"One of the last genuine bluesmen out there – he is a legend and should be revered as such": Strong Persuader by Robert Cray - Album Of The Week Club review

Robert Cray's 1986 album Strong Persuader album took blues to the masses and sold more than two million copies in the US

 Robert Cray: Strong Persuader cover art
(Image: © Mercury Records)

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Robert Cray: Strong Persuader

Robert Cray: Strong Persuader cover art

(Image credit: Mercury Records)

Smoking Gun
I Guess I Showed Her
Right Next Door (Because Of Me)
Nothin' But A Woman
Still Around
More Than I Can Stand
Foul Play
I Wonder
New Blood

The 80s also saw the blues mutate like never before. While Stevie Ray Vaughan drew in hard rockers and purists alike, multiple Grammy Grammy winner Robert Cray hit big with 1986’s Strong Persuader album, taking blues to the masses and selling more than two million copies in the US. 

The reason was simple: accessible material like I Guess I Showed Her and Right Next Door (Because Of Me), played with congenital feel. In addition to the radio-friendly singles, Cray proved himself fully capable of delivering a grittier feel on New Blood, Still Around and I Wonder and New Blood, even while retaining his famously clean, user-friendly sound. It's a trick many bluesmen have failed to pull off, and it turned Cray into the first black American blues superstar since the 1960s.  

Strong Persuader was a massive album,” fellow bluesman Danny Bryant told us. “Robert Cray kinda makes soul music with blues, with Otis Redding-type singing and Albert Collins guitar.”

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Other albums released in November 1986

  • The Way It Is - Bruce Hornsby & the Range
  • Secret Dreams and Forbidden Fire - Bonnie Tyler
  • Like a Rock - Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
  • Rembrandt Pussyhorse - Butthole Surfers
  • Raised on Radio - Journey
  • The Other Side of Life - The Moody Blues
  • Russian Roulette - Accept
  • Tinderbox - Siouxsie and the Banshees
  • The Final Frontier - Keel
  • Cocker - Joe Cocker
  • Pleasure to Kill - Kreator
  • Strength in Numbers - 38 Special
  • Animal Boy - The Ramones
  • So - Peter Gabriel
  • Look What the Cat Dragged In - Poison
  • Who Made Who - AC/DC
  • Emerson, Lake & Powell - Emerson, Lake & Powell
  • The Final Countdown - Europe
  • Evol - Sonic Youth
  • Mistrial - Lou Reed


What they said...

"At thirty-three, Cray is a mature multi-threat talent: fearless formal innovator, brainy bandleader, terse yet fluent guitarist, and – amazingly, given where he started – the most authoritative singer to emerge from blues since Bland and King. Add an array of gems as perfectly realised as Randy Newman's 12 Songs and you have not just a great blues album but a great album." (Robert Christgau)

"Like other Eighties rockers, he's made careful, self-conscious decisions about sound and sense. And with his intelligence, his ear for economy and the mysterious chemistry that turns scholarship into soul, Cray has grabbed enough roots to sound like a pioneer – not a throwback." (Rolling Stone)

"Cray's smoldering stance on Smoking Gun and Right Next Door rendered him the first sex symbol to emerge from the blues field in decades, but it was his innovative expansion of the genre itself that makes this album a genuine 1980s classic. Nothing But A Woman boasts an irresistible groove pushed by the Memphis Horns and some metaphorically inspired lyrics, while I Wonder and Guess I Showed Her sizzle with sensuality." (AllMusic)


What you said...

Mike Canoe: Robert Cray's Strong Persuader is like a short story collection set to music, performed by an excellent band and a singer with an incredibly expressive and emotional voice. The narrators of these songs are usually having the worst kind of woman trouble, one of the oldest tropes in the blues, but they are rendered fresh with storytelling detail and Cray's incredible voice.

The last stanza and frenzied coda of Smoking Gun still gets me every time - even though I know darn well what's going to happen. In the mockingly upbeat, I Guess I Showed Her, the narrator prides himself on leaving his partner and moving into an extended stay motel after being overcome by jealousy. More Than I Can Stand similarly uses upbeat music to deliver bitter lyrics, Of course, Still Around and I Wonder work exactly because they deliver the bitter lyrics with bitter music.

