Although Strong Persuader was Robert Cray’s fifth album, it was the first that launched the blues guitarist into the American mainstream. Having grown up as a fan of artists such as Muddy Waters and Albert Collins, Cray began a band that was marginally successful in the American Northwest, but it wasn’t until he signed with Mercury Records that he started receiving national and international attention. Little-known fact: Cray was the uncredited bassist in the Otis Day and the Knights band in National Lampoon’s Animal House. But it took “Smoking Gun,” the first track from Strong Persuader, to truly make Robert Cray a household name.
It’s interesting to listen to a blues album recorded in 1986 — and one mastered by the legendary Bernie Grundman — with ears tuned for 2015. While you would imagine blues to have a timeless feel, some of the tracks on Strong Persuader stand the test of time, while others feel quite dated — still enjoyable, just dated. The 192kHz/24-bit FLAC download from Acoustic Sounds Super HiRez was used for this review.
The biggest hit from the album, “Smoking Gun,” leads things off with a strong, mainstream groove, but it’s the reverb on David Olson’s snare drum that gives away the era in which it was recorded. Still, that doesn’t overshadow a masterful guitar solo. Incidentally, Cray has gone on to create his own custom Fender Stratocaster, which is still available today (and it’s also shown below).
“I Guess I Showed Her” also dates itself, this time with the Memphis Horn section. They sound fabulous, but their pulled-back placement in the mix, and the arrangement itself, screams ’80s. However, you can’t help but groove to Richard Cousins’ bass line in this track – it’s smooth, rich, and round. It’s a great bass sound; nothing is overly enhanced nor is it lacking punch.
The bass sound stays the same into “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” which was the second biggest hit off the album (and it’s a song that still remains in Cray’s live sets to this day). A line from “Right Next Door” also inspired the title of the album, which in turn also became a nickname for Cray himself. This track has a more timeless feel, except perhaps for Peter Boe’s vibraphone-esque keyboard solo.
“Nothin’ But a Woman” is a wonderful syncopated toe-tapper. It brings back the Memphis Horns — still sitting a bit far back in the mix — but that only leaves more room for the groove of the drums and bass. As enjoyable as this track is, it’s hard to imagine why it also wasn’t a hit off the album.
Keyboards are more strongly featured in “Still Around.” The mix on this track has a nice balance of all the instruments, but overall, it feels a bit restrained by today’s standards.
“More Than I Can Stand” is another catchy, upbeat track featuring the sound of the Memphis Horns. Their unmistakably funky sound makes this track so appealing. Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love made up this soulful horn section, and they recorded with just about every soul, funk, and pop artist in the ’70s and ’80s.
Robert Cray’s storytelling skills are on full display on “Foul Play.” His talent at weaving tales about love — and, more often, betrayal — is his trademark. This sparse arrangement leaves the focus on his vocals and the words he’s singing from the heart.
It’s a shame that listeners have to wait until the eighth track of the album, “I Wonder,” to get a true blues classic. It’s such a great cut, with a perfect blues riff. You could also wonder why there weren’t more tracks like this on the album. Perhaps Cray was hoping for more mainstream exposure, but this one shows that he could have stuck to his roots a bit more.
“Fantasized” is another upbeat track featuring a great Cousins bass line with an Olson kick-drum accent. Simple, clean, and pleasant enough — this kick drum is perfectly recorded.
The final track on the album, “New Blood,” also has a classic blues chord progression. Interestingly enough, this more old-school track has a wider stereo image than the rest of the album, with the two rhythm guitars panned away from stereo center. It’s a great way to wrap up the album.
Blues aficionados will appreciate the few tracks of true blues on Strong Persuader, and new listeners to the genre will get an easy introduction to the format. Although you can definitely tell what era this album was recorded, the music, talent, and songwriting skills are just as relevant today. Robert Cray is still touring — in fact, he just released a Blu-ray/2-CD combo called 4 Nights of 40 Years Live — and any fan, new or old, should check out Strong Persuader, especially in a hi-res format that lets all the subtle nuances of the music come through.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to read a current interview with Cray conducted by HRAC‘s Mike Mettler, go to The SoundBard.