Robert Cray might be immediately recognized as a blues guitarist, but his musical influences range far beyond a single genre.
“Everything on the radio was something I was interested in,” Cray said of his adolescent inspirations. His signature sound, a mixture of traditional blues, pop and soul, has roots in the work of everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to Jimi Hendrix.
“But I really got into guitar when the Beatles hit the States,” Cray said. “Everybody started playing guitar, and I was one of them.”
Cray also points to the influence of Albert Collins, an influential Texas bluesman Cray first saw perform in 1971 during a high school graduation party at Tacoma’s Pacific Lutheran University.
“I had the opportunity to go up to Albert and thank him for playing,” Cray said in a telephone interview from Victoria, B.C. “He asked me, ‘Young man, do you play guitar?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and he said, ‘Well, keep it up.’ ”
Heeding Collins’ advice, Cray formed his own band in 1974. After several years of touring – and an uncredited appearance in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” – Cray eventually signed to California’s burgeoning HighTone Records. The label’s first release was Cray’s 1983 album “Bad Influence,” which caught the attention of blues aficionados.
Cray would go on to play with his childhood idol Collins on a 1985 album called “Showdown,” which also featured guitarist Johnny Copeland and won a Grammy for Best Blues Recording that year.
But 1986 was the year that made Cray a star. His fifth studio album, “Strong Persuader,” became an unexpected mainstream hit. The record reached No. 13 on the Billboard charts, an anomaly for a blues album in the mid-’80s, and spawned such hit singles as “Smoking Gun” and “I Guess I Showed Her.”
Cray continues to be a modern blues icon: His last 11 releases have cracked the Top 10 on the U.S. Blues charts, he’s played numerous times with guitar legends Eric Clapton and Peter Frampton, and in 2011 he became the youngest artist ever to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
After so many years in the business, Cray says it’s the sincerity of the blues that keeps him motivated to write. His most recent album, 2012’s “Nothin’ But Love,” contains several songs that deal explicitly with relevant social issues. “We sang about home foreclosures, people losing their jobs and getting swindled,” Cray said. “If you touch on current events, it keeps the music going.”
Although he plans to return to the studio in late November, Cray says he and his touring band are at their most inspired when they’re on the road.
“Now that I’ve been around for awhile,” he said, “there are younger folks coming to the shows and saying, ‘My dad turned me on to your music.’ And that’s always nice.”