Still Cray After All These Years 

Bluesman Robert Cray and his band return to Eugene, where the group was initially founded 

Robert Cray. Courtesy photo.

The Robert Cray Band has won five Grammy awards and has played alongside some of the giants of blues.

But the origin story of the band is in Eugene during the 1970s.

The Robert Cray Band makes its return to Eugene to promote its most recent album, which was released shortly before the start of the pandemic. The blues band is having a sort of homecoming to Eugene’s blues scene, as well as a return to touring.

Singer and guitarist Robert Cray tells Eugene Weekly that he had moved from Tacoma to Eugene, where bassist Richard Cousins’ girlfriend lived at the time. To rehearse, Cousins — who’s still in the band today — and Cray had to hitchhike up to Salem, where the drummer lived. “Those were the good ol’ days,” he laughs.

The Robert Cray Band’s first gig was likely the now-shuttered Taylor’s Bar and Grill, but he says all he remembers is that it was near the University of Oregon campus. The band kept playing in Eugene through the 1970s, often with the Nighthawks (as well as a combination of the two bands called the Crayhawks that featured Cray in the band). “We had a pretty good scene at the time,” he adds.

Living in Eugene as a bluesman in the 1970s offered Cray the chance to appear in the cult classic movie Animal House as a member of the Otis Day and the Knights group. “We were playing at a tavern called Murphy & Me at the time. A lady came up and asked me if I wanted to be in a movie, and I said, ‘Yeah, right,’” he laughs.

Days later, while playing a show in Eureka, California, he says he received a call asking if he could be back in Eugene by the end of the week to be in Animal House. He made it in time, joining other Eugene musicians to make up Otis Day and the Knights, performing “Shout,” a song now embedded in University of Oregon tradition.

Today, the Robert Cray Band has released its 20th album, That’s What I Heard. The band released the album at an inopportune time — about two weeks before the start of the pandemic — so it couldn’t go on the road to support it. “One would never think that it could be taken away like it was,” Cray says. “Trying to get it going again took a minute. We were laughing at ourselves thinking you could jump right back into it.”

Live performance is a large part of the Robert Cray Band, a group that has played gigs with John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and B.B. King.

But Cray doesn’t name Eric Clapton as a memorable guitarist he’s played with. Cray has performed with Clapton several times, including Clapton’s signature annual Crossroads Guitar Festival, but Cray recently made music headlines when he told The Washington Post in a Nov. 11 story that the two ended their decades long friendship over Clapton’s response to COVID-19 and affiliation with the right wing.

After Clapton released an anti-COVID-19 restrictions song, where he compared social distancing to slavery, Cray asked Clapton whether that was an appropriate metaphor, according to the Post. Clapton defended himself. Unhappy with the response and surprised to see a photo of Clapton and Greg Abbott shortly after the Texas governor had signed the strictest abortion law in the U.S., Cray decided to not go on tour with Clapton.

Cray tells EW that the previous generation of blues artists accepted the Robert Cray Band’s approach to the artform. Now the band is an elder of the blues, he adds. But he feels good about the future and the hands it’s in, naming Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Gary Clark, Jr. and Derek Trucks.

When the band returns to Eugene, though, he says if he has the time, he’ll return to the campus district to remember the band’s origin. “It was such a big part of my life,” he says.

The Robert Cray Band plays McDonald Theatre 8 pm Friday, Dec. 3. Tickets range from $48 to $75. Patrons are required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours.