It has been almost five years since the last Blues Blast interview with guitarist Larry McCray, conducted by Terry Mullins. At that time, he was finishing up a new project that was released as The Gibson Sessions, featuring twelve classic rock songs like “Can’t You See,’ “Night Moves,” “Wild Horses,” and “Born On The Bayou,” all injected with the McCray’s forceful approach that extends from blues to hard rocking tunes with room for some soulful struts in between. He also enlisted a number of top-flight pickers to come along for the ride, including Derek Trucks, David Hidalgo, Dickey Betts, and Jimmy Herring. Last year he also played on two tracks on the latest from the godfather of British blues, John Mayall’s Nobody Told Me.
While the guitarist is fired up and ready to go, the recent years have brought a few challenges.
“There has been a lot going on. I was sick, found out I had prostate cancer in 2014. They did surgery in 2015 and I have made a complete recovery from that. So I feel like I have a new lease on life. A lot of things are in the right position. It is time for something good to happen and I am feeling good about playing music again. I have been writing some new material and there are some other people helping me out to come up with some tunes. I want to put together a real good, solid project so that we can hopefully go into the studio in March to start recording”.
Once the project is recorded, the guitarist plans to shop it around to some of the blues record labels. If he can’t generate any interest, he is prepared to do another release on his Magnolia label. After a checkered career with several larger labels, McCray was tired of working hard, seemingly without getting anywhere.
“I made a lot of bad decisions early on in my career. There was so much going on in the business back around 2000, and it seemed like the only way to recover from that was to get more involved and have some say it what I was putting out. My awareness level about what was going on wasn’t where it needed to be. When I first got involved, I believed that the music label was your friend. I wasn’t aware that needed to negotiate for a better situation for your own being, for your own interests.
“You have to learn to fight for your publishing rights to songs, for your royalties. It was a rude awakening to me about the music business. I thought that if you sang and played well, good things will come to you. And if you have never dealt with that kind of situation before, you have no idea of what is proper. Unfortunately, you don’t have a clue until you have been through it. When you do finally wake up and find out what’s going on, it is usually to late to make improvements on that situation. Having recordings on my own label helps you get instant gratification, because you are selling your own product off the stage. And the difference is that you are taking home $20 for a product as opposed to a $1.35”.
Growing up in Arkansas, McCray had eight brothers and sisters. “My brother Steve was the last one, and I was before him. He has been my drummer for years. Come to find out that isn’t a whole lot of kids by some standards. My mother came from a family of eighteen kids. Then I have had a friend that had twenty-two in his family. I thought, wow, we weren’t even getting warmed up to compared to them. These days people can’t have families that size. You couldn’t afford it unless you are rich”.
The family played music, especially McCray’s father and his sister, Clara, who was well-known locally for her skills as a guitar player. Her brother got started on a different instrument.
“Believe it or not, I began on saxophone in the school band. Of course, I did not have a saxophone. So I used to drag this big sax home from school every day. We only lived three miles from the school! In those days, we walked home. I love saxophone music, but it was a complicated instrument for me. In 1971, I left Arkansas and moved to Saginaw, MI with my sister. She had lots of instruments around, including a couple electric guitars. Once I tried one of those, I realized that guitar was a lot more natural for me. I was around it, it was acceptable, and I could watch her to get started”.
“My brother Carl got interested in bass, and Steve wanted to play drums, so we had a trio. We used to practice in our bedroom upstairs, right above our parent’s bedroom. They let us practice up there to keep us home and out of trouble. After that, we moved into the carport. That brought our buddies and all of the neighborhood kids started hanging out. That gave us an instant audience, and gave us the inspiration to be better. We didn’t have the accessibility to really study music properly in order to take it to the highest level”.
The home practice regimen continued until McCray was almost seventeen. Their first gig as band was at the wedding for some friends around 1976. Upon graduating high school, the guitarist took a position in a General Motors plant.
“At that particular time, I didn’t know how to go about contacting someone to help book the band out of the area. To be honest, I thought it was so far-fetched that I didn’t even have a dream of being in music. I didn’t think it was possible, that music was for an elite class that didn’t include me. From high school on, I played music because I love it – and blues was the music that I loved. But then I learned that I also liked jazz, rock, and even high-intensity level country picking from Nashville, anything that sounded good and would help me improve my skills”.
Even though he was working a day job, McCray practiced all the time when he had a spare moment.
“This guy showed me how to play a scale. I appreciated that and was drilling, trying to learn how to play the scale. Once I had that down, I started hearing major and minors, plus other voices in the chord. I did the best I could without proper training. But I did what my ears and mind envisioned me to do. If I couldn’t do it like I heard it, I at least tried to capture the essence of the situation”.
Not accounting for several lay-offs, the stint with General Motors lasted from 1978 to 1990, when he quit to focus on his music career.
“ I busted a window with my hand, and I was out of there. I was under a lot of pressure that at the time. I guess they wanted me to quit. I was trying to get a leave or a sabbatical, but that never happened. My hand was screwed up so I couldn’t play for about two years. It was time to go because I didn’t want to fight it any more. They did it for several other people, but not for me. It was a good time to do it in 1990, because they were looking for people to leave, to take what was called the “golden handshake,” so much money for their time, good riddance, and enjoy! General Motors wanted your allegiance. If you had any sort of vision or expressed anything that stepped outside the thinking on the line, that was considered rebellious as far as they were concerned. Those were some strange days”.
The impetus to get his music career going came as a result of McCray attending a musicians party near. Farmington, MI.
