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Lifetime of Experience, Times Two : Blues: Robert Cray and the semi-retired John Lee Hooker share more than a love of the music. And on Sunday in Costa Mesa, they share a stage.

October 07, 1995|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Such is the nature of the blues that John Lee Hooker can talk about one of the "young ones" and be talking about Robert Cray, who at age 42 has several Grammys to his name.

The godfather of boogie and the younger star will appear on the same bill tonight at Universal Amphitheatre and Sunday at Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa. Although their styles differ--Cray favors an updated R&B-tinged sound--both carry the mantle of the blues and insist that this music takes a lifetime to hone.

Cray, ever the dutiful student, says he always looks forward to learning from Hooker.

"Nobody plays like him. But you can't ask him anything because he won't give you a straight answer," Cray said from New Haven, Conn., where his band was appearing. "You just have to be around him long enough to absorb things."

To which Hooker replied: "I've gotten mine, and now I want to give some of it away, give it to the young ones like Robert."

The weekend concerts constitute rare appearances by the 75-year-old Hooker. Having retired from touring last year, he now splits time between homes in Long Beach and Redwood City, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

No one could fault him for taking it easy.

The Mississippi-born bluesman began haunting clubs along Memphis' famous Beale Street in the early 1930s and made his first recording in 1948, after moving to Detroit. His early hits included "Boogie Chillun" and "I'm in the Mood," which sold more than a million copies in 1951.

During those years, Hooker recorded on numerous labels under a variety of names, including Delta John, Boogie Sam and Texas Slim. Such is the nature of the blues that he was constantly being "discovered" by new audiences.

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In the 1960s, American bohemians and British rock 'n' rollers stumbled upon the blues sound. Hooker subsequently worked with such mainstream performers as Canned Heat and Van Morrison.

Then came "The Blues Brothers" film in 1980, which offered Hooker screen time with comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. He parlayed that notoriety into nearly constant touring in the United States and Europe.

Most recently, his 1989 album "The Healer" sold a million copies and, in 1991, he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. All of which paved the way for his current semi-retirement.

"I paid a lotta dues," he said by phone from his Northern California home. "I just want to enjoy myself while I can."

That includes spending time with family and following the pennant races. A Dodgers fan from the team's days in Brooklyn, Hooker also is a friend of San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker and recently visited that team at 3Com Park.

But Hooker also makes time for occasional concerts. He said he still feels the thrill of performing.

"Once I get up there and get going, I forget about everything and just feel good," he said. "I won't ever get it out of my blood till I die."

Cray, now in the midst of a national tour to promote his new album, "Some Rainy Morning," is not surprised to hear that.

"It doesn't make a difference how old he is--he's a kid," Cray said. "He's always laughing and enjoying life."

The younger man's style is more relaxed; he speaks calmly and sincerely. Beginning in an unlikely setting--the Pacific Northwest--Cray played clubs in Portland and Eugene, Ore., in the mid-1970s. There, he polished a style that drew from gospel, jazz and soul as well as traditional blues.

After his 1980 recording debut, "Who's Been Talkin'," he toured the West Coast as an opening act for the likes of Hooker, Muddy Waters and Albert Collins. By 1986, Cray had earned a national reputation for his vibrant, soulful guitar playing. That year, his fourth album, "Strong Persuader," went platinum and landed Cray on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Suddenly his songs played on mainstream radio stations. Cray became a crossover success.

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For much of the past decade, he has toured with a large group that included a horn section. Now, the Robert Cray Band has been pared down to a quartet and is focusing on a cleaner, simpler sound.

The material for "Some Rainy Morning" varies from modern love songs to old-style hurtin'-and-healin' tunes. Dominant guitar licks have taken a back seat to vocals, song structure and the combined talents of the band.

"We had been a quartet in the earlier days," Cray said. "I could feel the quartet ready to jump, ready to move, and I thought it would be a good change.

"With the horns, everybody just played their part. A quartet has to work harder. There's a whole lot of space there, and it doesn't mean you have to fill it, but you have to listen. When you play something, it stands out."

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The change has received mixed reviews. Some critics accuse Cray of burying the blues under a cool pop sheen. But Times reviewer Steve Hochman praised a 1994 performance for its grace and finesse.

"He's not the hard blues like me. He's got that R&B," Hooker said. "But he's still the blues. He's keeping it alive."

And Cray figures that the more time he spends around Hooker, the more the old blues will rub off on him.

"Sometimes you forget how much of an influence he has been and that he's one of the last guys who has his own unique style," Cray said. "He doesn't play in your strict 12-bar blues structure. He sings his song and changes according to the lyrics. The bars could be any length, and, once you come to that realization, it's cool."

But music theory is only a small aspect of what a young man might learn from a legend.

"You can learn a guitar lick," Cray said. "But you can't know the reason behind the lick unless you have lived what he has lived."

* The Robert Cray Band, with special guest John Lee Hooker, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Buckwheat Zydeco play tonight at Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City. 6:45 p.m. $17.50 to $47. (818) 622-4440. Also Sunday at Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. 5 p.m. $15 to $42.50. (714) 740-2000.

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