Robert Cray: Singer, songwriter and guitarist, who has blended blues with soul music in a way unique to his era.

Mainstream Rhythm and Blues in the '90s and early 21st century is essentially pop/hip-hop with a slow beat, popularized by such acts as Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men and Jennifer Lopez. These performers come from hip-hop backgrounds, and their music shows it, as it often contains samples and a strong synthesized bass beat.

It wasn't always this way; in the '60s and '70s, what was then called "R&B" would now be called "blues" -- B.B. King, Ruth Brown, Koko Taylor. But the world changed, and R&B changed with it.

Cray, however, is going retro. He's a bluesman by trade who has added a heavy dose of soul to his music, thus creating a new form of R&B that's fascinating to listen to.

Cray's biggest-selling album was one of his first. "Strong Persuader," released in 1986, was a no-holds-barred blues album with strong lead solos and the perfect response to a half-decade of New Wave and Punk. The album was a breakthrough, going double platinum, and it's title track is the most memorable:

She was right next door
and I'm such a strong persuader
She was just another notch on my guitar
She's gonna lose the man that really loves her
In the silence I can hear their breaking hearts

He kept the same formula going on his next few albums, but there were signs of a transformation coming. 1988's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" had heavy blues tracks, but the title track not only mentions Marvin Gaye, it could have also been written by him:

Dead of night baby, we're finally alone
I'll pull out the shades if you'll unplug the phone
Put on some music, Marvin Gaye's real nice
Once we get settled, I'll turn out the lights
Don't be afraid of the dark
Don't be afraid of the dark
I'll be there to hold you -- don't be afraid of the dark

It's hard to tell when Robert Cray officially "went soul" -- it's not a sudden event, like when Bob Dylan went electric, although some of Cray's fans were annoyed that he left the traditional blues sound.

IMHO, the defining moment was in the early '90s, between 1992's "I Was Warned" and 1995's "Some Rainy Morning." The former album was pure blues; the title track is a seven-minute monster with an impossibly strummed guitar solo. After 1993's "Shame + A Sin," Cray recorded "Some Rainy Morning," which had no power-blues track on it; the most memorable song was a ballad named "Little Boy Big":

Why ... when something goes wrong
do you walk away from love just like it was nothing?
You hide ... and then you move on
You don't walk away from a good love, no
Little Boy Big

Cray's next offering was pure soul. To record it, he moved from Oakland to Memphis, named the album after a Southern dish ("Sweet Potato Pie") and recorded the song "Simple Things":

Look at me
After all this years of loving
Can't believe
I'm still the one you're dreaming of
After all these years of love
You still want me

There's a little bit more of me
Than yesterday
I'm a little bit slower
Look at how my hair is grey
Thought that any time you turn and walk away
You still want me

Not that Cray doesn't foot-stomping blues songs -- "Sweet Potato Pie" also contained a cover of Otis Redding's "Trick or Treat" -- but he's certainly put more emphasis on slower, old-school R&B tracks. His most recent albums, "Take Your Shoes Off" and "Shoulda Been Home," continue this trend. ("Let Me Know," on "Take Your Shoes Off," is possibly my favorite songs of all time. Quoting lyrics wouldn't do it justice -- it's the haunting keyboards that give me the chills.)

Robert Cray

Who's Been Talkin', 1980
Bad Influence, 1983
False Accusations, 1985
Strong Persuader, 1986
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, 1988
Midnight Stroll, 1990
I Was Warned, 1992
Shame + A Sin, 1993
Some Rainy Morning, 1995
Sweet Potato Pie, 1997
Take Your Shoes Off, 1999
Shoulda Been Home, 2001

1986, Strong Persuader
1988, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
1999, Take Your Shoes Off