Robert Cray last performed in Japan 13 years ago at the Japan Blues Carnival — an experience that for him is now a bittersweet memory.
“I finally got to meet Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson,” Cray recalls over the phone from Fresno, California, where he was playing a concert. Watson died of a heart attack on stage in Yokohama hours after their meeting. “I had been a fan for so long and I remember I rode the elevator down with him. It was the first opportunity for me to meet him.”
Watson, who had successfully transformed himself in the 1970s from a pure blues artist to a funky “gangster of love,” was 61 at the time. Cray was 42, the youngest of the three foreign acts (the third was harpist James Cotton) who played that year’s JBC, Japan’s oldest nonclassical-music festival. Cray is this year’s headliner, which is appropriate in the sense that the festival has since been renamed the Japan Blues & Soul Carnival.
Though nominally a blues artist, Cray’s singing has more in common with such Southern gospel-influenced soul men as O.V. Wright and Bobby Bland than with traditional blues singers.
Along with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cray represented the new vanguard of blues artists who emerged in the 1980s during the American roots explosion that brought groups such as Los Lobos and The Blasters to worldwide attention. Vaughan died in a plane crash in 1990, thus leaving Cray as the sole innovator in a music genre that tends to be strictly defined by form. The promoters of the Carnival have picked up on this aspect, and in their PR materials label Cray “the king of contemporary blues.”
“That’s one I haven’t heard before,” Cray says. “In the beginning, I was the young kid on the block, the up-and-coming guy. Whatever. Now I guess they can start calling me a legend.” He laughs. “I suppose that’s better than not being called anything.”
Since the blues revival of the ’60s, older musicians have always represented the style’s storied authenticity. Not just because they’d been playing it for decades, but because the kind of life experience the blues embodies makes more of an impression if the singer possesses the authority of age. It was this authority that attracted Cray to the blues as a teenager. Like many musicians of his generation, Cray, who was born in Georgia but moved constantly because his father was in the army, first became interested in music because of The Beatles. But it was his parents’ blues records that focused his resolve.
“First it was the cool names — Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam,” he says. “And then you listen to the singing and the moaning. And then you start hearing the lyrics, all those double-entendres. And then, on top of that, you had the playing. I was, like, where did all these people come from? At that point, I’d already seen Jimi Hendrix twice, but I just wanted to learn more and more about these other people.”
Cray wanted to be a guitarist. “The singing, I did in private — when I practiced. I was in bands with lead singers, and on one occasion the singer quit right before an audition and left me holding the bag. So, in the early days of this band, that’s when I started singing. Richard Cousins, our bass player, used to be the mouthpiece between songs, but I would sing them. I was too shy to talk to the audience.”
Like any real bluesman, Cray paid his dues. His breakthrough didn’t come until, aged 33, he released his fourth album, “Strong Persuader,” which won a Grammy and sold millions worldwide. However, maybe because of the horn section, or maybe because of Cray’s soulful singing style, blues purists dismissed the album.
“We’ve never really satisfied blues purists,” Cray says with a rueful chuckle. “But ‘Strong Persuader’ was never strictly a blues record. It had a bit of everything.”
What it mainly had was strong songs written by Cray and his producer Dennis Walker that were filled with unsympathetic narrators representing the full spectrum of male sexual cunning. If the playing was tougher and the singing more dangerous, it mostly came down to the effectiveness of the songs as stories; and as Cray attests, the blues is a story-telling art.
But he’s quick to point out that the guys in those songs — the one who callously steals the heart of a married woman, the one who threatens to kill the cheating lover — are not him. “Dennis was writing the lyrics. I was just trying to carry his message,” he says. “And, to put it politely, he had quite a few issues. I didn’t live the same life as Dennis Walker.”
Though it doesn’t make Cray any less of a musician, his genteel demeanor may have made him less authentic as a bluesman in some people’s eyes. In contrast, his heroes were known for their appetites and eccentric behavior.
“I spent a lot of time around John Lee Hooker,” he says, “and it was amazing how people were drawn to him. I would go to his hotel room when we’d tour together, and there would always be all these women around. He’d be lying there in bed with his satin sheets, which he always brought on tour. He was a character.”
In the early ’90s, Cray despaired that young people, in particular young black Americans, didn’t seem interested in the blues. As one of the most prominent African-American blues artists at the time, this outlook might have seemed self-serving, but he says now that he’s grown away from it. “I still think it would be great if kids listened to that music and their parents played it for them,” he says. “But mainly because it’s America’s music. It’s what it’s all about, basically.”
A relative kid himself, Chris Thomas King is also performing at this year’s Japan Blues & Soul Carnival, thus solidifying Cray’s status as a new elder statesman of the blues. King is best known for portraying the Robert Johnson character in the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou.”
Cray says he did some dates with King “seven or eight years ago” and recalls that the younger musician performed “with a guy playing a record player.”
“He would scratch, and (King) would sing, ‘This is the blues for the 21st century,’ and then play some acoustic guitar that was pretty cool,” Cray says. “It’s kind of hard to describe.”
The Japan Blues & Soul Carnival ’09 is on May 21 at Namba Hatch, Osaka (Cray, King, Yukari Onishi; 7 p.m.; ¥7,500;  6362-7301); May 22 at Bottom Line, Nagoya (Cray, King; 7 p.m.; ¥7,350;  741-1620); May 23 at Zepp Sendai (Cray only; 6:30 p.m.; ¥7,350;  215-4455); and May 24 at Hibiya Park Amphitheater, Tokyo (Cray, King, Onishi, Wshakoda; 3:30 p.m.; ¥7,500;  5453-8899).