Guitarist and singer Robert Cray was back home in California last week, getting a few days off before resuming a tour that will bring him to The Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor on Tuesday, Oct. 3.
So what does the five-time Grammy Award winner and Blues Hall of Fame inductee do when he’s home?
“Just relax. Unwind, cook, do things around the yard,” Cray said by telephone.
He might sound like your neighbor. But chances are your neighbor isn’t capable of holding his own mixing it up with high-caliber guitar-slingers like Albert Collins, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. At home, though, Cray’s signature sunburst Stratocaster might not get as much attention as one of his soup recipes.
“I do a lot more listening than practicing,” Cray admitted.
What’s he been listening to? Jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan’s classic 1964 Blue Note release “The Sidewinder” and an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers album.
“Listening is good practice,” he said. “Those bands were great.”
Cray’s latest album, “Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm,” came out in April on Jay-Vee records. Recording with the legendary sidemen at Royal Studios in Memphis, home of Hi Records and where singers like O.V. Wright and Al Green cut hits, was the idea of producer and drummer Steve Jordan. Cray and Jordan first worked together during filming of the 1987 Chuck Berry tribute concert “Hail, Hail Rock and Roll,” which also featured Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards. Jordan subsequently produced several of Cray’s albums, including the 1999 Grammy-winning release “Take Your Shoes Off.”
Cray jumped at the chance to record at Royal. Since high school, he’s been a fan of Wright, who’s best known hit is probably “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” a song later covered by Otis Redding.
“He was my hero,” Cray said, adding that Wright was at first a gospel singer. “He could sing a ballad like no one else because of that gospel background.”
Willie Mitchell, who ran Hi Records as well as producing, arranging and playing trumpet on the company’s recordings, died in 2010. Guitarist Teenie Hodges had also passed away before Cray came to the studio for this record, but his brothers, organist Reverend Charles Hodges and bassist Leroy “Flick” Hodges, and their cousin keyboardist Archie “Hubbie” Turner were still working there.
Seeing Royal Studios for the first time was like going back in time.
“The place hasn’t changed since the ‘70s,” Cray said.
Inside, the walls are lined with photos of the many people who have recorded there. Jordan, who filled the drum chair for the sessions, used the same drums heard on all the Hi Records hits. Hodges’ Hammond B3 organ has been in the same spot for 40 years. The acoustics of the converted movie theater contribute to the specialness of the place, Cray said.
“The sound is there because of Willie Mitchell,” he said.
The album was recorded in seven days. Cray contributed two songs, “You Had My Heart” and “The Way We Are.” Other tunes came from Sir Mac Rice, the composer of “Mustang Sally,” and Tony Joe White of “Rainy Night in Georgia” fame, who came to the studio to sit in on his moving ballad “Aspen, Colorado.”
Cray speaks highly of working with the Hodges brothers and Turner. Little time was wasted on refining arrangements.
“Everybody seems to know what part to play,” he said. “I was just having a good time working with these guys.”
Since the album’s release, Cray has performed several concerts with the rhythm section from Hi Studios. They played earlier this month at the 16th annual Americana Music Honors and Awards in Nashville, where Cray was honored with a lifetime achievement award for performance. Hi Rhythm received an instrumentalist lifetime achievement award.
In Bar Harbor, and for most of the tour, the Cray Band has been backing the leader. The current lineup includes longtime Cray associates Richard Cousins on bass and organist Dover Weinberg.
“There’s this camaraderie that goes way back,” Cray said.
On drums is relative newcomer Terrance Clark. “He’s the young man kicking our butts.”
Cray said they’ll be playing songs from the new album and reaching back into the catalog as far as his first album, “Who’s Been Talking.” The Criterion audience might get to hear such Cray classics as “Smoking Gun” and “Right Next Door (Because of Me).” The setlist changes nightly, Cray said.
Tickets for Robert Cray’s Oct. 3 concert are $60 and $40 and available by calling the Criterion at 288-0829, at the box office or online at criteriontheatre.org. The show begins at 8 p.m.