Robert Cray Cambridge Festival
Photo: Bryan Ledgard, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Rock ‘n’ Stroll: Robert Cray’s Blues Stormer ‘Midnight Stroll’

Robert Cray plays subtly with basic blues convention on Midnight Stroll, turning it into a brand-new face for listeners who have heard it all before.

Midnight Stroll
Robert Cray
June 1990

Robert Cray had been playing the blues professionally for over a decade before he hit paydirt in 1986 with an album that put him on top of the charts and the cover of some of the most prominent magazines. Strong Persuader turned the singer-songwriter and musician into an overnight superstar. During the 1980s, he was afforded the kind of prestige in blues music that Bruce Springsteen held in rock. Produced by the late Bruce Bromberg, whose credits included blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bromberg turned a sweetly tuneful ear on Cray when he helmed the musician’s fourth studio album.

Strong Persuader managed to push blues into the MTV market and introduce a younger generation of listeners to music that had, thus far, been relegated to the back pages of popular music. It helped that Cray not only possessed a smooth voice of honey-lacquered intensity but also had serious guitar-playing chops that tendered an elegant, clean, and fluid style perfect for his band’s powerful rhythm section. With Bromberg on board to bring out the band’s elements judiciously and merge them with a subtle pop touch, Cray pulled out winners with chart-topping numbers like “Smoking Gun” and “Because of Me”.

In 1987, after landing the cover of Rolling Stone, popular culture’s most coveted coverage of the 1980s, Cray’s career was at a stellar high, and his follow-up to Strong Persuader was greatly anticipated. In 1988, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was released to healthy, if not ecstatic, praise, and the singer settled into a comfortable groove that had him tapped by various artists, including Michael Jackson, who asked Cray to lend his guitar talents for Jackson’s 1988 Bad album (Cray turned down the offer).

The artist seemed to have found a secure plateau from which he could perform the kind of music that was commercial enough to appeal to a broad audience but still resided in the niche that was exclusively carved for the blues. Commercial appeal aside, Cray unabashedly played scales that were dependably blues while still favoring a polished production style that didn’t interfere with that music’s spirit. At heart, though, he is a soul singer who possesses the kind of voice that has the power to turn tides in the stormiest of seas. Not unmindful of his gifts, though humble through an artful restraint, Cray recorded what was not altogether a soul album but one that combined the scales and fingerings of the blues with the gospel harmonies of soul.

An album of sweet mocha blues and a masterclass in guitar riffs, Midnight Stroll, was released in the summer of 1990. It featured a juiced-up rhythm section, thanks to the contributions of new drummer Kevin Hayes, who beautifully complemented Cray’s longtime bandmate, bassist Richard Cousins. A more pointed effort to put pressure on bottom-end tones meant that the songs had a more robust, weightier feel than Cray’s previous recordings. Dennis Walker, who penned several of Cray’s songs over the singer’s career, stepped on board as producer. Stationed at the mixing board was John Hampton. Walker and Hampton built a sturdy and muscular foundation to withstand Cray’s deployments, which were now explosive and charged with a passion more hot-blooded than anything he had ever expressed.

Robert Cray Midnight Stroll

Midnight Stroll’s first single was “The Forecast (Calls for Pain)”. While numbers on Cray’s previous albums featured resonances from the higher end of the tonal range, his latest record was a bass buffer that worked a deep groove primed for the dancefloors. Hearing the track today, it stands as a fresh slice of Chicago blues, splashed with the neon lights that pulse in the Loop at night. That neon comes courtesy of the Memphis Horns (Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson), last seen on 1988’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and it streaks the number with brassy light in the deep, blue funk of its melody. Cray devises a sensual excitement of city nightlife, augmented by the booming heft of the single’s bottom-end grind.

A Cray album would only be half the record without the singular voice that has brought the bluesman his well-earned fame. His voice dives, circles, and soars before exploding majestically in a shower of fireworks on these 11 numbers, and the singer exploits its entire range on his self-penned “These Things”. The cool, heavy shamble of the song’s rhythm and the shimmers and staggers of Cray’s guitar work produce a genuine tension that strains like a muscle stretched to exertion. Vocally, it showcases his impressive range, low growls that skyrocket to the ambits of shooting stars. 

