And she took my information and a couple months down the line, she called me. Nobody knew what it was. We weren't told the working title of the film.
It was cool being on a movie set and stuff, and seeing a lot of locals in the area being picked up to be extras as well. And I'm going to go into this story: We had the Cray Band, and there was a local group called the Nighthawks with Curtis Salgado, a singer-harmonica player. We had a splinter group, and we called it the Cray-Hawks. And on Monday nights, we would play at the Eugene Hotel. Curtis was the harmonica player-singer who wore Ray-Bans.
One night John Belushi came in, and people were saying to Curtis, "John Belushi's in the audience." And Curtis is going, "Who's John Belushi?" Because we always worked on Saturday nights. So eventually, Belushi came on and did his Joe Cocker impersonation. He sat in with the band.
You hadn't ever heard that before?
What'd you think?
I thought it was kind of stupid. But he was a nice guy.
What do you like about the new stuff so far?
There's political stuff in there once again. It's unavoidable. But that's basically all I can say right now, because nothing's ever really finished until I'm at the microphone singing it. Lyrics always change. All of a sudden, at the last moment – "Oh, this is how it's supposed to go." And the lyrics start to make sense.
The early hits had those songs about betrayal, the singer being the bad guy. How did that affect people's image of you?
People thought that I was that guy. The thing was, in the Strong Persuader days, Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, they were producers, but they were also songwriters. Dennis Walker wrote a lot of songs on his own, but we also co-wrote together a lot of things. Bruce Bromberg was more of the lyricist, and then we as the band put the music to his stuff, like "Smoking Gun" and "Night Patrol." Dennis Walker was "Right Next Door (Because of Me)." The songs painted pictures like the porch light and sneaking around and being in your nightgown, and your secret's safe with me – all those things that Dennis Walker knew so well, having been married three times. And I love Dennis's songwriting because they did – they painted pictures. But I added the "young Bob" in "Right Next Door," and now I'm associated with that, so that's kind of a hard thing to live down.
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