Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986]
Artist: ROBERT CRAY
Album: STRONG PERSUADER
By the mid-‘80s my exposure to the blues came mostly via British invasion bands like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Cream & Led Zeppelin and more contemporary American artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top & George Thorogood…all of whom were white and at least one generation removed from the genre’s founding fathers & innovators. It’s not that I avoided African-American blues artists but I simply didn’t get enough exposure to them, a situation I would remedy just a couple of years later. In many ways the Georgia-born, West Coast-bred Robert Cray was my gateway into the world of true blues (as well as soul/R&B), and it was all thanks to his fifth album, 1986’s multi-platinum Top 20 smash, Strong Persuader. Little did I know at the time that I had already seen Mr. Cray on screen, as the bass player for Otis Day & The Knights in the 1978 comedy classic, National Lampoon’s Animal House. Blues purists who were already enamored of his more traditional prior albums, released on independent labels, likely bristled at the commercial production of his major label debut. I quickly picked up those earlier releases and loved them all, but there’s absolutely nothing disappointing about Strong Persuader. The combination of his clean-yet-stinging Fender Stratocaster guitar work, his clear-as-a-bell Sam Cooke-indebted vocals and a collection of instantly memorable songs made it the ideal album to bring blues back to pop radio and created the first African American blues star since the ‘60s.
Cheating plays a big part in several songs, including the immensely catchy album opener “Smoking Gun” (his biggest hit), “Foul Play” and “Right Next Door (Because Of Me).” The latter’s lyrics provided the album’s title, and also turned the tables to make Cray the cheater. He was a strong persuader indeed. The Memphis Horns, by that point a duo of Andrew Love on sax and Wayne Jackson on trumpet & trombone, contribute some memorable brass arrangements to uptempo blues tunes like “I Guess I Showed Her,” “More Than I Can Stand” and the hilarious “Nothin’ But A Woman.” It’s hard not to smile at lyrics like this:
“You can buy me a house, turn over the deed,
Bring six pounds of California weed
But my weakness ain’t drugs, whiskey, or greed
Only one thing that young Bob needs…”
One of the things that made Strong Persuader such a standout at the time, and still does, is its musical diversity. In addition to the radio-friendly singles and upbeat, horn-infused tracks, Cray proves himself adept at slow & gritty blues on “Still Around,” “I Wonder” and “New Blood.” Although some purists might consider his sound a little too clean for this genre, his voice & guitar prowess shine throughout the album and every song is a winner. This is a brighter shade of blues than most artists could pull off, and even though he’s got a number of fine albums in his discography, Strong Persuader is the ideal entry point into the musical world of Robert Cray, still sounding as fresh as it did the first time I heard it 30 years ago.