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Twenty Years Ago Today

Robert Cray's Strong Persuader: the last great blues album?

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As blues struggles to survive as a viable pop form, the genre's battle lines have increasingly been drawn between two sides. There are the mostly white, mostly classic-rock-reared specialists and hobbyists who dote on guitar fireworks or good-time boogie or 12-bar Chicago-style stomp. And, on the other side, mostly white, mostly punk-reared purity hounds think (usually correctly) all of that is corny and inauthentic, instead focusing their ardor on the hypnotic drone of hill-country blues masters and other obscure artists with ties to the music's rural, pre-rock roots. Off to the side, a mostly black, mostly Southern subterranean fan base keeps down-home soul-blues alive via what some still call the chitlin circuit.

But one of the fascinating things about the most commercially and critically successful blues album of the past 30 years -- Robert Cray's 1986 breakthrough Strong Persuader -- is how neatly it sidesteps all that.

Strong Persuader finished third in the Village Voice's "Pazz and Jop" national critics' poll that year -- by far the highest finish for a blues record in the poll's more than 30-year history. There have been only 11 other blues finishers since the poll began in 1974, including two each from tangential-to-the-genre ringers James "Blood" Ulmer (Free Lancing, Odyssey) and Professor Longhair (Crawfish Fiesta, Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo) and lots of crit-baiting soul-blues mortality meditations such as Arthur Alexander's Lonely Just Like Me, Ted Hawkins' The Next Hundred Years, and Solomon Burke's Don't Give Up on Me, which finished 12th in 2002, the only other "blues" record (and Burke's album deserves the quotation marks) to finish higher than 20. By contrast, other ostensibly tangential genres -- reggae, jazz, country -- have fared better.

Critics, shmitics, you say? Well, check the charts. With Strong Persuader, Cray became the first straight-blues artist since B.B. King in the '70s to cross over -- and no one has done it since. The lead single, "Smoking Gun," was even a Top 40 hit and MTV staple.

Despite sounding as fabulous today as it did 20 years ago, Strong Persuader doesn't show up on many "classic albums" lists anymore. And it seems to hold little stature within the blues world, which is even less surprising because Strong Persuader doesn't sound much like what anybody thinks of when they hear the term "blues."

There's nary a bit of 12-bar blues on Strong Persuader. No Blues Brothers-style showmanship. No Stevie Ray-style guitar showcases. At the same time, the record is so polished and sophisticated -- so middle class -- that authenticity fans (most of them pretty sophisticated and middle-class themselves) are prone to dismiss it. And though Cray was born in Georgia, there's no Southernness to his sound at all.

In fact, Strong Persuader denies much of what people expect to get from blues: grit, raw emotion, torment. Cray's protagonists are prone to unintentional revelation, an artistic gambit rooted in distance between singer and song. He's a conscious artist playing with form rather that simply telling his story, and the result evokes descriptions like "canny," "crafted," and "subtle."

So, if Strong Persuader is so unlike what is expected of blues, why is it a great blues record? Maybe even the last great blues album? Just listen.

Pulling it out last week for the first time in years, I was immediately struck by how distinctly and warmly I remembered every song. A couple of dozen listens later, I'm amazed by how fresh it sounds; how I haven't gotten anywhere close to tired of it.

Though sometimes dismissed as too slick, there's a bracing musicality here, the sturdy Stax-lite groove bolstered by the actual Memphis Horns. And Cray's better-than-remembered guitar solos are clipped, tense, articulate -- woven into the fabric of the songs rather than leaping out from them. Though the music strays into soul, Cray's voice is all blues -- limited, but expressive and authoritative. And then there are the songs.

In a genre where songs have become too often mere performance vehicles at best and distractingly formulaic at worst, Strong Persuader is perhaps the smartest and trickiest batch of compositions heard on a blues record in the rock era. Cray embraces the challenge of finding a fresh or at least memorable twist in every possible cheating-song angle, playing the cheater and the cheated-on.

There's the cuckold lashing out on "Smoking Gun." He's horny and on the prowl in "Nothin' But a Woman." On "More Than I Can Stand," he's worried his woman is about to walk out. On "Still Around," he's frustrated that she hasn't. On "Foul Play," he's suspicious. On the sarcastic, "I Guess I Showed Her," he does something about it: After discovering his woman out "having lunch with some new guy," he leaves her (with the house, the car, and no him): "Room 16 ain't got no view, but the hot plate's brand new/I guess I showed her." But nothing compares to "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," where Cray steps outside this dynamic, sitting and listening impassively through thin apartment walls as his latest conquest breaks up with her husband.

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