Near the halfway point of the Robert Cray Band's recent concert CD/DVD Cookin' in Mobile sits a light but learned reading of the blues chestnut Sitting on Top of the World.
In some ways, the performance is a testimonial that deviates from the multi-Grammy-winning Cray's usual blues-soul blend into something earthier. The Mobile version might not have the sheer revelatory might that Howlin' Wolf injected into the tune in the late 1950s, but it stands as an authoritative bit of blues reckoning from one of the music's most popular contemporary ambassadors.
On the other hand, if one were to take the tune and its lyrics literally, Sitting on Top of the World just might serve as a musical credo for Cray's career. After bursting onto blues, soul and rock circuits at the dawn of the '80s, Cray, 58, has maintained an astonishingly prolific recording career that has seen the release of 20 albums. And while rubbing performance shoulders with some of the blues' most time-honored participants (from John Lee Hooker to B.B. King to Eric Clapton to Albert Collins), he has forged an artistic visibility and fan base the old-fashioned way: with a touring regimen that has seldom relented over the decades.
"I consider our band to be really lucky," said Cray, who returns to the region for a performance Friday night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. "By that, I mean we're fortunate just to be working. It's so much more difficult these days to get that kind of foothold into a career. We managed to have a lot of success early on with Strong Persuader (Cray's 1986 breakthrough album). That sold a lot of records for us and kept us out on the road for a long time. And that is every musician's dream: to do what you want to do. And playing live is what we like to do."
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Cray's music has been distinguished by a devotion to soul and R&B. Whereas many contemporary blues acts use the amplification and bravado of rock 'n' roll to establish an audience, Cray has continually drawn from soul legends such as Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, both of whom are continually reflected in his clear and immensely expressive singing.
"There have been a lot of blues personalities who have helped me over the years that I have listened to, including Albert King and Bobby Bland," Cray said. "And then there is this whole R&B thing. Growing up, my parents had this incredible record collection. I discovered people like O.V. Wright (the Southern soul star known for hits like That's How Strong My Love Is). All of these great R&B singers also possessed this wonderful gospel influence. So I became torn early on between becoming an R&B singer or a blues guitar player."
So he became both. On the guitar end, Cray did what every kid his age did in the 1960s — he followed what he heard on the radio. And what he heard was The Beatles. So along with the litany of blues musicians who came to inspire his playing came a name that fell well outside the South, and the blues — George Harrison.
"It was The Beatles that inspired me, as they did with so many other kids in the '60s, just to get a guitar," Cray said. "Back then I listened to a lot of Beatles music along with all of the other blues music that came along. I still enjoy Beatles music to this day."
Among the many popular artists to champion Cray's music in the wake of Strong Persuader was Eric Clapton. The friendship continues to this day. When Cray found himself opening a week's worth of performances for Clapton at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2006, the opportunity presented itself to make a concert album that became Live From Across the Pond.
"There had been other attempts to make live recordings, but they all went south. You would only have one shot, one performance to record them. And most of the time I would clam up or some of the players would clam up or it just wouldn't be a good night. But with seven nights at the Royal Albert Hall, we had the perfect situation to pick and choose the songs we wanted. So we really took advantage of that."
What Cray didn't realize at the time, though, was Live From Across the Pond, his first official live album, would be the first of four concert recordings to be released during the following five years.
In 2008 came Live at the BBC, a disc boasting radio performances from 1988 and 1991. In 2010 came Authorized Bootleg, which chronicled a May 1987 show from Austin, Texas. Finally, a little more than a year ago, came Cookin' in Mobile, which documents the current Cray Band: bassist Richard Cousins, a longtime Cray pal who returned to the band in 2009 after a 15-year absence; longtime keyboardist/songwriter Jim Pugh; and 2009 drum recruit Tony Braunagel.
"For fans of the band who want to hear it in all its different forms, having these recordings out is great," Cray said. "But I think we should probably not release any more live albums for a while."