Robert Cray: Souled Out!
He suffers from the same fate as welterweight boxing champ Oscar de la Hoya—a perception that he’s too pretty, too clean to be real. Weighed against a legacy of gruff voiced, barrel chested blind and/or otherwise infirmed bluesmen who reputedly sold their souls to the devil, Robert Cray doesn’t stand a chance. He really is too pretty and clean to play into that lore.
Liberated from expectations of what constitutes a real deal “bluesman,” Cray fares much better. No, he’s not in the same league with whiskey drinkin’, razor-totin’, Paul Bunyanesque blues icons like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter. But as a purveyor of sweet soul music, there is none finer on the contemporary scene than Mr. Cray, whose sultry, sanctified debut on Rykodisc, Take Your Shoes Off , occupies a lofty position somewhere up near Al Green, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding on the soul Richter scale.
One case in point, “Let Me Know,” from the new album, will convince anybody who ever doubted Cray’s emotional depth, who has ever written him off as yuppie flavor of the month. His delivery on this original number is positively spine-tingling, in the great tradition of the old school “Memphis Sound.” The brutal honesty that he conveys on “What About Me” is almost too much to bear for the brokenhearted, and that’s good. Sometimes the truth does indeed hurt. “It’s All Gone” is as spiritually uplifting as Al Green’s “I’m So in Love With You” (he even slyly refers to that soul anthem when he whispers, “Listen Sugar when I tell you I’m still in love with you”) and his dramatic reading of his own gospel-soaked soul ballad “That Wasn’t Me” is another emotional highpoint of the album while “24-7 Man” is brimming with ebullient party energy.
A key to the success of this soul-stirring session was producer Steve Jordan’s brilliant idea to close-mike Cray to bring out more subtle layers of the man’s gifts. Not having to strain his vocal cords above the band allowed Cray to more effortlessly float over the Stax/Voltish grooves that prevail on Take Your Shoes Off . Revealing a more intimate, sensuous side, Cray demonstrates melisma is to die for...like honey on butterfly wings (as opposed to the bluesman’s standard grease on pork ribs).
“Steve just had me be relaxed throughout the session and not sing so hard,” explains Cray. “He was always on me to not sing from the back of my throat, which I do sometimes. But singing in a relaxed manner puts you in a different mood about the whole thing. You start listening more to the song. And there’s a different delivery that you do singing soft and really hearing everything that you do. We also messed around with a lot of different microphones in the studio. Once you get really close to a good mike, if you haven’t done it for a while...man, it can be really intimidating. So you have to learn how to work with that. For instance, on ‘That Wasn’t Me’ there’s a segment where I just speak, which is really closely miked. We brought it up to the point where you can hear me swallowing and all that. It was wild but I got used to it anyway. And that level of intimacy, I think, really connects more directly with people.”
While Take Your Shoes Off is not a complete reinventing of Robert Cray—he has on past outings alluded to a fondness for Stax/Volt grooves and soul singers like O.V. Wright—it is his most fully realized project in this Memphis direction to date. And he credits a lot of that to producer Jordan.
“When we had rehearsals before going into the studio, I didn’t really think that we had anything that was going to make the record that much different,” says Cray. “But we worked with Steve Jordan on the production of this record. And he took the ideas that we had, including the way that we had rehearsed the songs, and just totally turned them around and got us locked into all these different grooves that we wouldn’t have done on our own. That really gave some spirit and life into the music when we did the recording. We’ve tried to do it on our own, to capture that kind of groove. And we’ve worked with the Memphis Horns in the past and got some good things going. But when Steve came in and added a few more definitive sounds, like that classic Al Jackson Jr. drum sound, he got us locked into a groove. He being a lot more experienced in that kind of thing just brought it around, I think, really good for this record.”
