Up close with the Strong Persuader

by Brian Clarey

In 1986 I bought a CD. I bought it because I was in the early stages of my education in the blues. I had heard of Robert Johnson by then, and I was listening to David Bromberg, BB King, the Rev. Gary Davis and Johnny Winter; I had yet to delve into the Muddy Waters catalogue and had only a passing familiarity with the thunderstorm known as Buddy Guy.

I bought this CD because it was, I thought, by a new artist – I had seen a video on MTV – but it sounded like the classics with which I was becoming familiar. The songs took on cheatin’ women, no-good men, love gone wrong and oh, so right, delivered with a smooth voice and accented by sweet guitar licks with an edge fine as a filet knife.

I listened to it. A lot. I brought it to college with me and turned my friends on to it. Over the years I played the songs on the jukeboxes of bars, popped the tape into car stereos, sang the lyrics in the shower. My wife and I still listen to it sometimes when we’re cooking dinner or playing cards.

I’m gonna put it on right now.

I get a constant busy signal/when I call you on the phone.

That’s Robert Cray, baby… the Strong Persuader. And because he’s playing the High Point Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 18, I get to call him on the phone.

Brian Clarey: When we were kids we used to play air guitar to your songs, and like you we’d position the guitar high up on our chests. I’ve always wanted to know why you hold your guitar so high.

Robert Cray: That’s so I can reach around it! That’s one thing that always cracks me up. I see people like Keith Richards hold their guitar down so low, I don’t see how he can wrap his fingers around the fingerpad. I always keep mine up, not super high, but so I could get around it. I think maybe that’s a rock and roll thing.

BC: You’re still a blues guy at heart. And at this point you’ve played with just about everybody – Clapton, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Taj Mahal… is there anyone else out there you want to play with?

RC: There’s a lot of people, but that kind of thing… a lot of things aren’t planned. I mean, tours and things are planned, but a lot of things happen spontaneously. You sit in with somebody and… I just kind of lay it all open, kind of say, ‘Let’s see what happens.’

BC: I’m sure a lot of people ask you about your role as bass player for Otis Day & the Knights in the film Animal House.

RC: Yeah…

BC: But even though it was a hit movie, it had virtually no effect on your career, which went along on its own for years until later on somebody made the connection. You didn’t really use it on your resume.

RC: Not much of an effect, that’s right – it has nothing to do with my career. But it had everything to do with the start of the Blues Brothers.

BC: Huh?

RC: [John] Belushi was in Eugene [Ore.] making the movie. And we had this splinter group called the Crayhawks, from the Cray Band and the Nighthawks, and we would play on off nights. Curtis Salgado was the lead singer of the Nighthawks, and we would switch, share in the duties. Belushi came into this Eugene hotel lounge when we were performing, and Curtis would take Belushi to his house and school him on the blues.

Belushi wasn’t even a star back then. At the time the film was being filmed in Eugene, we didn’t know who he was, because we were always working on Saturday nights.

One night someone said, “You should invite him on stage, he does a great Joe Cocker impersonation.” So we invited him up. He did a great Joe Cocker.

But the Blues Brothers, that’s how the idea first got talked about. Curtis wore prescription Ray-Ban shades, and the black suit and all that, and when that first album was released [1978’s Briefcase Full of Blues], they dedicated it to Curtis. And when they performed their first show on “Saturday Night Live,” they announced them like “With the help of Curtis Salgado and the Cray Band, we give you the Blues Brothers.”

BC: Wow.

RC: Yeah.

BC: I remember reading in Rolling Stone a long time ago that you and the guys in the band would play basketball on the road. Do you still do that, and do they still call you “Night Train”?

RC: We haven’t done that for a long time. That was back when we had a bunch of guys who would play. Back in the day we used to play quite a bit together. We were able to run a little more than we can now. Not that we’re out of shape, but we don’t have the same enthusiasm.

BC: Your website says you like to cook. What’s the last thing you cooked?

RC: I broiled some salmon last night on the grill, wild king salmon. I just put some sea salt on top – that’s how I like it, plain and simple.

Robert Cray performs at the High Point Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 18.