Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The year that redefined blues guitarist Robert Cray’s sound

Lifetime achievement award for performance winner Robert Cray performs during the Americana Honors and Awards show Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Zaleski
Lifetime achievement award for performance winner Robert Cray performs during the Americana Honors and Awards show Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.

I first saw singer and guitarist Robert Cray in the late ‘70s at a joint in Seattle's Pioneer Square. He was a featured performer in a stunningly good blues and R&B band from Eugene, Oregon. The other front-man in the band was singer and harp player, Curtis Salgado.

Those two, together, were a double-threat and a double-treat. But maybe having all that talent out front was too much because by 1980, Cray was fronting his own band and had released his first album, Who’s Been Talking. Online music database AllMusiccalls Cray "the most commercially and critically successful blues artist of his generation." Sounds about right.

Robert Cray was born on August 1, 1953, in Columbus, Georgia. His father was in the military so they moved around a bit during Cray’s youth and he graduated from high school just south of Tacoma, in Lakewood, Washington.

His early music heroes were (no surprise) all blues guitar players—Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Freddie King and Buddy Guy. Working with Salgado in Eugene, Cray was able to dig deeper into blues, R&B and soul music but ultimately, he was not content doing versions of already existing songs. When he launched the Robert Cray Band, he began to concentrate more on songwriting than blazing guitar-playing. Though he can certainly blaze whenever he feels like it.

In 1985, Cray won his first Grammy award for Best Traditional Blues Recording. He shared the honor with the other two guitarists on the album, Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. The following year, he crossed over from the blues genre to the rock genre with a single called "Smoking Gun," from his album Strong Persuader. That album got him his second Grammy, this time for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

So one year he gets the "Traditional Blues Grammy," the next year he gets the "Contemporary Blues Grammy" and the Robert Cray that we know and love is off and running. And he hasn’t stopped yet.

In fact, he’son tour right now. In July he did four Northwest shows and is now on his way to the East Coast for more. So, carry on, Robert Cray, and happy (belated) birthday.

Three pieces of music from Cray's blazing career:

"Right Next Door (Because Of Me)"

This is one of Cray’s most popular songs and it’s from his 1989 album, Strong Persuader. I guess you could call it the title track of the record, because the phrase "strong persuader" is used in the song’s chorus.

Robert Cray - Right Next Door (Because Of Me)

"Sittin’ On Top Of The World"

I wanted to include a straight-up blues in this short list and here it is: "Sittin’ On Top Of The World" was one of Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin’s classic recordings and has since become a kind of blues standard—everybody takes a crack at this one. Cray has become known internationally as a blues/rock/soul crossover artist, but this is the kind of music that gives him his juice.

"Anything You Want"

Here’s a track from Cray’s most recent release, 2020’s That’s What I Heard. I think somebody should name a wine after this guy—he ages beautifully.

Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.