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At 70, Robert Cray still loves playing music. 'It's built in.'

A man in a navy, button down shirt sits with hands clasped around a fender guitar, smiling at the camera.
Turner Cray, Inc.
Robert Cray Band
Five-time Grammy winner Robert Cray performs Oct. 5 at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

Robert Cray is known for his singular style, informed by a lifetime of cross-genre listening. The Grammy winner is one of few blues artists to achieve mainstream success — and often compared to artists like Sam Cooke, B.B. King and Otis Redding.

But Cray is in a category that is uniquely his. And after nearly 50 years, the Robert Cray Band is still actively making records and touring. They stop in the Twin Cities for a one-night-only performance Oct. 5 at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

“When we first saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was in elementary school,” Cray said in an interview for WGLT's Sound Ideas. “Everybody was excited. It was a new thing. It was this wave of music coming from the U.K. Seeing all the excitement and watching all my friends and people I didn’t know go crazy, I thought it was a cool idea to get a guitar.”

“But back then, everybody did,” he said. “I just never quit. I went from one thing to another.”

Cray comes from a military family, so he moved a lot. He jammed in carports and garages, joining The One-Way Street as a high schooler in Newport News, Virginia. He graduated from Lakes High School near Tacoma, Washington, where a bassist named Richard Cousins attended a rival high school.

Cousins was part of the original Robert Cray Band, which formed in 1974 while Cray was living in Eugene, Oregon. Other glimmers of opportunity came in the ‘70s (including an uncredited appearance as the bassist of Otis Day and the Knights in “National Lampoon’s Animal House”).

The band's current setlists mark 1983 as the beginning, with the release of “Bad Influence.”

Then came the first of five Grammys, for the band’s fourth album, “Strong Persuader.” That record’s crossover single, “Smoking Gun,” propelled Robert Cray Band into a household name in and outside blues circles.

Leaning against a wall, Robert Cray holds a blue electric guitar.
Turner Cray, Inc.
Robert Cray Band
Cray's 2020 album, "That's What I Heard," harkens back to soul influences like Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke while maintaining the band's singular, blues-infused sound.

“We wanted to be a blues band, but we couldn’t deny the fact that we dug Otis Redding, and James Brown, and Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin — everybody,” Cray said. “When we started writing songs, we just let go. We write songs that come out of us.”

While Cray admits the band "is due" for new material, the current tour rightly celebrates their 2020 LP, “That’s What I Heard.” The record, their 19th, leans into blues, gospel, rock and soul with an infectiously vintage sound channeling luminaries like Curtis Mayfield and The Sensational Nightingales. It is clearly new but could just as easily have been recorded in 1963 — or 1993. In other words, “That’s What I Heard” is about as timeless as an album can get.

The current roster still includes Cousins on bass, though he took a 17-year break beginning in 1991 while Karl Sevareid was in the band. Keyboardist Dover Weinberg is also back, having been a pre- “Bad Influence” member in the ‘70s. Drummer Les Falconer is the newest member; he joined in 2013.

Now 70, Cray calls Santa Barbara, California home, but still feels the pull of life on the road.

“I still have fun playing music,” he said. “It’s like it’s built in. I grew up with my dad being in the Army, so we moved every two to three years and I know how to pack a suitcase. I’m ready to go on the road. And then, the most exciting part of the day, outside of eating, is being on stage.”

The Robert Cray Band appears Thursday, Oct. 5, at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, 600 N. East St., Bloomington. Tickets $34-$54 at 309-434-2777 and artsblooming.org.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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