(5 / 5)
He’s a soul man at heart. The voice, the guitar playing, the song writing. Robert Cray may well have Grammy awards and many accolades as a blues artist, but this veteran US star is most definitely full of soul in everything he does.
That has never been such a true statement as with his new album, “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm”. The Blues Hall of Famer travelled to Memphis with his friend, renowned Grammy-winning producer Steve Jordan, to make a classic soul album with Hi Rhythm, the band that helped create that sound.
Jordan and Cray met in 1987 while working on the concert film “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll”, a tribute to Chuck Berry. Steve produced Robert’s Grammy winning “Take Your Shoes Off”, in 1999, and a number of other albums, including his last release, “4 Nights of 40 Years Live”. He knew of Robert’s deep love of O.V. Wright and other Memphis soul legends, and suggested they take up residence at Royal Studios, where Wright, Ann Peebles, Al Green, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay and many others recorded with the venerable producer, songwriter, arranger and engineer, Willie Mitchell. The core of Mitchell’s Hi Rhythm band used on many of those landmark sessions was still around, though Mitchell himself had passed in 2010.
Set inside an old theatre, the funky Royal Studios looks much as it did when Al Green was cutting those classics for Hi Records. Guitarist Teenie Hodges has passed away, but his brothers Rev. Charles Hodges (organ and piano) and Leroy “Flick” Hodges (bass), along with cousin Archie “Hubbie” Turner (keyboards), were still there. “It was a soul, rhythm and blues, fantasy camp for us. Those guys have been playing in that room for 50 years,” says Jordan.
The album opens with a driving, soulful version of Bill Withers’ “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh.” Which sounds like it was written for Robert. Robert chose two Tony Joe White songs for the album, and White, a big fan of Cray, came up from Nashville to sit in. They are the moving ballad “Aspen, Colorado” (the sister song of his “Rainy Night in Georgia”). The other end of the spectrum is the swirling psychedelia of “Don’t Steal My Love.”
The tribute to O.V. Wright and Hi Rhythm is the gorgeous horn-driven version of “You Must Believe in Yourself.” Known for writing “Mustang Sally” and many other songs, Sir Mac Rice’s “I Don’t Care” follows on the album with an unforgettable hook, and Rice’s funky “Honey Bad” features more guitar brilliance from Cray. Moving into early R&B from the 5 Royales, Robert performs “I’m With You Pt. 1” then turns the guitar loose on “I’m With You Pt 2”, which closes the album. Robert penned “You Had My Heart” and “The Way We Are,” two lovely love songs. Many timeless soul songs were statements in a time of turmoil, and so it is again with Cray’s “Just How Low.”
Robert Cray has been blurring the lines between blues, soul and R&B for the past four decades, with five Grammy wins and more than 20 acclaimed albums. He always makes it very easy for me to review his records, as I have been doing since his first trip to the UK in the 1980s, before he was well known. I was invited to see him at Leicester Polytechnic before he’d had any success here, and was an unknown quantity. I got a tip off and went to see if he lived up to the praise he’d been given by my contact. Boy oh boy, did he? Blew me away. It was like Sam Cooke was up there with THAT voice, and then he lets rip on the guitar and my mind was well and truly blown. Killer band too.
Since then, our paths have crossed many times; me getting to shoot exclusive shots of Robert and Tina Turner, reviews and photos at many of his headline gigs, various face-to-face and telephone interviews and even shooting the official press photos at his wedding in 1990. Robert married an LA-based model who was born here. Susan Turner, now Susan Turner-Cray, born in Northamptonshire and moved with her parents to Leicestershire. Robert and Susan are still happily married and have a young son Winston.
Yeah, he makes my job as a reviewer easy; nothing at all to fault here. 11 classic soul cuts and everything in tact; the voice, the guitar playing, choice of material and the band, especially the band. Production values solid as a rock. Coming back to the guitar playing, there are some real “Wow!” moments when RC tears that signature Strat’ a new one. File under “Authentic”, “Real”, “Natural”, “Innate”. Or better still: “Robert Cray – Soul Man”.
Looking forward to catching him and the band on their 10-date UK tour, which kicks off in Belfast on 27th April and calls in to Cheltenham, Liverpool, Edinburgh, London, Salisbury, Guildford, Birmingham, Buxton and closes in Gateshead on 9th May.
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’