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Robert Cray Gets Political With Funky 'This Man': Premiere

Robert Cray
Jeff Katz

Robert Cray

Robert Cray celebrates past and present -- and how the past influences his present -- on his new album That's What I Heard.

The 12-song set, produced by Steve Jordan, mixes originals -- including the slinky "This Man," premiering exclusively below -- with a selection of covers such as Bobby "Blue" Bland's "You're the One," Don Gardner's brassy "My Baby Likes to Boogaloo," the Billy Sha-Rae rarity "Do It," the Sensational Nightingales' "Burying Ground" and Major Lance's "You'll Want Me Back," which was written by Curtis Mayfield. "We like to do covers," Cray tells Billboard, "and I think with the covers that we chose it kind of reflects on the music we grew up listening to, then adding some of our own and showing how we were influenced by that (other) music."

Cray says Jordan -- whom he met while making the 1987 Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll and has produced five previous Cray albums -- provided a conceptual catalyst for That's What I Heard. "Steve's a really good organizer and just a great guy, a lot of fun to be around," Cray explains. "We see a lot of music the same way, and he knows when he can push me to do things I haven't done before. Like, he said, 'Man, you should do a gospel tune,' and I thought about it for a little bit and I went, 'Sensational Nightingales!' I had the album we got that song from and said, 'Let's give it a try,' and it seems like something we could do relatively easy. So it works like that."

The album also features a guest appearance by former Journey frontman Steve Perry, who was recording in the same studio, on the track "Promises You Can't Keep."

With "This Man," meanwhile, Cray steps into political terrain, following up on "Just How Low" from his last album, Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm. "I've been having issues with what's going on, just like everybody else," Cray says. "I want people to know where we stand and try to get people to rally around what's going on." The track's groove came from a warm-up during the recording session and altered the original direction Cray had in mind. "We played that one-chord groove for as long as you hear it. I said to Steve, 'We probably played the groove long enough to where I can go in and just recite the lyrics over a one-chord change.' We got everybody to grab some kind of percussion instrument and gathered around one mic and started tapping and playing and I sang the lyric over that. I really like the feel we got on it."

With That's What I Heard out on Feb. 28, Cray and his band are already on the road in the U.S. with British dates slated for April and European shows in the summer. "When the record's out there we're gonna try to pound it as hard as possible," Cray says, adding that fans can expect to hear more covers than what he includes on the album. "One of the things I like about this record is we've gone back to some of the R&B stuff, the gospel feel of things we've listened to in the past. That's just where we're at, and we're just going to add to it for these (shows)."

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