The Robert Cray Band: Bad Influence

Bad-Influence-coverHightone Records, released summer 1983

9/10

I was watching a newly-discovered Jaco Pastorius Q and A session from 1985 this week. Poor Jaco clearly wasn’t in the best of health, neither mentally nor physically.

Apparently he turned up at the Musicians Institute in LA without a bass and had to borrow a student’s axe. But when he played it, despite the instrument’s shortcomings, he sounded exactly like himself. His sound was in his fingers, not in any amp or effects pedal.

It got me thinking about other players who always sound only like themselves, no matter what axe they use or what kind of music they’re playing. Near the top of that list would have to be the great American guitarist, singer and songwriter Robert Cray.

Tina Turner with Robert, 1986

Tina Turner with Robert, 1986

In guitar terms, he sticks pretty rigidly to his tried and tested sound: a Fender Strat plugged straight into the amp, no effects apart from a very occasional tremolo pedal, and very, very hard picking.

But, in the process, on Bad Influence he plays three or four of the most electrifying guitar solos of the ’80s, proving himself a worthy heir to Albert King and Albert Collins.

But his tough guitar style is a contrast to a fairly sweet, soulful vocals and songwriting which reflect the influence of Al Green and BB King more than Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker.

Bad Influence was Robert’s second official release, and it was pretty much the one that alerted the wider world outside of blues aficionados to his potential. The Robert Cray Band had built up a formidable live following in the early ’80s, touring relentlessly on the West Coast and in Europe.

With the help of producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, they were ready to take that consistency into the studio. And it certainly helps that there are no trinkets of ’80s production present on the album, no synths or dated drum sounds – Bad Influence mostly just sounds like a great band playing live in the studio, with the occasional addition of horns and Hammond organ.

Bad Influence is mainly known for its superb cover versions: Johnny Guitar Watson’s ‘Don’t Touch Me’ and Eddie Floyd’s ‘Got To Make A Comeback’, both slow 6/8 jams, the former angry and biting, the latter sweet and soulful.

‘The Grinder is another slowish 6/8 with a killer Cray solo. The CD version also comes with a great cover of the New Orleans R’n’B classic ‘I Got Loaded’.

The best-known songs from the album are probably the minor-key blues/funk standard ‘Phone Booth’ (featuring not one but two classic guitar solos), later covered by Albert King, and the title track which was subsequently covered by Eric Clapton on his less-than-essential August album (the two have collaborated many times since).

Also essential are the super-funky ‘So Many Women So Little Time’ and Bo Diddley-esque ‘No Big Deal’. Lyrically, my personal favourite is probably ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’, a kind of ‘ironic’ blues about procrastination. Vocally, ‘March On’ is also fantastic.

To date, Bad Influence has (according to some accounts) sold over a million copies, showing how much the blues was a hot ticket in the ’80s. Cray’s two follow-ups False Accusations and Strong Persuader sold even more, but arguably placed more emphasis on production and songwriting than on uncut guitar playing.

Production was also a bit of an issue on the Cray/Collins/Johnny Copeland collaboration Showdown, which could and should have been a classic. But no matter – Robert is the real deal.

The Dude Abides: Johnny Guitar Watson’s Love Jones

johnny guitar watsonWhen it comes to the arts, ‘nobody knows anything’, as screenwriter William Goldman famously claimed.

But the music biz sure knows a good formula when it sees one. And in the late-1970s and early ’80s, formulas didn’t come much more successful than Johnny Guitar Watson’s.

His fusion of funk, blues, disco, jazz and R’n’B even gave Parliament/Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire a run for their money. He was simply one of the coolest musicians ever to walk the planet.

A Texan blues master who influenced many guitarists including Frank Zappa (the two would collaborate regularly in the ’70s and ’80s), Watson relaunched his sound with Ain’t That A Bitch in 1977, a superb marriage of hilarious lyrics, double-tracked vocals, cool Stevie/Sly/Curtis grooves, ambitious horn arrangements and searing guitar solos. It was a big success and Watson spent the rest of the ’70s repeating the formula with minor variations and, to be honest, diminishing returns.

Ain’t That A Bitch hooked me right away. My dad had a knackered old cassette copy which came in a really horrible silver-and-yellow design, but for some reason I was fascinated by it. There was something seriously dodgy about the cover photo, title and…everything, really. But then I listened to it. By the late ’80s, I was getting into Sly, Stevie and The Isleys, so Bitch fitted in like a dream and became an essential soundtrack to summer 1989.

On 1980’s Love Jones, Johnny expanded his sound to include influences from P-Funk, gospel, bebop, bossa-nova, Afro-beat, hip-hop and even country, and the result is one of the weirdest but most interesting albums of his career. A lot of it sounds very rushed, as if his mind wasn’t really on the job, but that sometimes works in its favour!

