Artist: Robert Cray
Album: Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm
Release Date: 4.28.2017
It hardly seems possible that 31 years have gone by since Robert Cray took the world by storm with his 1986 Strong Persuader. Around that same time I recall interviewing Johnny “Clyde” Copeland who was gushing over Cray’s “soulful approach to everything he touches.” Some have long considered Cray more of a soul singer than a blues vocalist, because he is so smooth. So, it seems inevitably we would find Cray in the company of legendary Memphis sidemen, hearkening back to that Hi Records sound that was the hallmark of artists like Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, O.V. Wright, and many others. Arguably, Cray belonged here in the first place.
Cray has always managed to blur the lines of blues, soul, and R&B, a style that has carried him through over 20 albums and five Grammy wins. Collaborating with Grammy-winning producer/drummer, Steve Jordan, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of R&B, the two decided to make a classic soul album with the originators of that signature Hi sound. The surviving Hi Rhythm crew of Rev. Charles Hodges (piano, organ), Leroy “Flick” Hodges (bass), along with cousin Archie “Hubbie” Turner (keyboards) were tapped. The five musicians along with the Royal horns, strings, and background vocalists gathered in Royal Studios, the same place that produced the many classic records. “It was a soul, rhythm and blues fantasy camp for us. Those guys have been playing in that room for 50 years,” says Jordan.
Cray penned three songs, two love songs (“You Had My Heart” and “The Way We Are”) and the politically charged “Just How Low.” The distinctive Hi sound is evident from the get-go on Cray’s version of Bill Withers “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh.” The horn-driven “You Must Believe in Yourself” is a straight-ahead tribute to O.V. Wright and Hi Rhythm, which is labeled “(c/o Shemekia Copeland) in the liners. Interestingly, Cray chose two Tony Joe White songs, and White, a fan of Cray, joined the proceedings, contributing guitar on harmonica on the two tunes. “Aspen” is a moving ballad akin to White’s mega hit, “Rainy Night in Georgia.” The other side of White’s style is evident in “Don’t Steal My Love” as the blend of guitars and keyboards moves toward psychedelia. Some of Cray’s best guitar work is on the two Sir Mack Rice tunes, “I Don’t Care” and the funky “Honey Bad.” Cray also nods to the 5 Royales in “I’m With You Pt. 1”, closing with a full guitar extravaganza in “I’m With You Pt. 2.”
This is a very solid effort as you would expect from the classy Cray and these legendary sidemen. The Hi Sound may be classic but it never gets old. Jordan comments on Cray, “People gravitate to his guitar playing first, but I think he’s one of the best singers I’ve heard in my life, not only because of his singing ability, but his interpretations. He’s an honest soul.” As I said previously, Cray is a natural in this company. It seems like he belonged here in the first place.