Robert Cray and producer/legendary drummer Steve Jordan have made five albums together to date. For their latest collaboration, they decided they wanted to do something a bit different.
One night, Jordan sent a simple email: “I’ve got it: Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm.”
Hi Rhythm served as the house band for the likes of Al Green, Ann Peebles and others during Hi’s long and lucrative reign of the Memphis music scene. Jordan suggested not only that they work with Hi Rhythm but that they do so at the city’s famed Royal Studios, where the drummer had tracked with numerous artists over the years, including Keith Richards.
Offered the chance to work there himself, Cray offered a simple but enthusiastic, “Yeah, I’m into it.”
Jordan suggested they pool material from some Memphis greats with some Cray originals. There are cuts penned by Bill Withers and Tony Joe White as well as pieces originally cut by 5 Royales. There are also two cuts from Sir Mac Rice (“I Don’t Care” and “Honey Bad”), though Rice is perhaps best known for penning “Respect Yourself” and “Mustang Sally.”
“I didn’t know those Tony Joe White songs at all before we were selecting songs for the album,” Cray says. “There’s a lot of music out there.”
Cray has been performing since the early 1970s, appearing on concert stages in the U.S. and abroad in that time while trying to break through to the mainstream. That's exactly what happened in late 1986 with the release of the album Strong Persuader and the arrival of the single "Smoking Gun."
Simply titled Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm the new album follows a long string of releases that date back to 1980. He was already a veteran of some years by that time and would be at it a while longer before he would taste mainstream success. That of course came in the form of 1986’s Strong Persuader and its lead single, “Smoking Gun.” A second track, “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” earned the band attention as well. Though Cray was earning a reputation for topnotch recordings and live performances to that point neither he nor anyone in his band could be sure of the future.
“We figured at that particular time that we couldn’t work anymore,” he says. “We had three or four albums out before that. We had already been playing in and out of the country. When we started to hear the singles everywhere and started making videos and all of that, we figured, ‘Well, there’s more work to be had. We’re going to be working harder.’ It was all unexpected because of the kind of music that we were doing.”
Cray remained visible throughout the rest of the '80s, sharing stages with Eric Clapton and appearing alongside Keith Richards in the Rolling Stone guitarist's tribute to Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. It was also a time when other roots oriented music was gaining prominence with The Blasters, Fabulous Thunderbirds and Los Lobos keeping pace with Cray.
With a series of critically acclaimed albums and numerous awards behind him, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Honors & Awards, which he'll receive in September, Cray and his band continue to focus on one of their greatest strengths, live performance. Though some artists are prone to going out and playing only their latest hits or material that loosely fits together, Cray's shows follow an emotional arc.
“There’s got to be a structure,” he says. “You have to figure out when it’s a good time to play something that’s quiet and they’ll listen to. When is it the right time to do that? You structure the set that way. There’s still times when we’ll go out and not have a setlist but you still think about the audience that way: When to play a quiet song. You can go out and rock all night long but it’s not what the whole thing is about. Especially with the kinds of music that we do play, we want the audience to get a good sampling of what it is we do. You have to know when to play what. We do think about it a lot.”
Robert Cray performs at Hutchinson's Historic Fox Theatre Saturday evening.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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