With hindsight, Johnny should be included alongside Sly, Prince, D’Angelo, Stevie and Lewis Taylor as one of soul music’s finest multi-instrumentalists – on his great albums of the 1970s and early ’80s, he plays all the keyboards, bass, guitars and some drums, as well as producing and arranging.

His keyboard playing gives guys like Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann a run for their money, and he even once recorded a whole album of piano/vocal ballads, 1963’s I Cried For You.

Love Jones kicks off with the infectious ‘Booty Ooty’, powered by the great, unsung drummer Emry Thomas, which adds a touch of P-Funk to Johnny’s classic horn-driven sound.

The title track is a fairly cheesy soul ballad, while ‘Goin’ Up In Smoke’ continues his strand of state-of-the-nation political funk/blues tunes which began with Ain’t That A Bitch‘s title track in ’76. ‘Close Encounters’ is just plain odd, a bossa-nova with some funny lyrics about a mistaken love affair – ‘It was close encounters of the wrong kind’!

His update of ‘Lone Ranger’ is a classic, featuring some outrageous vocal scatting and some nutty electric piano and bass solos. The gospel curio ‘Jet Plane’ has a criminally-out-of-tune bass, badly-recorded keyboards and amateurish drums (presumably played by Johnny), but it still works.

Ditto the seriously weird ‘Children Of The Universe’, a country-rock coming-of-age piece which sounds like The New Seekers backing Sly Stone.

But Love Jones‘s centrepiece is of course the mighty ‘Telephone Bill’, oft cited as one of the first rap tracks. In 1994, Watson was asked if he had anticipated the hip-hop movement:

“Anticipated? I damn well invented it! And I wasn’t the only one. Talkin’ rhyming lyrics to a groove is something you’d hear in the clubs everywhere from Macon to Memphis. Man, talkin’ has always been the name of the game. When I sing, I’m talkin’ in melody. When I play, I’m talkin’ with my guitar. I may be talkin’ trash, baby, but I’m talkin’!”.

Yessir, but more importantly the track features his best guitar solo on record, an amazing mash-up of bebop, blues and funk.

Compared to the lush, meticulously-arranged Ain’t That A Bitch, Love Jones sounds like a series of demos but it still works, like pretty much all of Johnny’s music. He carried on touring and recording right through to his death in 1996. I wish I’d seen him play live. See ya, Johnny.

Robben Ford: Talk To Your Daughter

robben fordWarner Bros, released 1988

Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street 1991?

7/10

Robben is surely guaranteed a place in the pantheon of modern blues guitar greats, and, like his contemporary and good buddy Larry Carlton, he makes guitar playing sound ridiculously easy however complicated the chord changes.

Fagen and Becker had been told about Robben’s prodigious soloing ability over changes, hiring him to play the break on Steely Dan’s altered blues ‘Peg’ in 1977, but he ended up on the cutting room floor (they famously went through six other guitarists before Jay Graydon smashed it at the eleventh hour).

But sometimes Ford’s good looks, cheerful stage persona and sweet sound can obscure his more extreme guitar statements; fusion drum monster Kirk Covington somewhat disparagingly called Robben’s style of music ‘happy blues’ in a recent interview with Drumhead magazine (admittedly after a failed audition for Robben’s band!).

miles robben ford

Robben cut his teeth with the likes of George Harrison, Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Witherspoon, but started off the 1980s playing beautifully at the Montreux Jazz Festival with David Sanborn, Randy Crawford, Al Jarreau et al, contributing three of my favourite ever guitar solos to the Casino Lights live document of that gig.

Then, in 1986, the dream sideman gig materialised: he replaced Mike Stern in Miles Davis’s band, gaining a new confidence in his abilities and a renewed love for the blues.

Apparently Miles believed he’d found his perfect guitar player. But Robben didn’t stay long – he left Miles to make his second solo album Talk To Your Daughter for Warner Bros in 1987.

It’s funny to think of Robben playing guitar with Miles just before this recording because sometimes his music could use a bit of Miles’s obliqueness and use of space.

Robben’s voice might not be to everyone’s tastes either, firmly in the Jackson Browne/Michael Franks school, but his guitar solos are always engaging and risk-taking, and a stellar band featuring monster drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Roscoe Beck and Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante makes the music breathe. The album sounds like it was recorded live in the studio too, a big plus especially in the over-produced late-’80s.

The gospel-tinged ‘Revelation’ is worth the price of the album alone, possibly Robben’s finest recorded work to date and the only instrumental here. Robben’s take on ‘Ain’t Got Nothing But The Blues’, co-written by Duke Ellington and best-known as a Mose Allison number, is also superb, a feast of jazz chords and tasteful band accompaniment.

Down-and-dirty blues it ain’t, but Talk To Your Daughter definitely brought something fresh to the party. Other modern guitar greats Scott Henderson, Gary Moore, Frank Gambale and Larry Carlton were listening; within a few years, they’d all reacquaint themselves with the blues in a big way too.