Robert Cray is one of the more visible American bluesmen under 1,000 years old. He's not from the Mississippi Delta or Chicago, but rather from everywhere, since his father was a career Army man.
Cray, 39, will be sharing a bill Tuesday night with those legendary rockers Little Feat at the Santa Barbara County Bowl--the place that charges you an arm and a leg, your first born, and still makes you walk uphill until you're panting like the Fugitive.
Sometimes ya gotta suffer for rock 'n' roll.
Cray has been playing the blues since 1974 and his sufferin' days are, apparently, over. While most blues guys are packed--like peanuts in a Payday--inside a sputtering van driving 600 miles every day between gigs, Cray is doing the big tour-bus cruise.
"I think my success has to do with a lot of things, but a lot of it has to do with being on a major label, Mercury," said Cray, who spoke by telephone from his Bay Area home before kicking off his current tour.
"A major company like that is in business to sell things, to make money. They look for someone that's young. I think the blues are doing better, as a matter of fact. Mercury has revived the Verve label and they recently signed Johnny Copeland," he said.
In the pre-Mercury days, however, Cray and his band did their fair share of cruising around playing for peanuts, and once for the peanut gallery itself.
"Back in the early '80s, we got a gig for a week and a half from the Arizona Arts Commission," Cray recalled. "We played colleges, high schools and elementary schools. I remember one time we played for a kindergarten and nursery school. We were up on the porch playing and all these nursery school kids were playing in a big sandbox. I guess the staff wanted to hear us."
Cray's breakthrough album was "Strong Persuader" in 1986, his Mercury debut. That record won a Grammy and yielded a pair of hits, "Smoking Gun" and "Right Next Door (Because of Me)." Cray's fourth album for Mercury (and seventh overall), to be released in October, will be "Shame and A Sin." Cray will certainly play some of the new stuff at the S. B. gig.
"We have to wait through the summer to release the album," Cray said. "First, it has to be a simultaneous release in the United States and Europe. If you just do Europe, for example, there'll be bootlegs. Also, if it came out in August and something took off, no one would hear it in Europe because that's their traditional vacation month. They pay attention to American music over there. After all, we invented blues, rock 'n' roll, country and jazz music."
For about the last decade, Cray's bio is like a Who's Who in rock 'n' roll. He's played with Tina Turner, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards, and did a Guitar Legends gig with all the hot dudes.
Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker and Steve Cropper offer glowing testimonials on Cray's bio, which weighs more than a lead guitar on a battleship. It's great to have fans, and Cray has plenty because in addition to being a fluid player, Cray has a voice smoother than a slug in a can of Crisco.
"It's hard to put a one-word name on what I do," said Cray, getting philosophical for a moment. "I just call it blues and R & B with touches of this and that. I have no idea what I'd be doing otherwise. My mom bought my first guitar for me when I was 12 years old."
Since then, Cray has listened to other players such aB. King, Jimmie Vaughan, Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix. If you dance with the gods, they'll lead you to paradise, and some of that talent has apparently rubbed off. Including that of fellow Bay Area blues dude, John Lee Hooker.
"When people talk about John Lee Hooker, they talk about longevity," Cray said. "I'd like someday to have people feel the same way about me."
* WHERE AND WHEN
Little Feat & the Robert Cray Band at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, 1122 Milpas St., Tuesday night, 7 p.m. Tickets: $24.50, $28.50 or $32.50. For tickets, 568-2695.