Bluesman Robert Cray Tapped Into the Legacy of Royal Studios For His Latest Effort

click to enlarge Bluesman Robert Cray Tapped Into the Legacy of Royal Studios For His Latest Effort
Ronnie Booze
Veteran bluesman Robert Cray and drummer/producer Steve Jordan (Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, John Mayer) have done a slew of albums together over the years going back to Take Your Shoes Off, which was released in 1999 and snagged a Grammy Award for the best contemporary blues album the following year.

For nearly 20 years, Cray and Jordan have continued to collaborate, most recently on Cray’s 2014 album, In My Soul.

When it came time to think about the next album, Jordan had an idea. He suggested that Cray should come to Memphis to record at Royal Studios, employing the services of the house band, the Hi Rhythm Section. What came out of the experience was something that Jordan termed as “a soul, rhythm and blues fantasy camp,” something that Cray himself couldn’t argue.

“It was great. You know, you’re in that room and to hear Boo Mitchell, who is the engineer at the studio describe it, he talks about how over all of the years that Willie [his father, and founder of Royal Studios] was in charge of the studio, he fine-tuned it,” Cray recalls during a recent phone conversation from a tour stop in Northampton, Massachusetts. The Robert Cray Band performs at 8 p.m. on Wednesday at the Kent Stage.

“Boo, Steve and myself, we went to South by Southwest to talk about Royal Studios and the making of this record," he continues. "Boo came in with a tape of a couple of tracks and how the studio sounded when Willie first took it over in the ‘60s to the ‘70s when he had done one or two Al Green records at that particular time and the sound was just totally completely different. Willie tuned that studio and even though the studio hasn’t changed since the ‘70s...I mean, everything [is still the same]! You would think that it’s like a ragtag kind of funky place, but that studio is perfectly tuned! The drums are in the same spot. The organ has not been moved in 40 years. It’s in the same spot. It’s all kinds of crazy. All kinds of crazy stuff goes on in that studio.”

The legacy of Royal Studios includes a large string of gold and platinum records thanks to artists like Green who made the studio his longtime home base. Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner and Rod Stewart also recorded there, and in recent years, the studio has hosted artists like Paul Rodgers, My Morning Jacket, John Mayer and notably, Bruno Mars, who recorded his number one single “Uptown Funk” at Royal.

Cray says that when they went to the studio, they had one mission in mind.

“The whole idea was to go into their den, so to speak,” he explains. “Go into their studio where they’ve set their standard, you know, their groove, their feel. The sound and everything is there in that room. So it was just Steve and myself going into their land and becoming a part of the band. That was the whole take on going into the studio.”

According to Cray, they kept the arrangements loose, allowing the Hi Rhythm band, which still features Rev. Charles Hodges on organ and piano, brother Leroy “Flick” Hodges on bass and cousin Archie “Hubbie” Turner on keyboards, to work their magic. Jordan handled drumming duties on the album in addition to his production work.

They go long on “I’m With You,” the “5” Royales standard, which is broken up into two parts on the album. Cray confirms that the lengthy jamming is indicative of the way the record’s sessions went down.

“Yeah, there was a lot of that. I mean, there was jams when we weren’t even playing songs,” he says. “Steve would just get behind the kit and start playing and everybody would just fall in. 20 minutes later, we’d go, ‘Wow, that was pretty cool!’ [Laughs] We didn’t know what the hell we were doing. But that’s what set the whole vibe. Just making everything really loose and just being free and getting to know one another and see where everybody was at. That’s how it’s done.”

The album opens with “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh,” a choice pick from the Bill Withers catalog.

“I remember going back to the ‘70s and watching Midnight Special and all of that stuff like that, seeing Bill Withers on there,” Cray recalls. “But you know, I never really figured that I’d do a Bill Withers tune and on top of that, Steve’s always been trying to get me to do a Bill Withers tune, but we just couldn’t find the right one. You know, it’s not like there’s two million Bill Withers tunes out there, but all of the sudden, with the band this time, this one felt like the right one.

“We’re doing it now on the road,” he adds, giving a hint of what fans can expect when he plays the Kent Stage. “It’s a really bluesy tune, so it really falls into place.”

He says the Hi Rhythm Section made an impact, not just with the songs that they played on, but also, with the originals that he wrote for the record.

“‘The Way We Are,’ that one in particular, when I was putting it together, I was thinking of the Hi Rhythm section,” he says. “I think when I presented the song, everybody felt like that was the way to approach it. It just fell right into place. Then the obvious, with 'Just How Low,' it’s because of all what’s going on [with the current administration]. I just took the opportunity to write. Now, to me, it just seems like I should change verses. I mean, I should rewrite the verses of the song, because so many how things happen all of the time. That’s one that we haven’t really played on the stage. We played it with Hi Rhythm and Steve Jordan — we’ve been doing an occasional show here and there. But with the Cray band, we haven’t done it.”

In the closing moments of our conversation, we took a moment to ask Cray about his experience working with the late Chuck Berry on what would become the film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.

“From all of the stories you’ve heard and what you’ve seen in the video and all of that stuff, it was all pretty cool. I was the fly on the wall, soaking it all up,” he says. “You know, getting to know Keith [Richards] for the first time and of course, my best friend there was Eric [Clapton] at the time. But gaining a new friend in Chuck Berry, because he didn’t know me really. So I was the new kid and I could do no wrong at that particular point. It was really just like being a fly on the wall, watching Keith honor his hero. His hero being the type of person that Chuck became over the years, not really trusting anybody. All of that was going on for him and that was kind of wild. He did a lot of things in spite. You know, he loved everybody, but he had just changed.”

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