When you’re a Grammy-winning bluesman who has rubbed shoulders and shared songs with the rock and soul elite for more than three decades, what territories are left to be won? For Robert Cray, such turf revealed itself in Memphis, at the famed recording studio with a sense of legend and prestige that is embodied in its name:
Under the direction of producer Willie Mitchell, R&B giants Solomon Burke, Bobby Blue Bland and Ann Peebles recorded some of their most cherished music at Royal. This also was where Al Green cut his vanguard ’70s hits for the Hi Records label. But rock ’n’ rollers found a home there, too: John Mayer, My Morning Jacket and Rod Stewart made music at Royal.
Mitchell died in 2010, but the studio never slowed down. In fact, two members of its famed Hi Rhythm Section, organist Charles Hodges and his bassist brother Leroy Hodges, still record there, with Mitchell’s family overseeing the operation of Royal. The Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars mega-hit “Uptown Funk” was recorded at Royal. The mix of history and vitality prompted drummer and producer Steve Jordan to suggest Royal Studios for his newest recording project with Cray.
“While we knew we were going to do another record together, Steve and I had different ideas of what we wanted to do. Then all of a sudden, he sent me an email saying, ‘I got it. ‘Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm.’ We’ll record at Royal. So I’m like, ‘OK. Fantastic.’
“From the moment when you walk in at Royal, you see pictures of Willie Mitchell, you see pictures of Al Green, you see pictures of people like Ann Peebles and you just go, ‘This is where the magic was made.’ It puts you in that mood, plus you’re playing with the same players that made that music. It was great.”
The record – titled, as promised, “Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm” — might have employed the Hodges brothers, their keyboardist cousin Archie “Hubbie” Turner and Jordan in place of the longstanding Robert Cray Band. But the vintage-flavored music they created played out as naturally as it did on many of the guitarist’s previous albums. The mix of soul and blues remains unchanged.
“The stories with both are the same,” Cray said. “It’s just that the delivery is a little bit different.”
The repertoire is even more expansive, with songs by Bill Withers (the churchy, orchestral album opener “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”), The 5 Royales (the two-part soul scorcher “I’m With You,” the conclusion of which lets Cray loose on a jubilant guitar solo) and a pair of original tunes that fit easily with the record’s retro feel (“You Had My Heart” and “The Way We Are”).
Among the highlights are two songs by Tony Joe White (“Aspen, Colorado” and “Don’t Steal My Love”) that feature the esteemed Louisiana guitarist and song stylist sitting in.
“He is just the coolest cat in the world,” Cray said of White. “He’s so casual and nonchalant, but he really wanted to be at the sessions. It was great for us to have had the opportunity to work with Tony Joe. He’s so cool.”
One of the many greats to have recorded at Royal was Chuck Berry. The rock forefather, who died a month before “Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm” was released in April, figured prominently in the guitarist’s career. Cray and Jordan were among the artists featured in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 concert documentary celebrating Berry’s music, “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll.” The guest list included Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Walsh and an artist especially intrigued by the new blues music Cray was just starting to get noticed for: Keith Richards.
“You see, ‘Strong Persuader’ (Cray’s Grammy-winning 1986 breakthrough album) hadn’t even been released yet when we did these shows. So we had our meeting in Keith’s hotel room, and there is this cassette player on the mantle. I looked at it and saw a tape in there with the handwritten title ‘Strong Persuader.’ I said, ‘Where did you get this?’ Keith went, ‘I’m a Rolling Stone. I’ve got everything.’ That broke the ice.
“I was the new kid on the block back then. I could do no wrong. Chuck was like, ‘Robert, let’s have coffee.’ He was the nicest man in the world to me.”