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MUSIC: Ventura County | ROCKTALK

Bucking Blues Tradition

Robert Cray sells a lot of records and doesn't wear a suit.

January 22, 1998|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robert Cray is one of the more identifiable blues men who's less than a million years old and wasn't born in Mississippi or Texas. The fortysomething Cray, who is from Seattle, will stop by the Ventura Theatre on Tuesday night to play some tunes, including a few off his 10th and latest album, "Sweet Potato Pie." Another veteran blues guitarist, John Hammond, will open the festivities.

Cray is just another one of those 20-years-on-the-road overnight sensations. One reason for his success was that he got signed to a major label. Mercury has plenty of dough for promotion, while most other blues men are on Alligator, Blacktop, Blind Pig or smaller labels even their girlfriends couldn't name. There may come a time when more blues men are able to extricate themselves from the Bob's Bar & Grill & Record Co. small-label scenario.

"I think more blues bands are going to get signed," said Cray during a recent phone interview. "Mercury has opened up their Verve label again and have signed Joe Louis Walker and Ronnie Earl. There's more blues bands now than I can ever remember and there's quite a few clubs that book blues bands. It's about time."

Cray's big break came in 1986, with the success of his fourth album and Mercury debut, "Strong Persuader." The album not only won a Grammy but yielded hit singles such as "Smoking Gun" and "Right Next Door (Because of Me)." And winning a Grammy never hurts.

"Sure, winning a Grammy helped me. It made people take notice by seeing the record in the bin with a Grammy sticker on it. And 'Sweet Potato Pie' is doing pretty good too, but you know, it's been out for a while now."

More blues guys may be getting signed, which just reinforces an established fact: Blues men play a lot. Probably half of all interstate traffic is actually composed of blues dudes heading to the next gig. Although he's working himself to death by rock 'n' roll standards, Cray is cruising compared to other blues men.

"People think that we sleep all day, and just live the good life," he said. "On stage, it's fine, but during the day and driving, we're in the dungeon. We don't stay out on the road for a year at a time anymore. We'll go out for three or four weeks, then come home for a week or so. Blues people don't survive by their record sales so they have to play more."

But in the pre-Mercury days, Cray drove to his share of dues-paying gigs jammed in a van like peanuts in a Mr. Goodbar, playing for peanuts and, once, even playing for the peanut gallery itself.

"It was years ago in the early '70s. We were working for the Arizona Arts Commission and they got us a gig at a nursery school," he said. "I remember we were out on the steps playing for the staff, and all the kids were playing in this giant sandbox. I guess someone on the staff wanted to hear us."

While blues music itself doesn't seem to change a whole lot, at least one of the customs seems to be changing. Blues men have traditionally taken the dress-to-impress notion very seriously. Last month, for example, John Lee Hooker took to the stage wearing a suit that would make Mr. Blackwell stutter. Cray will be the guitarist on the big stage at the Ventura Theatre not wearing a suit.

"I don't know about the clothes thing, but it's part of the blues tradition, I guess," he said. "Those old jazz guys were like that, too. But you know, Muddy Waters used to always wear suits, but he ended up wearing Hawaiian shirts."

Cray has played with a lot of famous guys in swell suits, such as Waters, Hooker, B.B. King and Willie Dixon, but also rockers such as the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and countless others. The guitarist's bio weighs more than a Mercury.

Cray got started in the usual way: He saw people doing what he realized he wanted to do.

"I got a guitar when the Beatles came out. Before that I played the piano, but the Beatles made it look cool to play guitar," he said. "These days, I think Stevie Ray Vaughan has a lot to do with the blues becoming more popular. People get into him, then go back to find out who influenced him."

And who knows? Cray may well be inspiring the next generation of blues guitarists--and not just because of his guitar work, but because of his attitude. Along with his road band of Jim Pugh on keyboards, Karl Severeid on bass and Kevin Hayes on drums, Cray may be playing the blues, but he sure ain't got 'em.

"I see us doing pretty much the same thing we always do. We play a combination of a lot of different styles. There's R&B, blues, but also some gospel and some rock," he said. "We go on the road. We make a record sometimes. It's a gig. I love it."

BE THERE

Robert Cray Band and John Hammond at the Ventura Theatre, 26 Chestnut St., Tuesday, 8 p.m. Cost: $25. Call: 653-0721.

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