Listen to blues rocker Robert Cray, playing the Fremont Theatre in SLO
Blues rocker Robert Cray likes to keep it loose.
Rather than settling on a set list months in advance, he and the other members of the Robert Cray Band meet backstage before each show and decide what to perform. “We just go out there and play by feel,” explained the Santa Barbara man, whose band will perform Friday at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo.
Cray, the winner of five Grammy Awards and a host of other honors, has been following that freewheeling philosophy for more than four decades. His latest project finds the singer-songwriter channeling soul legends such as O.V. Wright as he teams up with Hi Rhythm Section, the Memphis, Tenn., band that backed Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson and Otis Clay.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Cray, 63, was exposed to everything from gospel group the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi to soul legends such as Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.
“Listening to AM radio … You heard the Beatles (and) you heard Aretha Franklin back to back,” Cray explained, so it seemed only natural that he blend genres in his own music.
“Most people will only tell you there’s only good music and the music you don’t mind,” Cray said with a chuckle.
It was the Beatles who inspired Cray to play guitar, he said. “I got the blues bug in the late ’60s when I heard B.B. King and Buddy Guy.” (Seeing rock legend Jimi Hendrix play live might have also influenced his decision to pick up an axe.)
Cray’s namesake ensemble, the Robert Cray Band, came together in Eugene, Ore., in 1974.
“We started playing in the clubs the music we enjoyed playing, (and) we just never stopped playing,” Cray said simply.
According to Cray, the band’s goals were modest from the start: to make records and tour.
Both ambitions were answered when the group released its 1980 debut album, “Who’s Been Talkin.’ ” Two more albums, “Bad Influence” and “False Accusations,” followed, earning Cray and his bandmates the admiration of blues legends such as John Lee Hooker and Albert Collins. Cray teamed up with Collins and Johnny Copeland on the 1985 album “Showdown!” – earning a Grammy for best traditional blues recording.
The Robert Cray Band’s trajectory changed in 1986 with the release of the album “Strong Persuader,” featuring the crossover hits “Smoking Gun,” “I Guess I Showed Her” and “Right Next Door (Because of Me).”
“We were pretty lucky with the fact we had a few records out before ‘Strong Persuader.’ It gave us the opportunity to travel through Europe and Japan and befriend people like Eric Clapton,” Cray said, allowing the band to establish a solid fan base that only grew with “Strong Persuader.”
“We thought we couldn’t work any harder than we already were doing,” Cray recalled with a laugh. As “Strong Persuader” climbed the charts, winning a Grammy for best contemporary blues recording and achieving double-platinum sales, he and his band really got grooving.
In addition to a handful of Grammys, including awards for 1988’s “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” 1997’s “SRV Shuffle” and 1999’s “Take Your Shoes Off,” Cray has won several W.C. Handy Blues Awards from the Blues Foundation. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011.
“What they all stand for is (the fact) that people have deemed the work you’ve done something worth listening to,” Cray said. “That to me is the biggest honor.”
He and his band have teamed up with Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones and other greats in concert. “To share the stage with the likes of B.B. King, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker … it’s pretty cool. (And) it’s humbling,” said Cray, who performed with Chuck Berry in the 1987 rock documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Even after more than four decades on the road, Cray, who celebrated his band’s success with 2015’s “4 Nights of 40 Years Live,” said he loves the challenge of starting each show fresh.
“You’re standing there in front of the audience ... and they’re saying, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” he said. “I’m not going to play you the same solo. I’m not going to play you the same songs I played last night.”
“I just kind of let it happen,” he added. “I like surprises.”
The Robert Cray Band
7 p.m. Friday
Fremont Theatre, 1035 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
$28 to $40