When Robert Cray found himself in Keith Richards’ St. Louis hotel room, having been invited by the Rolling Stone to lend his talents to the filming of “Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” he had yet to take the masses by storm with the smouldering blues of “Smoking Gun,” the breakthrough single from his “Strong Persuader” album.
“We all met and went to Keith’s room to get acquainted,” Cray recalls in an interview with the Arizona Republic, which is part of The USA TODAY Network.
“And in his room, there’s a boombox on the fireplace mantel. So I went over to investigate and discovered this cassette tape. ‘Strong Persuader,’ it said.
At the time, the young guitarist’s album hadn’t even been released.
When Keith Richards was introduced to Robert Cray by Eric Clapton
Not only did director Taylor Hackford’s Berry documentary, which also featured Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, and Eric Clapton, raise Cray’s profile, but it also introduced him to the great Steve Jordan, who played in Richards’ band X-Pensive Winos and went on to produce several albums for Cray, including the award-winning “That’s What I Heard” from 2020.
“Steve tells the story that Keith heard our ‘Bad Influence’ album,” Cray recalls. He became a fan after being introduced to it by Eric Clapton. That’s how I got the invitation.”
On that 1987 documentary, Cray had a “fantastic” time working with Richards.
“It was really funny because here was Keith Richards trying to pay homage to one of his main heroes, who was treating him like a little boy,” he laughs. “Chuck just seemed to think Keith was a bother to him. But, you know, Keith was in love with him and treated him as such the entire time.”
The filming culminated in a pair of concerts at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre.
“We got our setlist the day of the show at the Fox,” Cray recalls. “Mine was handed to me, and I was on more songs than I had practised, sitting next to Eric Clapton, who asked, ‘How do you rate?'”
“I was playing on songs that Eric had already practised. He was enraged when he saw my list. But everything worked out in the end. That was done by Chuck. It was amusing. And it simply set the tone.”
With ‘Smoking Gun’ and ‘Strong Persuader,’ he made a name for himself.
Only a few weeks after filming those concerts in St. Louis, Cray released “Strong Persuader,” a double-platinum debut fueled in large part by airplay on “Smoking Gun,” a rock-radio hit that peaked at No. 2 on that format.
The album debuted at No. 13, surpassing his previous career high of No. 141 with 1985’s “False Accusations,” the guitarist’s third release on the well-regarded independent label High Tone Records.
“Strong Persuader” was his first single to be released by Mercury, a major label with the resources to get him on the radio.
“And that’s how that happened,” he laughs.
Cray lived in exciting times.
“It was incredible,” he says. “A band playing the music we were playing was far more than we could have imagined. And we thought we couldn’t do any more work than we were already doing. However, we did.”
Robert Cray traces his musical ancestors from Sam Cooke to the Beatles and blues.
Cray had grown up in a musical household.
“On Sundays, my father would play gospel music, so we heard the Swan Silvertones and Dixie Hummingbirds and all that stuff,” he says.
“Then my mother got into Sam Cooke and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. We had Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles coming up, among other things.”
However, it took the British Invasion to lead him to his preferred instrument.