Where Bromberg favored a clean production on Cray’s watershed Strong Persuader, Walker sullies up the proceedings on Midnight Stroll with some gravel and crunch. The mix reads clear as a bell, but an appealing roughness now accommodates Cray’s vocal risks. Settled into the euphony of the instrumentation, the vocals work cooperatively to generate a true sense of movement. A number like “Labor of Love” benefits from such a production so that its bluesy jaunt now sways at Cray’s vocal commands. Musically, the song demonstrates the aplomb with which the band employs their instruments; the playing is tight, the arrangements even tighter, and the songwriting negotiates the perimeters of pop to bring an even more potent immediacy to its melody.

Ballads offer Cray a wealth of emotional pull because he can rely on the texture and range of his vocals to convincingly deliver stories of passionate and arousing vicissitudes. For all the power in his voice, however, his guitar is never left a second-stringer. Many other musicians’ guitars simply strum or riff; Cray’s guitar talks, and his way of humanizing the guitar provides an almost ethereal extension of his voice. “My Problem” and “The Things You Do to Me”, numbers also self-penned by Cray, are Midnight Stroll‘s two ballads that offer, in their economical structures, ample space to allow both voice and guitar to roam comfortably and freely.

Rhythms strut on the snap-and-slide of “Walk Around Time”, a number dressed with a smarting brass section and the skimming riffs of an organ. Cray’s guitar here takes a backseat, but his voice swings an adventure with guttural dips and ringing vibratos. On “Move a Mountain”, an elegant slow-grind that goes a bit dirty with some guitar twang beneath the pearly keyboard licks, Cray optimizes the upper reaches of his range to deliver a glorious vocal of silver and gold. Side by side on Midnight Stroll, these two numbers are chief examples of the singer’s ability to take the blues into realms that defy mere genre conventions. He’s not a pop star per se, but he carries the clout of one because of his ability to communicate a pure melody simply through the direct passion of his voice.  

Going a little country on “Holdin’ Court”, Cray finger-walks his guitar lines all over the moseying, dirt-shuffling, rugged blues beat. The number’s inverse, the soul-stepping “Bouncin’ Back”, pushes the blues boundaries to the near reaches of pop, the catchy guitar riffs running neck-in-neck with the brass burnishing of the Memphis Horns. The arrangements are spare, the ingredients minimal, but the results reveal the luxuriant dynamic of their combined properties; all instruments conspire to create a sonic salver on which the singer’s walloping vocal rests as the stunning centerpiece.        

Midnight Stroll‘s second single, “Consequences”, an upbeat blues stomper, wouldn’t push units beyond his landmarking figures of Strong Persuader. However, it still convinces as a performance piece, one to afford him a platform in rock arenas. Cray’s cross-over potential has long been due for a demonstration. But if his turn-down of Michael Jackson’s collaborative offer is anything to go by, he is unbothered by the lack of wider recognition. Perhaps it’s for the better. In lieu of a pop-rock smash, we find a pumping, off-kilter blues gem in the closing number, the record’s title track. Full of booming swagger, stalking guitar riffs, and yearning, liquored vocals, Cray’s mildly raunchy innuendo (probably the raunchiest he has ever been) is housed in a succulently loping groove. “Once the moon comes up, you’ll hear my hungry call…Look for a long black Caddy cruisin’ up your street,” he sings with little more than a shameless wink.

Upon its release more than 30 years ago, Midnight Stroll was dismissed as Cray-lite in many quarters of the press, an insult to add to injury, as he has spent an entire career fending off criticisms regarding his commitment to authentic, unadulterated blues. But those naysayers at the time may have been missing the point. Like any modern songwriter, Cray works in a transformative space of reclamation and renewal. What defines Midnight Stroll is not unlike much of the singer’s catalogue. Like the best blues musicians, Cray keeps the constituents of his art down to the simple minimum of voice and guitar, and he never lets a frill or gimmick come between them. It’s clean and polished, yes, but always sincere.

More than 40 years since the beginning of his recording career, many have had an indecisive finger poised over the various reasons for Cray’s success. The reason hides in plain sight: bringing his supple touch to the blueprints drawn by pioneers of the craft, the bluesman plays subtly with the most basic of conventions, giving it a brand-new face for listeners who have heard it all before.