An acclaimed drummer with some heavyweight production credits, including albums by Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, and the Neville Brothers, Steve Jordan has a keen appreciation of Al Jackson Jr., the legendary Memphis drummer whose signature grooves graced classic soul recordings behind the likes of Booker T & The MGs, Al Green, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, and Sam & Dave. Jordan brought all of his expertise in the vintage Stax/Volt/Hi vibe to bear on this Cray session. Jordan’s own composerly contribution, “It’s All Gone,” bears more than a little resemblance to Al Green classics like “Let’s Stay Together” and “I’m Still in Love With You.” As Cray explains, “I guess he recorded that mostly at his house and we worked on it some more at the studio. Being highly familiar with that Al Green sound, he wanted to capture some of that same kind of spirit on some of the songs that we did. And he had the drums tuned just right for it.”
Aside from all the inspired cooing heard on Take Your Shoes Off , Cray continues to distinguish himself as a serious ax-slinger as well. His highly emotive, toe-curling guitar solo on “Let Me Know” echoes the vocal intensity of that sanctified offering. “What About Me” is chockfull of raunchy abandon on the fretboard while his six-string attack on the minor key “Pardon” stings with assuredness. Another guitaristic highlight on the album is his melodic, less-is-more turn on bajo sexto (an electric six-string bass made by Fender) on “There’s Nothing Wrong.” It’s as cool as it is low.
“Again, that was Steve Jordan’s idea,” says Robert. “I can’t give him enough credit for using a lot of different ideas throughout the session. But the thing that was really good about Steve was him bringing everybody in there to work together and really keeping a cool head about everything. You know how sometimes you get people in the studio and their tempers flare up. Steve never reacted to any of that stuff. He just always seems to get the best out of everybody, and it worked really well.”
Although Jordan and company went for a vintage Memphis sound, Take Your Shoes Off was in fact recorded in Nashville. “We were going to go back to the studio in Memphis where we recorded the last record [Ardent Studios],” he explains. “And then we got a really good deal on this studio in Nashville. We had access to two separate studios within the same building, so we were going to try to get one sound out of one and another sound out of the other room. And that was a big advantage for trial and error.”
Famed Memphis composer/arranger/producer Willie Mitchell—a name as synonymous with the “Memphis Sound” in soul as his rival Booker T. Jones—contributed the mellow opening tune, “Love Gone to Waste,” and did the horn arrangement on it as well. “Willie brought the horn section up from Memphis,” says Cray. “He drove up with the guys one afternoon, worked with the horns in the studio and then drove back in a matter of a couple of hours or so. Hit it and gone. Steve had done some work with Willie Mitchell before, so that was another thing that he brought into the record...me getting a chance to work with the great Willie Mitchell.”
Take Your Shoes Off may indeed still be placed in the blues bins. But as far as Robert is concerned, it should be found in the soul section of your local record store. “I’ve always had a hard time with somebody thinking of us as a blues act,” he maintains. “I think from word one, anything that we’ve laid down on wax or on CD has told a different story, and it’s definitely not straight blues.”
From 1986’s multi-platinum Strong Persuader to the persuasive barbecue party sounds of Take Your Shoes Off , Robert Cray is here to say: “I’m a Soul Man.”
He uses a Robert Cray model Fender Stratocaster from the custom shop. “It’s made out of two favorite guitars that I’had...a ’64 Strat and a ‘68 Strat, a combination of the two.” The pickups on this new custom Strat are hot Texas Specials. On stage, Robert plays through a couple of 35-watt Matchless amplifiers with a 4/10 cabinet for each head. He runs his signal through a Peavey reverb and a Vibroman, a unique pitch-bending vibrato system made by Cray’s guitar tech, Zach. For the Take Your Shoes Off session, he played mostly through Fender Bassman amps.
“I’ve been listening to Junior Parker a lot lately,” says Cray, “along with the Brazilian guitar player Baden Powell. I’ve got about ten of his albums. I also like listening to Thelonious Monk, Howlin’ Wolf, and older reggae stuff. That’s where I’m at.”
Originally published in July/August 1999