Guitarist and singer Robert Cray’s blues credentials are impeccable.
He has toured with the likes of Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker, and he was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2011.
Indeed, he first met Collins when the legendary bluesman played at Robert’s high school graduation concert in Washington State.
“Afterwards, I walked up to him and told him how much I had enjoyed the show,” Robert recalls. “He asked me if I played the guitar. When I said, “Yes”, he said, “Keep it up”.
He took Collins’ advice, formed his own band with his friend Richard Cousins and five years later they were backing Collins on tour.
“He was just awesome,” Cray enthuses. “At the start of a concert he would have his guitar hooked over the top of the amplifier, so his presence was there but he wasn’t.
“The band would start playing an instrumental. In the middle of the track, he would come out, take off his driving gloves, pick up the guitar and head straight out into the audience on a long cable.
“That was pretty cool.
“We never wanted to be the next big thing,” he insisted. “We wanted to be who we thought were cool – people like BB King, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson.”
Forty years on, Cray has 17 studio albums, five Grammy Awards and 15 Grammy nominations under his belt, and bass player Cousins is back in the band.
He is also happily married – his wife is from Leicester and he expects a crowd over for the Birmingham gig – with a six-year-old son Winston. Of family life, he says simply: “I am happy. We are good.”
Cray is celebrating this double landmark year – he turned 60 last August – with the little matter of 37 concerts in North America, the UK and mainland Europe between the middle of March and the end of May, including one at Birmingham Town Hall on May 5.
But he is not at all fazed. When I suggest it’s a gruelling schedule, he shrugs: “I take it one day at a time. That’s the way to do it. Every one is special. We normally end up doing 120 dates a year.
“I love the travelling. It’s in my blood. It’s in my soul. I grew up travelling. My dad was in the army for 20-something years.”
As well as old favourites, such as Smokin’ Gun and Right Next Door (Because Of Me), Cray and bandmates Dover Weinberg on keyboards, Les Falconer on drums and bassist Cousins will head out on the road armed with a fresh set of songs from their forthcoming album. In My Soul (released last month) is, true to its title, quite possibly their most soulful yet.
There are covers of Otis Redding’s Nobody’s Fault But My Own, the Bobby Blue Bland staple Deep in My Soul and the Isaac Hayes/David Porter song Your Good Thing Is About To Come To An End. There’s also a Booker T tribute, Hip Tight Onions, co-written by Cousins; and the Cray-penned What Would You Say?, a plea for a better world that manages to be both hopeful and despairing.
All are wrapped up in Cray’s effortless vocals and super-cool guitar licks.
Looking back over the decades, he reflects: “It’s been a long journey, but when we look at it we still feel like the same young guys and we’re still able to play the kind of music we enjoy playing and always have,” he reflects.
“At this point we’re able to do it in a lot of different places. I think that’s pretty well everybody’s dream.”
There haven’t been any low points, he insists.
“There has only been the anticipation of the gig and, fortunately for us, there has always been a next gig.
“The only setback is the way the music industry has changed and that nobody’s selling as many records as they used to.
“But we play blues and rhythm and blues, knowing full well it isn’t the popular thing, so everything else is just gravy.”
* May 5, Town Hall, Victoria Square, Birmingham, 7.30pm, £29.50 and £39.50 plus fee. Tel: 0121 345 0600.www.thsh.co.uk.