Robert Cray has been around the block a few times. He’s been recording, and touring, and playing live shows as a Blues/Soul stalwart for nearing 40 years now – back to when his first album, Who’s Been Talkin’, came out on Tomato Records in 1980. I’m sure he’s played some crazy gigs. Yet, I’d still wager he’s never played a wilder one than an occasion just before then in 1978 in Eugene, Oregon, when he was a part of the scene that spawned a million toga parties: As a member of Otis Day & The Knights in “Animal House” playing the song ‘Shout.’ Cray, still an unknown at the time and in search of a record deal for his fledgling Robert Cray Band, had a fortuitous encounter which allowed him to become a part of Delta House history, performing in front of John Belushi and a room full of carousers wrapped in bedsheets. “My band and I were living in Eugene at that time, and some lady came up and asked me if I wanted to be in a film,” said Cray. “I sarcastically said, ‘Yeah, right.’ But, sure enough, she called back a few months later to ask if I could make rehearsals. They needed black guys to play the members of Otis Day’s band, the Knights. We got fitted for outfits, and we were on the set for three days. It’s obviously a classic now, but back when the movie was shot, nobody had any idea it was going to be so big. That’s me on bass, although I’m not really playing.”
Cray may not have really been playing bass in the scene – who could’ve blamed him anyway if he’d been thrown off by Boon shouting “Hey Otis!” or when Bluto screamed “Gator!” and dropped to wriggle on the floor – but since then Cray’s definitely been playing some serious guitar: He’s made an incredible 23 albums, won 5 Grammy awards, and played with everyone from Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland, on the trailblazing 1985 Blues album Showdown!, to Keith Richards and Chuck Berry, in Berry’s 1987 concert film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Sadly, he had also just jammed with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin in the summer of 1990, on the night that Stevie Ray’s helicopter crashed after leaving the show. Though Cray’s been a mainstay on the blues guitar circuit for decades, and remains remarkably prolific into his mid-60’s (he’s put out 5 high-quality albums this decade alone), his cross-over opportunities were brief, and most likely highlighted by the featured song chosen here, ‘Smoking Gun.’ This gradually intensifying tune is off of his 5th studio album, 1986’s Strong Persuader, which received rave reviews from contemporary critics at the time. Rolling Stone cited “Cray’s intriguing stories and disciplined singing, delivering a version of blues and soul that doesn’t come from any one region,” while the Village Voice praised the “Sophisticated blues aesthetic,” and named it “The best blues record in many, many years, so fervently crafted that it may even get what it deserves and become the first album to break the genre’s sales ghetto since B.B. King was a hot item.” Though it sold over two million copies, and was ranked #42 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the ‘80’s, mainstream success still did not exactly occur. Nevertheless, I think two important points remain true: First, ‘Smoking Gun’ is a great song, Strong Persuader was a great album, and Robert Cray has probably been the most consistently solid producer of old-style blues and soul music of his generation. And second, every time you’re dancing to the obligatory finale at a wedding – crouching down for ‘a little bit softer now,’ rising back up for ‘a little bit louder now,’ and feeling in touch with the debauchery of your Animal House youth as you throw your arms up in the air to answer the bandleader’s prompts of “You know you make me wanna…” with “SHOUT!!” – remember that Robert Cray deserves at least a little bit of the credit for your fun.
Toga! (Cray on bass, in the middle of the Knights lineup behind Otis, between guitar and sax)