Strong Persuader Robert Cray Sings to Prove There's Pop Life Left in the Blues

The chant begins as bluesman Robert Cray ends Strong Persuader, an alarming soliloquy of a song about jealousy and betrayal. As he sings the last line—”In the silence I can hear their breaking hearts”—adding emotional italics with his stinging guitar playing, he stands triumphant, Othello with a ’64 Stratocaster. Then the chant begins: “We want HUEY!”

The 9,000 white teenagers inside Orlando’s Convention Center have come to see tonight’s headliners, Huey Lewis & the News, not the Robert Cray Band, whose name isn’t even mentioned on the marquee. Still, as the chant builds, Cray grins; he puts a hand to his ear and playfully inquires, “Who?” Later he acknowledges that opening for Lewis can be unnerving but insists, “It’s a good thing for us. It’s humbling. I like the challenge. We’ve been thriving on challenges since we started 13 years ago: doing what we love for people who don’t know this kind of music and don’t know us at all.”

The number of pop-rock fans who have never heard of Robert Cray may soon comprise what New Math teachers used to call “the empty set.” Cray is currently enjoying one of those once-in-a-career Hat Trick years: a hit album (his Strong Persuader LP); great reviews (Rolling Stone’s critics named him best R&B artist); and hip word-of-mouth (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards reportedly want him to play on upcoming solo projects). TIME found his guitar work “precise as a laser beam” and the New York Times couldn’t say enough about the way his “soaring mellifluous tenor” wrapped around lyrics like “You messed up my life, why wreck my day?”

Purists may wish Cray’s blues had more of the old masters’ raw cathartic power. But Cray, 33, believes his clean, rock-influenced sound is new and progressive, yet tethered to the old form. “All the blues greats took chances and developed their own style,” he says. “They didn’t copy. They dared to be different, which is what we want to do. Our songs are about cheating and sneaking around, about being dumbfounded by love. They’re blues songs, but with a twist, a little sarcasm.”

The kind of hard luck and trouble that stalked most early bluesmen never scarred Cray. Born in Columbus, Ga., he grew up mostly in the Pacific Northwest, where his father, a career soldier, was stationed between stints in California and Germany. Cray studied classical piano until the Beatles swamped the airwaves in the mid-’60s. “That’s when I got a guitar,” he recalls. “I was just 12, but being an Army brat had to do with why I stuck to it. I was pretty shy, not too outgoing. So when we’d move around I just had my friend in my hand, my guitar.”

Cray’s teenage passion for rock turned into an obsession with the blues when, during his senior year, he began listening to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. “I realized I was tired of singing about trees and flowers,” he says. “I wanted to sing about real life. From then on, nobody could tell me anything was better than blues.”

After high school, Cray gigged around Tacoma and Eugene, Ore. before starting the Robert Cray Band in 1974. “I always figured there was room for us in this business,” says Cray, who played small clubs on the blues circuit for 13 years and occasionally backed blues great Albert Collins. “I knew if we stuck around and stayed in everybody’s faces, they were gonna have to like us sooner or later.”

With a hit record and months of roadwork ahead—the band is booked for dates with Lewis, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner—Cray has no plans to settle down. “I have a girlfriend,” he says, “but I’m not thinking about marriage and family now. It’s not fair to have somebody sitting home waiting for me—that kind of macho thing.”

That’s not a sentiment typical of the swaggering bluesmen of yore. But Cray, who admits to a “time when I was every woman’s man,” may be a blues-man of a new era. “Now,” he says, “I’m a one-woman man. Pretty much.”

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