The songwriting and musicianship are just great, song for song but, perversely, my least favourite songs are the ones where he actually sounds happy, like Fantasized or Nothin' But a Woman. Maybe it's because happy stories aren't as intriguing as troubled ones. Maybe they come across as disingenuous, surrounded as they are by so much anger and despair. But I guess it's also true that most relationships that end badly start out with excitement and anticipation, the "cycle of woe," if you will.

And speaking of woe - and WHOA! - there's the two finest songs, one per side in Foul Play and Right Next Door (Because of Me). The former is like a four-minute film noir where the tension ratchets up with every verse, leaving us in anticipation of the inevitable confrontation. In Right Next Door, the narrator is actually the cheater listening to a marriage disintegrate because of what he did. It seems a rare perspective for a popular song.

As I've written before, what attracts me to the blues is the singer's voice, not so much the guitar wizardry. It just so happens that Robert Cray is excellent at both.

Gus Schultz: Really nice album. Performed, written, produced, mixed and mastered perfectly. I was always impressed by this album sonically and just love the sound of his strat playing, smooth, clean and throaty. A real contrast to SRV’s tube screamer driven Strat sounds (which I enjoy very much too). As mentioned in other post he made the blues accessible to the masses with his radio friendly sound and along with Keb Mo introduced a sound that attracted female listeners and giving Bonnie Raitt her time to shine as well resulting in a blues revival of sorts in the mid to late eighties. Every track tells a story of trouble and woe as a good blues song should and paired with an upbeat tempo that make the listener feel good. A great album to sit and listen to as well as to work to. But I do find that listening to too much Robert Cray can get a little fatiguing and should be listened with moderation.

Will Vella: Great album! Although am more of a fan of his first Who's Been Talkin' (aka Too Many Cooks).

Shane Hall: I was in my nascent stage as a blues fan when Strong Persuader came out, so this album holds a special place for me.

The album blends traditional blues with contemporary soul and R&B. The Memphis Horns are a great addition. Smoking Gun was a hit, with a video that was regularly featured on MTV. Other highlights include Right Next Door (Because of Me), I Guess I Showed Her, and Foul Play.

Gary Claydon: Major label debut and breakthrough mainstream hit for Young Bob. It came as no surprise. Cray's easy-on-the-ears, 'smooth blues', dressed up in '80s clothing - production wise - was tailormade for crossover success, with a style more akin to Stax/Volt R&B and soul than out and out blues. That's not to undermine his blues credentials. Cray's storytelling song writing leans heavily on blues staples. Sex and violence, betrayal, loss and rejection all delivered in his rich, soulful voice. And the man can play the guitar, yes indeed (he's especially dynamite live).

Album opener Smoking Gun is one of his best songs, with a nice, 'Clapton-esque' solo, while I Guess I Showed Her, complete with slightly ironic lyrics, leans towards a more jazzy style. The popular, notch-on-the-bedpost tale of Right Next Door (Because of Me) completes a mighty strong opening trio. The problem there is that this gives Strong Persuader a bit of a top-heavy feeling. The rest of the album is decent enough though not particularly memorable, although the guitar sounds on I Wonder are worth a listen.

Now, I'm no purist when it comes to the blues (or any other form of music, for that matter) but, as much as I like Robert Cray, I do prefer it to be on the more traditional, grittier side. Overall Strong Persuader is very well done but maybe a touch too slick. 7/10.

Greg Schwepe: First time listening to a Robert Cray album all the way through with this week’s selection of Strong Persuader. Songs from this release were played on the FM station in town and remember seeing several videos on MTV. While the blues were always on rock radio in some variant, it seems after the success of Stevie Ray Vaughan you heard more and more creeping onto the airwaves, Robert Cray being one with this release, then Bonnie Raitt finally getting her due later in the 80s.

I have a complicated relationship with blues albums. The songs on this album that draw me in the most are the ones that a blues purist would not like. And the ones I like the least are the ones a blues purist would cling to. Smoking Gun, Right Next Door (Because Of Me), and Nothing But A Woman are my favourite tracks: bouncy, upbeat, slick, clean guitar and horn-filled songs. Cray’s smooth voice pulling it all together. A whole album full of those and I could listen all day.

