Robert Cray Bares His Soul on 'That's What I Heard'

Forty years into his career, Robert Cray has been steadily building one of the most consistent catalogs of pure soul and smooth blues with the help of his stinging Stratocaster and a voice that somehow gets even better with age.

That's What I Heard
Robert Cray Band

Nozzle / Thirty Tigers

28 February 2020

Robert Cray is a soul man of the highest order. When his fourth album, Strong Persuader hit in 1986, it was universally lauded as a triumph, eventually going double-platinum and even spawning a top 30 hit single with "Smoking Gun". He was seen as a torchbearer, one who could help deliver the blues - the soulful side of the blues - to a new generation. Unfortunately, some fans of the rock side of the blues that had been spoiled by the recent success of Stevie Ray Vaughan didn't understand Cray's appeal. They had become accustomed to dazzling fretwork, fat tone at high volume, and Hendrixian flash. Cray seemed from a different time: more Sam Cooke with a Strat and less Buddy Guy-like shredding; more Jimmie Vaughan than Stevie Ray. Without doubt, however, Cray's stinging leads stood out in a sea of soundalikes, more groove-oriented with notes carefully chosen for maximum impact. Indeed, it turns out he was both behind and ahead of his time.

Now, 40 years after his debut album Who's Been Talking?, Cray has seen trends come and go, including the blues revival of the early 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the rise of artists such as Leon Bridges and the neo-soul movement since the dawn of the 21st century. He's also, for the past 20 or so years, been teaming up occasionally with producer/drummer/groove master Steve Jordan, who helms Cray's latest project, and his best yet, That's What I Heard.

Jordan first worked with Cray on 1999's Take Your Shoes Off, a project that had Cray - ever the soul man - digging even more explicitly into the Memphis and Muscle Shoals sound to fantastic effect. Most recently, Jordan produced Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm, which featured the Hodges brothers of the storied Hi Rhythm Section originally formed under producer Willie Mitchell and made famous by all those classic Al Green sides from the early 1970s. Now it's follow-up, That's What I Heard, doubles-down on that approach and in doing so, shows Cray sounding better than ever.

Steve Jordan has always been about the groove, whether it was helping Keith Richards direct the band that led Chuck Berry through the magnificent rock doc Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll -- where Jordan and Cray first met -- to being a member of Richards' X-Pensive Winos and the John Mayer Trio, and playing with everyone from the Blues Brothers to Herbie Hancock.

In 1997, Jordan produced the vastly underrated album, High Water, by the Fabulous Thunderbirds (credited as "featuring Kim Wilson" due to it essentially being a Wilson solo album). One of its songs, the heartbreaking "Promises You Can't Keep", written by Wilson and Jordan along with Danny Kortchmar, appears on That's What I Heard. Cray wrings out every bit of emotion left from Wilson's already sublime version and adds the legendary pipes of Steve Perry on backing vocals just because he was seen hanging by the studio one afternoon.

Cray penned a tribute to his late soul brother Tony Joe White in "To Be With You". (Cray covered both White's beautiful ballad, "Aspen, Colorado" as well as his signature swamp funk of "Don't Steal My Love" on the previous Hi Rhythm.) The song channels White's sensual yet longing blues while remaining unmistakably a Robert Cray vehicle.

Among the covers is the down and dirty dance floor filler, "My Baby Likes to Boogaloo", originally by soul-shouter Don Gardner, who is probably best known for his 1962 call-and-response R&B masterpiece "I Need Your Lovin'" with Dee Dee Ford. Cray also handily tackles a Bobby Bland classic ("You're the One") and gospel by way of the Sensational Nightingales' "Burying Ground". Here, and actually, throughout That's What I Heard, Cray's voice is unstoppable. It knows no age and can hit the rafters with the most gut-wrenching testifying imaginable, then drag you through the gutter - or take you to church or the bedroom - with a menacing, sensual growl. That's what I heard, anyway.







A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Prof. Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.