Robert Cray had yet to take the masses by storm with the smoldering blues of “Smoking Gun,” the breakthrough single from his “Strong Persuader” album, when he found himself in Keith Richards’ St. Louis hotel room, having been invited by the Rolling Stone to lend his talents to the filming of “Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

“We all met and went to Keith’s room, just to get acquainted,” Cray recalls in an interview with the Arizona Republic, part of The USA TODAY Network.

“And there’s a boombox on the fireplace mantel in his room. So I went over and checked it out and there was this cassette tape. It said, ‘Strong Persuader.’”

The young guitarist’s album hadn’t even been released at that point.

“I said, ‘How’d you get this?’” Cray recalls. “He says, ‘I’m a Rolling Stone. I have everything.’”

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When Eric Clapton turned Keith Richards on to Robert Cray

Not only did director Taylor Hackford’s Berry documentary, which also featured Linda Ronstadt, Etta James and Eric Clapton, elevate Cray’s profile, it introduced him to the great Steve Jordan, who played in Richards’ band X-Pensive Winos and went on to produce several albums for Cray, including his most recent effort, 2020’s award-winning “That’s What I Heard.”

As Cray recalls, “Steve tells the story that Keith heard our ‘Bad Influence’ album. Eric Clapton turned him onto it, and he became a fan. That’s how I was invited.”

Robert Cray reflects on life in music, from jamming with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry, through "Smoking Gun" to "That's What I Heard."

Robert Cray reflects on life in music, from jamming with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry, through “Smoking Gun” to “That’s What I Heard.”

Cray had a “fantastic” time working with Richards on that 1987 documentary.

“The whole thing was really funny because here it is Keith Richards trying to pay homage to one of his main heroes, who was treating him like a little boy,” he recalls with a laugh. “Chuck just seemed like Keith was a pest to him. But you know, Keith was in love with him and treated him as such throughout the whole thing.”

The culmination of the filming was a pair of concerts at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis.

“The day of the show at the Fox, we got our setlist,” Cray recalls. “Mine was handed to me and I was on more songs than I had rehearsed, sitting next to Eric Clapton, who said, ‘Hey, how do you rate?’

“I was playing on songs that Eric had rehearsed. He looked at my list and was pissed. But it all got sorted in the end. Chuck did that. It was funny. And it just set the mood.”

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Breaking through with ‘Smoking Gun’ and ‘Strong Persuader’

It was only a matter of weeks after the filming of those concerts in St. Louis that Cray hit the streets with “Strong Persuader,” a double-platinum breakthrough largely driven by the airplay he received on “Smoking Gun,” a rock-radio hit that peaked at No. 2 on that format.

The album made its way to No. 13, a significant improvement on his previous career high — No. 141 with 1985’s “False Accusations,” the guitarist’s third release on the well-regarded independent label High Tone Records.

“Strong Persuader” was his first release on Mercury, a major label with the resources to get him on the radio.

“So that’s how that happened,” he says with a laugh.

Those were exciting times for Cray.

“It was amazing,” he says. “A band playing the music we were playing, it was a lot more than we could have ever expected. And we thought that we couldn’t do any more work than we had been doing already. But we did.”

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Robert Cray traces his roots, from Sam Cooke to the Beatles and blues

Robert Cray performs during the 16th annual Americana Honors & Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium Sept. 13, 2017.

Robert Cray performs during the 16th annual Americana Honors & Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium Sept. 13, 2017.

Cray had grown up surrounded by music.

“My dad would play gospel music on Sundays, so we heard the Swan Silvertones and Dixie Hummingbirds and all that stuff,” he says.

“And then my mom was into Sam Cooke and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. We had Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles and all that stuff coming up.”

It took the British Invasion to lead him to his instrument of choice, though.

“The Beatles came out, and I got involved with listening to the radio and playing guitar like all my friends did on the military bases I grew up on,” Cray says.

It was right before the end of high school that he started gravitating toward the blues.

“A couple of my friends who played guitar were listening to Buddy Guy and B.B. King and all that,” he says. “I fell in with that crowd and started listening to blues more than anything else, then opened up the earlier pages of my life to music I had listened to and added that back into the mix.”

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How a rare soul compilation inspired Cray’s ‘That’s What I Heard’

Cray’s latest effort was initially inspired by an album Jordan recommended titled “Groove & Grind: Rare Soul ’63-‘73.”

“Steve suggested that I get this one CD, a compilation of hits, kind of regional hits from the East and different parts of the country,” Cray recalls.

“So I ordered it off the internet. And there was one song that started the… I think it’s a four-disc set: ‘My Baby Likes to Boogaloo.’ I instantly called Steve and said, ‘Man, you told me to get this CD and I want to do the first song.’ He said, ‘Yeah, me too. And I’m playing drums.’

“That kind of set the whole record in motion. We started looking for other R&B tunes going in that kind of direction and picking out some favorites from the past. We picked a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland song; one by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. And then we started putting some songs together ourselves.”

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Why Steve Jordan is a perfect fit for Robert Cray

Working with Jordan again was a joy for Cray.

“Steve has a great frame of mind for recording whatever it is we want to do,” Cray says. “Whatever kind of vehicle the music is, the first thing we do is we get in the room and just start playing. What we’re gonna play? We don’t know. We just start playing. It loosens everybody up.”

As the session progresses, if they’re struggling to find the groove a song requires, Jordan will dig up a record that has the feel he has in mind and lay it on them.

“He’ll say, ‘This is where this vibe is,’” Cray says. “So he takes that time. Besides that, he’s a fantastic guy and a great musician. And he participates in it. Sometimes he’ll play guitar. He’ll play bass. He’ll play drums. He’s in it 100%.”

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Why Robert Cray called his album ‘That’s What I Heard’

Although his music tends to favor the soulful side of blues, Cray says he isn’t interested in playing favorites when it comes to genres.

“I like it all,” he says. “I’m a big fan of a lot of the R&B singers. Johnnie Taylor, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. Gospel singers as well. But I’m a fool for Otis Rush and I dig Howlin’ Wolf’s voice.”

That’s why he titled the new album “That’s What I Heard.”

“It kind of represents a little bit of everything I grew up listening to,” he says.

“And the music that I listen to is why I play the way I do. I think it’s something that just happens. Every guitar player or instrumentalist listens to different things and plays out of their soul what they’ve absorbed. It’s the listener who decides what makes that person recognizable amongst the masses of others.”

Playing live remains a thrill for Cray, who brings his band to Phoenix’s historic Celebrity Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 26 — in part because he’s always done his best to keep things as spontaneous as possible.

“I just like the idea of being up there and not knowing exactly how everything’s gonna pan out,” he says.

“To me, there is nothing more boring than playing what you did the night before. It’s best to be in the moment, even if you do some of the same songs on a nightly basis.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Robert Cray talks Keith Richards, Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry

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