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14 May 2018

By CHRIS JOHNSON

Bluesman Robert Cray is currently touring Australia with his band. He is not so well known in the mainstream these days, but he retains a dedicated following of diehard blues fans. I’m one of them and after booking my ticket, I got to thinking about how influential one of his albums from the 80s was to popular music.

So many blues LPs have been cut-through albums for me, but if I had to name a standout it would certainly be Robert Cray’s 1986 offering Strong Persuader.

While the 60s saw white boys from Britain produce some outstanding blues recordings (and also drag their black delta blues heroes out of obscurity), by the end of the next decade the music was largely returned to its own niche genre.

The 80s soared with legendary blues rockers – Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Healy, Johnny Winter, George Thorogood, to name just a few.

But then Robert Cray came along with his fifth studio album Strong Persuader and suddenly the blues was (for another sweet season) mainstream music once again.

Remember, its release was the best part of two years before B.B. King joined forces with U2 to record the massive hit When Love Comes to Town.

B.B. King was by then an extremely well-known blues musician and collaborating with what was the biggest band on earth at the time, brought the blues to a wider audience.

But it was Robert Cray who reminded the world how cool the blues is. At the same time, he gave it a fresh and contemporary treatment which all added up to a recipe for success.

It is easy to see why Strong Persuader was such a huge international hit. It went two times platinum in the US and platinum in Australia alone.

This LP is contagious. The song writing is nothing short of brilliant and the performance outstanding.

One single from it Right Next Door (Because of Me), which gave the album its name, is wickedly clever. A young Bob beating himself up as he sits alone in a hotel room listening to a couple breaking up in the next room: “It’s because of me. It’s because of me. She was right next door and I’m such a strong persuader.”

I Guess I Showed Her, another single from the album, is bitter sarcastic denial at its best: “Room 16 ain’t got no view, but the hot plate’s brand new. I guess I showed her.” And ending with: “Now she can have the house, and she can keep the car. I’m just satisfied staying in this funky little motel….. I’m so mad…”

The biggest hit from the album was Smoking Gun, another suspicious-cheating-on-me number that borders on the paranoid. The same goes for the excellent Foul Play: “Her old boss quit two months ago. She came home all smiles that day. She says they hired a younger man. But I suspect foul play.”

The other non-single tracks were all just as good –Nothing But a Woman, I Wonder, New Blood, Fantasized, More Than I Can Stand, and Still Around: “Did my best to love you, now do your best to leave.”

The album is full of songs about love, sex, infidelity, hooking up and breaking up – just what we want from a blues album.

As wonderful as the lyrics are on every one of the songs (and Cray didn’t pen them all himself), the instrumentation excels. I read in an interview somewhere Cray saying he doesn’t go much for effects on his guitar. There is classy brass and keyboards throughout the album, but it is Cray’s clean Stratocaster sound that shines on every track. He certainly knows his way around a fret board. And wow, can he sing!

I saw Cray and his band play the album live not long after its release. It was mesmerising. I have seen him a number of times since. The guy has charisma on record and on stage.

This album deserves its place high up on the list of blues classics, but also as one of the best albums of any popular music genre.

I couldn’t stop playing it back in the day and I still take the vinyl out of its sleeve on a regular basis for a good workout under the needle.

 

 


Published: 14 May 2018