“It was the biggest party I had ever been to, with at least 500 people. It was on a horse ranch, a beautiful setting, done picnic style. All these musicians were playing, all trying to get up there at the same time. Once things started to mellow out, my brothers and I did a short set. When we finished, this guy came up and started telling me he could do this and he could do that, the old song and dance I had heard before. I exchanged information with him, so he called me to do a recording session, which I blew off. And he called me back, we set it up again, and once again I didn’t show up. The third time he told me I was going to mess things up if I didn’t show up”.
“By this time, I decided the guy was serious. We got together to write some songs, then rode down to the recording studio. That was one of the first mistakes I made. We just went it and started tracking. I didn’t know anything, didn’t ask any questions. Next thing I know, we are signed to a contract that had us wrapped up and covered like big blanket! It has been one mistake after another for me business-wise. It took some doing to get out of that one. Now I am looking to redeem some of that in the second stanza, if you know what I mean”.
“One thing led to another. We finished the record and next thing I know we are leaving for a European tour with Gary Moore. The first few dates were in the UK, then on to Scandinavia and Germany. What a tour for a kid from Saginaw who hadn’t been anywhere! I got to see the wizardry of Gary Moore first hand on these big stages, one of the best ever. You know, we did little tours around Michigan, but not much out-of-state. I did go to Chicago once, backing Lazy Lester in 1986, and got to see the 3rd annual Chicago Blues Festival. Lester was a sweet soul, a hell of a man. I never saw him get mad at anybody. He used to love his beer when he was younger, and country music, too. I played with him a bunch of times. I think I know of someone who has an unreleased recording of him with me and my two brothers. I don’t know what they are going to do with that one”.
“My father passed when I was coming up on my seventeenth birthday. When I met Lester, he liked to carry on and jive, and all that stuff. But he took a liking to me. We got along really good. One of the last places I saw him was down in Brazil, when I did some stuff with Lester and guitarist Robert “Bilbo” Walker. I always enjoyed being with the old-timers, because that is how I learned. It was an easy transition for me to go from what I was doing, to fit in with that kind of situation. I believe that I had enough insight that I brought some good flavor, able to make a good contribution. I felt where they were coming from.
“I met Lester through Fred Reif, a gentleman in Saginaw who used to book bands and play some washboard. He worked with Lester, Piano Red, George “Wild Child” Butler, and Sharrie Williams. Fred just wrote a biography about the Saginaw blues scene in the 1960s. (Tell ‘Em ‘Bout The Blues). There aren’t many blues heavyweights left no more. Now it seems that if you don’t conform or fit a certain profile, the opportunities don’t come around. It is hard to be original”.
When asked to describe his style of blues music, McCray was ready with an illuminating response.
“My music forms a melting pot. I don’t think what I have recorded to this point has been a very good example of what the potential of my music is, because there has always been some questionable stuff going on. The production of our recordings has suffered due to lack of opportunities. This next time around is going to be much more relaxed, more indicative of where we are now. In terms of categories, the music has a little funk with a lot of blues. There is a little country twang now and then, plus we mix a little Latin rhythm in there when we think we can pull it off without taking the music out of context. I have never restricted myself. Your influences will show up in your music, but you need to be recognizable for your own style. Coming from me, it’s going to have an edge to it, and it’s going to be rocking”.
For equipment, the guitarist is currently using a 1971 Fender Deluxe Reverb amplifier that has been tweaked out. His simple effects board is limited to just three units, a Dunlop wah-wah, a Rocktron Austin Gold overdrive, and a Fulltone OCD overdrive/distortion pedal. Gibson guitars are still his go-to choice, but some other models have caught his eye.
“Back a few years ago, I discovered Guild and DeArmond, an old division of Guild guitars, which I like to use for a change of pace. My main instruments are still the Gibson Les Paul and my Flying V. Gibson guitars are still my number one choice. But it is nice to change things up to give yourself a different feel. Gibson was the only company that stepped up and helped out some blues artists, including myself. I love them for their integrity, and the willingness to help out artists in need”.
“Albert King is probably my all-time favorite blues guitar player. It is not easy to copy his licks because of the way he bent the strings. With that being said, on that first tour I saw Gary Moore playing a Les Paul with Humbucker pick-ups. When I got back from the tour, my Fender guitar just didn’t stand up to Gary’s sound. In those days, everybody playing guitar in Chicago was either playing a Gibson Es-335 of a Fender Strat. I wanted my own identity, and I wanted a guitar with Humbuckers. So I decided to try the Flying V. Once I started playing, the accessibility to the neck and the way it performed, halfway between a Les Paul and an ES-335, I was sold. That had my name all over it! It became a signature for me. It was about the sound, but it ended like paying a tribute to Albert”.
‘The thing that I feel blessed about is that I got to meet all of my heroes except Freddie King. I knew B.B. King quite well. I knew Albert Collins, we played a lot of gigs together. And I knew Albert King, and got to play with Fenton Robinson, KoKo Taylor, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and the list goes on. I came along at the right time to meet them all. Now I would like to try to do something with someone from the generation before me. I missed out on three very significant opportunities, at least in my mind. They would have been with Luther Allison, Lazy Lester, and James Cotton. And also a great guitar player from Detroit, Johnnie Bassett, who I did a project with, but it has never come out”.
“Lester and I had talked about recording for years, but never got around to doing it. I did get to record with Cotton on his Grammy-winning album, Living The Blues. I wish I could have made a record with Barrelhouse Chuck, a great guy and one of my favorite piano players. Besides documenting my own music, I think it is important to do something with some of my favorite people that are still playing. One project I hope I don’t miss would be with Lucky Peterson. I appeared on one of his albums. Now I would like to do a complete project with him. That would be a dream come true. I am hoping to capture my true creativity on a record before it is all said and done”.
For more information on Larry MCray, see Terry Mullins interview from 2014 here: http://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/featured-interview-larry-mccray.