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Converging shades of blue

Robert Cray carries on John Lee Hooker's eclectic blues tradition

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Shoulda Been Home, the title of Robert Cray's latest on the Rykodisc label, is a reference to the rigors of romance, the kind of stuff he sings the blues about. But it's also how he felt when he found himself embarking for a European tour a couple of months back, just when news of the death of blues veteran John Lee Hooker caught up with him.

"The sad thing is, I wished I'd been home when he passed away," reflects Cray, who for several decades had shared California residency, management by the Rosebud Agency and occasional live and studio sessions with Hooker. "Now every time I think about him, I smile," Cray says, "'cause he always seemed to be having a good time, especially when he was performing."

When his band plays Piedmont Park Sept. 2, Cray will again showcase his eclectic and commercially successful way of carrying Hooker's blue joy into the 21st century. The two blues stars' admiration was reciprocal.

"He's one of my young heroes," Hooker told me in a chat shortly after Cray's participation in his Lucky Man recording sessions. "I don't look at myself as a legend, I just look at myself as a blues singer who got known," he continued, dismissing his profound influence on Cray and on millions of fans worldwide. "But I look at Robert for the future."

The future, according to Cray and such contemporaries as Keb' Mo' and Alvin Youngblood Hart, apparently comes in blues of all kinds, from Delta roots to the dynamism of Detroit and Chicago to the laid-back soul of California to contemporary rhythm-and-blues ballads. "I think that's a natural thing for people of our generation, having listened to all different kinds of music coming up," says Cray, who as a U.S. Army offspring also listened in a lot of different places. He was born in Columbus, Ga., but figures that his first experience of John Lee Hooker "could have been in Germany in the early '60s, because we did a lot of listening to records during that time. My dad had a really good collection, so we heard blues, jazz, current pop things, New Orleans and gospel."

By the time he'd turned 16 and taken up guitar, Hooker and other older blues makers had become Cray's heroes. "I got a bunch of books and started reading about these people, trying to put it into perspective," Cray remembers. Based in the Northwest in 1974, Cray and bassist Richard Cousins started a blues band (which kept Cray moving around more than his father had) at the demand of West Coast fans entranced by the smoothly handsome young singer/guitarist/songwriter's sinuous tenor voice and his scalding fretboard and picking techniques.

"Richard and I were living up in Tacoma, and we moved down to Eugene, Ore.," Cray recalls. "And all of a sudden there were all kinds of dudes playing this [blues] style of music, and jazz bands, too, and there were all these blues societies, from San Francisco to Wichita. So boom!, we were right in the club scene, in Portland and up and down the coast."

Among his more fateful gigs were regular bookings, beginning in the early '80s, at Larry Blake's Rathskeller, a block from the University of California at Berkeley. The rest of the current incarnation of the Robert Cray Band, keyboardist Jim Pugh, bassist Karl Sevareid and drummer Kevin Hayes, were all members of the Rat Band, the Rathskeller's house unit, although Cray's first recordings were with different players. The singer found himself popular in England, with Eric Clapton and Keith Richards among his fans, before hitting in his home country with Strong Persuader, released in 1986 on Mercury. The album showcased Cray's affecting embrace of blues, soul, R&B and pop, and won him his second Grammy; he'd shared his first for Showdown! in 1985 with blues giants Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. Cray garnered three more for later efforts under his own name.

Throughout the '90s, Cray continued to collaborate with older bluesmen and was recruited by rockers Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner. His contribution to the title tune of John Lee Hooker's 1991 recorded jam, Mr. Lucky (Charisma Records), helped make that track the veteran's favorite.

"It's just the way Robert sounds," Hooker said, adding with a wry smile, "and he plays more harder blues with me than he do on his own stuff."

To enhance some of his own tracks, Cray brought in the famed Memphis Horns. His current and previous albums have been helmed by Steve Jordan, previously producer for Keith Richards and the Neville Brothers and also a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist.

"He brings a different energy into the mix," says Cray about Jordan. "And he makes it fun, just by making every song have its own signature, and also joining us as the fifth band member on some things."

Several selections on Cray's Shoulda Been Home celebrate the Memphis Sound, redolent on many classic blues releases on the Hi and Stax labels. "For the horns [including Memphis Horns veteran Andrew Love and Otis Redding trumpeter Ben Cauley], we left Nashville to go do the songs in Willie Mitchell's studio in Memphis, where some of the great horn charts were recorded," recounts Cray. "The studio doesn't look like it's changed since the '70s, so we used some of the same gear. And for somebody like Steve and I, who have got this nostalgia about the place, this was Disneyland for soul freaks. We do have our roots planted in the blues background, but the soul thing we're associated with is not too far away from the same era as the straight blues we enjoy."

The latter is represented on the album by a cover of Elmore James' "Cry For Me Baby." And there's "the first time that we've gone into something that resembles a gospel-type feel," on Jim Pugh's "Out of Eden," one of several original tracks penned by the band. "Jim likes to sit in on organ in churches in Oakland on Sundays," Cray points out. "He's got his own fan base following him around from church to church." Cray is the only band member not currently residing in the San Francisco Bay Area; he moved south to L.A. a year-and-a-half ago, to facilitate the bourgeoning career of his actor-filmmaker wife Sue Turner-Cray, who also penned the lyrics for the break-up ballad "Far Away" and directed and produced a video for the soulful "No One Special," both from the new CD.

Cray already has noticed that the broad musical spectrum on "Shoulda Been Home" evokes enthusiasm from heterogeneous audiences in live performance. "It's all blues and R&B-based, but there's a wide variety of avenues from which to come down that line," he says. Somehow that brings him back to the legacy of Hooker. "The guy was an innovator, and that's what music needs, more innovators," testifies Cray. "'Cause when John Lee went, that was the last John Lee."

The Robert Cray Band plays the mainstage at the Montreux Atlanta Music Festival Sun., Sept. 2, at 9 p.m. Piedmont Park. Free. 404-817-6851, or www.atlantafestivals.com

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