Cray, who was residing in Eugene, Ore., at the time, recalls being approached by a casting director at the end of one of his shows about being in a movie. While he did say yes, he didn’t take the idea seriously until he got a call about being fitted for wardrobe.
“I guess I had already got the part,” he says of his three-day shoot.
Cray’s appearance led to a short friendship with the late bluesman, who would sit in on his performances at a nearby hotel, which included vocalist Curtis Salgado, who was performing in a splinter band at the time with Cray and bassist Richard Cousins.
“We called ourselves the Cray-Hawks, and Belushi would come in and sit in,” he remembers.
“Curtis … was schooling Belushi in blues,” says Cray, who notes that Salgado’s influence was the inspiration for Belushi’s turn in The Blues Brothers. Their footnote was sealed when they were recognized in the band’s first appearance on Saturday Night Live.
“The musical director at the time was David Letterman’s musical director [Paul Shaffer]. He was doing his Don Kirshner impersonation, and he goes, ‘And with the help of Curt Salgado and the Cray Band, we give you The Blues Brothers.’”
Blues Brothers aside, Cray, who performs Saturday at the Alys Stephens Center, formed the Robert Cray Band back in 1974 and has built a solid career, with 22 albums, five Grammys and a 2011 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame. Even with his success, he has still been able to maintain a relatively low profile.
“Blues isn’t high profile unless you’re B.B. King, where he’s the ambassador to the blues,” Cray says with a chuckle. “We make records, we’re able to tour and we get along.”
Cray was born in Columbus, Ga., but, being a military child, only remained in the area for less than a year before moving around the country, from Virginia to Germany, Washington state and California, where he now resides. Cray became interested in blues before graduating from high school, and he and his comrades began to model themselves after some of their favorite musicians. He later moved to Eugene with bass player Richard Cousins in 1974, but realized that as far as choosing music as a career, “there was no thought process involved. I played music and I had friends that played music, and that’s all we did,” he says.
“My favorite time of the day is when I’m on stage,” says Cray, who tours regularly and has no plans to slow down anytime soon, and is even getting ready to head back into the studio in March to record a new album. “To be able to still make records and to tour is another one of those main perks (of being a musician). Not a lot of bands or artists get that opportunity. We take nothing for granted.”
When Cray and the band are onstage, however, the show takes on a mind of its own.
“We don’t use a setlist,” he says, preferring to go through a master list of songs during their sound check — and the rest is up to the evening. “There might be a few that we’re going to do basically every show, but the rest of the night — you never know.”
There are even opportunities for requests, he says.
“Sometimes audience members might call out something, and I’ll turn around and go ‘Let’s do that one.’”
Cray will perform Saturday at the Alys Stephens Center. Tickets are $20-$55 and can be purchased online. The Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center is at 1200 10th Ave. S., Birmingham. For more info, visit alysstephens.uab.edu.