Bluesman Robert Cray coming to Mystic Theatre in Petaluma
Robert Cray was slated to be on tour with legendary guitarist Eric Clapton this fall.
But after Clapton and Van Morrison collaborated on the anti-vaccine song “Stand and Deliver,” Cray told his old friend he couldn’t open for him.
“I’m not associating with anybody who’s going to be that selfish,” Cray said in a phone interview.
The message of “Stand and Deliver,” starting with the line, “You let ’em put the fear on you … but not a word you heard was true,” is “just the total opposite of what I, and people I know, are all about,” Cray said.
The song, written by Morrison, gets even more provocative in the second verse when Clapton sings, “Do you wanna be a free man, or do you wanna be a slave?”
Comparing mask mandates and public health efforts to slavery “was just way out of bounds,” Cray said. “You know, he’s playing this kind of music (blues) that came about through slavery.”
After 35 years of friendship, Cray contacted Clapton, thinking he could have a productive conversation about “Stand and Deliver.”
Cray was wrong. He said Clapton has become “standoffish” recently and that he dismissed the slavery line as a reference to British servitude centuries ago.
Clapton has “a huge voice, and he could do so much for people during this crisis,” Cray said. “And he’s not using it the right way.”
But Clapton’s loss is the North Bay’s gain. Cray will play Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre on Tuesday, Dec. 7.
Cray, 68, was born in Georgia, the son of a U.S. Army quartermaster. His family moved often during his youth.
He eventually settled in the Pacific Northwest and formed his band with schoolmate Richard Cousins, who still plays bass with Cray, in Eugene, Oregon.
Cray was dubbed an overnight success in 1986 when his album “Strong Persuader” — with the song “Smoking Gun” — was a critical and commercial hit.
Yet Cray had been a working musician for more than a decade before the release of “Strong Persuader,” playing gritty clubs, developing his voice and honing his chops on guitar.
“It was all the hours, the weeks and months and years, being in the bars, where you did 30, 35, 40 songs a night,” Cray said in 2012. “Those were the proving grounds.”
None other than blues icon B.B. King hailed Cray as the torchbearer who could carry blues to the next generation.
Cray has won five Grammy Awards (and has been nominated 16 times). When he was enshrined in the Blues Hall of Fame, he was its youngest member.
Yet he doesn’t think much about the accolades.
“They’re great to have, but then there’s the next day,” he said.
Blues music doesn’t get the attention rock and pop does, he noted. Even so, the awards “keep your name out there for a minute,” and the recognition helps the band continue to tour.
Cray doesn’t limit himself to the blues. His songs include elements of R&B, soul, rock and gospel, sometimes with a dash of reggae.
“We used to get knocked quite a bit because of the variety of music that we brought in,” Cray said.
“I heard Jimi Hendrix; I saw Jimi Hendrix; all that stuff couldn’t be denied. So ours was a mixture,” he said.
“A lot of other bands were putting on suits and ties, pretending to be blues guys. We didn't wear the uniforms.
“And we didn’t play “Sweet Home Chicago” (the Robert Johnson standard) every night. We were different, and so yeah, we got knocked, but we do what we do.”
Among blues superstars
Starting early in his career, Cray has played with icons most musicians could only dream of jamming with.
He joined Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland as an equal partner on the blistering 1985 album “Showdown.” The title rightfully suggests a guitar battle — one that ends with everyone winning, especially the listener.
One night in Montana, Cray and his band opened for John Lee Hooker, then served as his backing musicians.
“John just came out started playing,” Cray recalled. “He didn't tell us what key. And he made his changes whenever he wanted to, to the four chord or whatever. We just fine-tuned our hearing to listen to the front man, as you’re supposed to do, and play his music the way his music is played.”
The most stirring collaboration may have been with blues master Muddy Waters.
“We did about six shows with Muddy, and I was invited to do the encore ‘Mannish Boy’ on all those shows,” Cray said.
“But then there was one show we did at the Sacramento Blues Festival, where one of Muddy’s guitar players had to go back to Chicago. And (Waters) goes, ‘Robert, you think you can flip some of that Muddy Waters-style guitar?’
“So I was able to do the whole set with him. I'll always remember that.”
Cray’s most recent album, “That’s What I Heard,” is an eclectic mix of soulful blues and gospel songs, such as “Burying Ground.”
“Funky, cool and bad” is how Cray describes the album, released Feb. 28, 2020, just a couple weeks before sheltering in place began with the emerging pandemic.
Producer Steve Jordan said on Cray’s website that he “thought if we could get the kind of sound that early Sam Cooke records had, we could pull this off.”
As on Cray’s other albums over the course of his career, the singing is energetic and heartfelt, the guitar work on his Stratocaster is sublime and the production impeccable.
A song on the album called “This Man” takes aim at then-President Donald Trump.
“Who is this man in our house? … Better get him out,” the song starts. Then the chorus: “If we wanna save our home, we need to get him out.”
Cray has written songs protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he’s gratified there were “military personnel who had our backs, who completely agreed with what we stated in these songs.”
But there’s been “blowback,” Cray said. He’s been told to “stay in his lane.”
His response to those critics: “Well, who are you to tell me what to say? That’s what this whole thing is about — you play music, talking about situations that affect you.”
Throughout his career, Cray has walked his talk, and his withdrawal from Clapton’s tour didn’t sound like a difficult decision.
“It’s more important now” to adhere to one’s principles, Cray said. “You have to fight.”
In his music, as in his life, Cray has long been willing to take a stand. And deliver.
Michael Shapiro writes about the performing arts for The Press Democrat and other publications.