About four years ago, while performing at an outdoor festival in Memphis, veteran blues singer Robert Cray turned around and spotted the great soul man Bobby "Blue" Bland in a sailor's cap on the side of the stage. "People couldn't see him, but he watched our performance, and that's what made the show so great," Cray recalls. "It made me nervous, sure. But you got to be cool when the main man's sitting there checking you out."
Bland, the veteran singer best known for his classic "I Pity the Fool," died in 2013, and Cray's band paid tribute by closing its latest album "In My Soul" with Bland's 1966 slow-burner "Deep In My Soul." Last year, Cray told Guitar World the album has "more soul on it than any record I've ever done" -- largely due to that killer Bland cover at the end.
All that soul happened "by osmosis," Cray says. Producer Steve Jordan suggested a hard-rocking version of Blind Willie Johnson's "Nobody's Fault but Mine"; keyboardist Dover Weinberg, a Lou Rawls fanatic, requested "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)"; bassist Richard Cousins brought in a Booker T. and the M.G.'s-style instrumental called "Hip Tight Onions." And Cray wanted to salute Bland. "They all kind of fell into the same vein," says the 61-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter by phone from a tour stop in Santa Barbara, California. "We were all on the same page as far as the R&B thing."
Cray became a pop star in the '80s, when his hits "Right Next Door (Because of Me)" and "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" briefly revived the blues as an MTV phenomenon. Although the fame soon subsided, Cray fell back on his clear, straining voice and understated electric-guitar style and reeled off a long string of immaculate soul and blues albums, from 1992's "I Was Warned" to 2010's "Cookin' in Mobile."
Through working with Jordan, Cray and his band have, over time, learned how to use modern studio technology to capture a vintage ambience, as if recording with Bland himself in Memphis in the '60s. Sometimes they haul in older instruments, and they always experiment with different guitars, drums and classic organ sounds. "The sound is the vintage sound -- we're going to be on the edge with a little bit of distortion," Cray says. "And we're still sequencing songs like we're making an album. We're the type that thinks you should still drop the needle at the beginning and take it off at the end."
Cray's quartet includes two longtime friends -- Cousins, who attended high school with him in Tacoma, Washington, in the '60s, and Weinberg, a '70s band member who recently returned. Together, they make a point of hitting record stores wherever they tour in order to stock up on vinyl. (Cray can't stand Spotify or Pandora, but he owns up to "looking at stuff on YouTube.") Cray is a serious guy, but the camaraderie with his old mates has given his meticulously crafted music a looser and more spontaneous feel in recent years.
When Cousins returned in 2007, Cray says, "It was like getting your favorite set of strings on the guitar. You spend a lot of time together, out there on the road, and you're a unit that's out there basically on your own, so it does help to have everybody be friends."
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In addition to his own crowded resume, Cray has been a footnote in a lot of other great music stories -- he was inspired to be a bluesman after the late guitarist Albert Collins performed at his high school graduation, he was a key part of Keith Richards' Chuck Berry 1987 documentary "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" and he was a footnote in classic comedies "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers." While performing in a band called the Cray-Hawks in Eugene, Oregon, in roughly 1976, "Saturday Night Live" star John Belushi showed up at a gig, sat in, and then invited the band to his movie set. Cray would appear in "Animal House" as an uncredited bassist in the fictional Otis Day and the Knights.
One of Cray's Cray-Hawks colleagues, singer Curtis Salgado, performed in those days in prescription Ray-Ban sunglasses. Salgado became a sort of blues mentor for Belushi, and before he knew it, the comic had stolen his look for "The Blues Brothers." Of course, thanks to "Saturday Night Live," the 1980 comedy and a popular soundtrack, Belushi and partner Dan Aykroyd became bigger stars, in many cases, than the original bluesmen. "I was indifferent," Cray says. "There were two comedians out front dancing and prancing and not taking it too seriously -- with a serious group of musicians behind them.
"It wasn't my cup of tea," he adds. "And it still isn't."
WHERE | WHEN 8 p.m. May 8, Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main St., Westhampton Beach
INFO 631-288-1500, whbpac.org
Five great Robert Cray songs
"Porch Light" (1985) Cray had been making solid blues albums for five years when producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker helped him develop a new storytelling style that perfectly fit his beautifully clear voice and even clearer guitar licks. Walker wrote this song about a lover who shows up "like a criminal" when the husband is away.
"Right Next Door (Because of Me)" (1986) On stage recently, Cray jokingly gave credit to his bandmate Cousins for this breakthrough story-song told from the rare homewrecker's perspective. Actually, the writer was Walker, a thrice-married record producer who took what Cray calls a "really visual" approach to narrative lyrics.
"I'm a Good Man" (1992) Six years after "Right Next Door," Cray's narrator appears to have settled down, and he's ready to convince his partner he's not so bad after all -- despite the occasional yelling. "I'll make you happy if it's the last thing I do," he sings.
"Does It Really Matter" (2005) In a song about senior moments set to a Motown beat, Cray gives life to Jim Pugh's line "Did you forget the heat? / 'cause I'm getting chills."
"Nobody's Fault But Mine" (2014) Blind Willie Johnson by way of Led Zeppelin, Cray and his bandmates take a straightforward rock and roll approach to this haunted traditional song, and a snappy horn section makes up for the lack of insane John Bonham drumming.