Happy 25th Anniversary to Robert Cray’s Shame + A Sin, originally released October 5, 1993.
When I was around 14 years old, I loved a girl named Ruth Loebl. It wasn’t exactly from afar, as we shared most classes at school together. But it certainly wasn’t at the close quarters I dreamt of. Of course, I never did anything about my ardent teenage love, preferring to pine from a respectful distance, paralyzed by fear and soundtrack this never-to-be-fulfilled love with music.
I was, in effect, Molly Ringwald’s character in any John Hughes film of the ‘80s. And I’m ok with that. Kind of.
The music that soothed my surging teenage heart came from two distinctly uncool and unexpected directions. The first was that doyen of British jazz-funk Level 42, but they will have to wait for another day for their moment in the Albumism spotlight. It was the other musical love that I celebrate today: Robert Cray.
My love of Robert Cray came via my sister, who is three-and-a-half years older than me. Though I remember the circumstances, I couldn’t tell you exactly when I first heard the notes from his guitar ring out through her bedroom door and into my heart. But I can tell you that I’d never heard a guitar talk like that before, and I was sold.
Although this piece is about one of my favorite albums of his—1993’s Shame + A Sin—it would be churlish not to mention the album that grabbed me, picked me up and threw me to the floor. Released in 1986, Strong Persuader was his fourth album and pushed Cray to the front of the blues revival of the mid 1980s, opening doors to global success and paving the way for a career that is still going strong to this day.
Cray’s musical journey is a fascinating one that shows how cycles of musical fashion and love form careers and movements. Born in 1953, Cray moved around during his childhood, due to his father’s various postings in the army. Washington, California, Pennsylvania and Alabama all passed in a blur, before the family ended up in Munich, West Germany. It was on returning from Germany that Cray would ditch piano lessons and pick up his first guitar in 1965.
Moving to Virginia in 1967, Cray would discover not just the southern soul scene (Stax, Aaron Neville, James and Bobby Purify, etc.) but also the next wave of the British invasion. Just as Eric Clapton had his heart stolen by blues singers, so Cray soaked up Clapton’s work. Just as Jimi Hendrix took his blues apprenticeship and changed it into something otherworldly and awe-inspiring, so Cray took Hendrix’s incendiary new sound and filtered it through his own life experiences. The cycle continued and the blues was reinvigorated.
It was only later that Cray would discover the artists who had influenced those blues-infused rock gods. Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and further back to Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker (to mention but a handful) would arrive in Cray’s world later. With musical DNA like that, imagining how Cray’s music would sound is simple. Alongside his instantly recognizable and masterful blues picking, sits a voice with more soul than almost any other blues singer—the best of two worlds. Allied to those is a songwriting craft that extends beyond the common forms of blues to soul-inspired structures and marks him as being in the vanguard of taking blues music to new places.
After the aforementioned breakthrough album, Cray recorded two albums that leant more heavily on his soul roots. Don’t be Afraid of the Dark (1988) and Midnight Stroll (1990) both featured the iconic Memphis Horns before I Was Warned (1992) turned the horns down a few notches and returned to a bluer tone. Shame +A Sin continued that trajectory into bluer territory.
That much is as clear as crystal on album opener “1040 Blues.” Alongside his irrepressible guitar work is some sterling blues piano work from Jim Pugh and harmonica riffs from an unknown source. Usually nothing gets me riled quite as furiously as people moaning about paying their taxes, but for Robert Cray I’m happy to make an exception as he carried it off with world-weary tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
“Worried? / You bet’cha / Discouraged? / I don’t know / Every time I see a 1040 / Out of my pocket it goes”
He follows up his tax related woes (maybe a PAYE system might work better for him, but that’s for another, very, very dull day) with “Some Pain, Some Shame” with its more traditional blues subject matter of heartbreak and infidelity, with the added bonus of a remarkable solo from Cray.
The next two tracks are highlights of not just the album, but of Cray’s career. “I Shiver” is all jittery piano lines, pounding drums and Cray’s wonderfully downbeat vocal delivery that combine to tell a tortuous tale of the body’s reaction to heartbreak.
“I’m burning with a fever / my stomach’s twisted up in knots / my blood pressure’s running up so high / I know it’s gonna stop my heart / And I shiver all over…‘cause I ain’t got you”
This is followed by the ice-cold, Albert Collins accompanying Cray on a cover of Albert King’s “You’re Gonna Need Me.” Though it may be a fairly standard song lyrically, the sheer unadulterated joy of the guitar work is uplifting in the extreme. “Don’t Break This Ring” is unusual in that it features no searing solo, instead relying on the simple but extremely effective bass line and one of Cray’s finest vocal performances.
“Stay Go” shines with Jim Pugh’s effervescent piano playing, while “Leave Well Enough Alone” and “Passing By” are solid if unspectacular additions to Cray’s canon. But there, lurking toward the end of the album, are two more absolute belters: “I’m Just Lucky That Way” and “Well I Lied.” The former is an infuriating sketch of life as the luckiest man alive.
“Well I cussed out my boss / and got fired / then I hit the lottery / now I’m retired”
And the latter is a short, but sweet foot stomping, rollicking beauty of a song about the lies we tell ourselves, and others, in trying to get over a relationship gone sour.
There’s nothing remotely fashionable about this album. There wasn’t in 1993 and there certainly isn’t now. But fashions fade, while class and substance stand the test of time. Robert Cray’s joyously effective amalgam of blues and soul has never really wavered and that is what has stood him in good stead—a willingness to take the masters of the blues’ golden age and filter them through his own experience to produce a variation on classic tropes.
I don’t still love Ruth Loebl, but I sure as hell still love Robert Cray.