But some of the slower songs that sound a little reminiscent of BB King, I kind of lose my interest. Kind of like sacrilege, I know. I guess I like my blues a little slick, jazzy, bouncy, and a little pop sounding. Which for some, doesn’t sound like something you’d use when you describe the blues.

I listened to this one more than once before writing this review and came to the conclusions about the songs and the album in general. Cray is a talented guitarist and vocalist, but whether it’s him or another blues artist, I think by the time I got to the last track New Blood, I realized that not all blues keeps my interest. Had I bought this on the strength of what initially grabbed me hearing on the radio, I bet I would’ve gotten bored with about 1/3 of the album after a while. 7 out of 10 for me on this one.

John Warren: I enjoy listening to this album every month or so. Classic!

Adam Ranger: The album that introduced me to Robert Cray in the late 80s. I think Bad influence is possibly his best album, but this album is a classic.

As others have said, not just an album for blues purists. This blends blues, soul and Stax into a lovely rich package, which continued over his next couple of releases (Afraid Of The Dark and Midnight Stroll)

Smoking Gun, Right Next Door and I Guess I Showed Her open the album superbly with that soul blues mix. Album closers I Wonder, Fantasized and New Blood are more purist guitar-led blues tunes, so this album has it all for me.

Cray's band are tight and his voice is smooth. Really enjoyed listening to this album again.

Warren Bubb: The first of many albums that I heard from this great blues guitarist. Not just a great player but a great writer of songs too. Right Next Door and Foul Play are particularly excellent songs. He made many more fine albums but this is still the one I reach for when I feel like some blues guitar. seen him several times and he does not disappoint live either. A true blues genius.

Matt Batten: This album was on heavy rotation in our house back when it's was released. Superb.

Brian Frankland: I’ve shifted to blues heavily over the last decade as new rock isn’t doing it for me like it used to. Robert Cray is as good as any of them. This is a great album, and thanks for the reminder to spin it again today. Might have to drag out Shame And Sin to play 1040 (I Pay Taxes) while I work on my taxes today also.

Jacob Tannehill: Kicked the door open for mainstream blues. Robert kept one foot in the blues and one in soul. My first real exposure to him. Upbeat, soulful, but knew what blues was. I became a lifelong fan of his, after this, and he knew that this type of blues could exist with the gritty blues that was associated with that style. Good stuff and only more great stuff to come.

John Davidson: A staple of MTV/VH1 in the late 80s and an artist I enjoyed at the time, but not someone I've kept faith with in the years since.

It's soulful and melodic and Cray has a smooth, rich voice that complements the guitar playing, but if I am reaching for the blues I feel the need for a bit more grit and even then I prefer individual songs over albums.

I like the story-centred lyrics but even with that many of the songs lack emotional impact. The blues should make you feel ok when you are sad, even if you are in a good place it should wrap you in a familiar, comforting melancholy, but Cray's blues is more like a hot cup of cocoa than a stiff drink with a friend.

Smoking Gun is a fine opener and Right Next Door remains a classic. From the back half of the album only Foul Play and I Wonder really stand out, the rest all blend into the background. its a pleasant enough experience but I'm not reaching for my credit card to go find a copy.

Philip Qvist: Great album; Strong Persuader starts of with Smokin' Gun and gets better from there, especially Right Next Door. This album got regular play time in South Africa at the time. A classic blues rock album with well crafted songs and great musicianship. I would say that this one is by far Robert Cray's strongest album. An easy 8 here.

Arun Viswanathan: I have been playing a bunch of Robert Cray at blues jams recently, especially Smoking Gun, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Phone Booth (I know, not on this album). His soulful voice is so good and when you learn his essential Strat tricks, his songs really pop! When this album came out in the 1980s some sad reviews said he was the only black man playing the blues who sounded white, including in the Bay Area where I lived and where he came up. Now though, he’s one of the last genuine bluesmen out there! He is a legend and should be revered as such. I’ve seen him many times and look forward to seeing him again this summer with the Doobies and Stevie Winwood. Thanks for the tunes and for keeping the blues alive, Mr. Cray!


Final score: 7.62 (79 votes cast, total score 602)

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