One of the joys of living in such a fertile playground of musical talent as the tri-cities is encountering people such as Larry McCray. Born back in 1960 in Magnolia, Arkansas, his family moved to Saginaw in 1972 and he grew up living on a farm. He learned guitar from his sister, Clara, who McCray said “Used to play real low-down and dirty” and he went on to earn worldwide acclaim, releasing nine albums and playing with the likes of the legendary ‘Three Kings’ he emulated: B.B, Freddie and Albert.
I remember when Larry’s star was rising back in 1987, 3-years prior to signing his debut recording deal with Virgin Records. He was still working the graveyard shift at Steering Gear and unbeknownst to me, making his debut appearance joining the Boys of Joy at our 1st REVIEW Music Awards.
After a brief 3-song set, the room of 300 at the late-great Fordney Hotel stood still in silence.
People couldn’t believe the power and passion flowing out of those guitar strings, nor the presence of that inimitable voice. And I mention this only because in many ways, artists such as Larry are what prompted me to start the REVIEW in the first place - to my mind, there was simply too much talent sparking from the clubs into the streets, but nobody seemed to be documenting it, so time to change the dynamic.
Over the past 35-years I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of documenting Larry’s career from its humble beginnings all the way through his journey to the top of the mountain, only to have that pot of gold hanging over the edge of the rainbow seem to elude him. Even though he was headlining major international festivals and sharing solo duets with greats such as B.B. King and Buddy Guy, broader commercial acclaim and success has proven to be evasive.
Fortunately, all of that is poised to change. Recently, Larry recorded an album’s worth of new original material with the eminently talented and successful Joe Bonamassa and guitarist Josh Smith. After the 18-month hiatus created by the Pandemic, Larry is starting to get back on the road and has been performing regularly with a fresh new line-up of personnel to accompany his new batch of material.
Unfortunately, another tumultuous turn off the road occurred this past summer, when Larry’s long-time manager Paul Koch passed away suddenly while driving home from a gig he had booked for Larry down in Ann Arbor - fatefully severing a 30-year alliance, closing one door just as another is poised to open.
REVIEW: I guess a good place to start is with your debut breakthrough album Ambition, which was released an unbelievable 30 years ago back in 1991 on Point Blank Records, which was a subsidiary of Virgin Records. You toured the world with that release and it’s also when you signed up with you manager, the late Paul Koch. When you look back on the entire arc of your career since that debut release, what are some of the immediate thoughts that come to mind? How do you view your progress over these past 30 years?
LARRY McCRAY: I know for sure that I had one hell of a ride and a lot of amazing experiences. Back then I was a young person - about 30 years old - and trying to set the right priorities for my career. The unfortunate thing is that once you get going you never take your foot off the gas and the goal is to stay around as long as you can. For 15 years I thought I was a lonely man who needed something different in my life and looking back, hindsight is always 20/20 and now I feel I’ve gone full-circle in a lot of ways. Larry McCray at the age of 61 has learned more in terms of how to prioritize and how to get where I want to be by adopting a different direction. A lot of it is fate and I love my son deeply, but in retrospect I got married when I was pretty young and maybe I should have focused on my career a little more.
REVIEW: It’s so amazing that you’ve been able to earn so much interest and support from Joe Bonamassa and must be incredibly exciting to be recording new original material with him. Tell me how that all came about.
McCRAY: Joe had a podcast on Earthview and would play my music from time-to-time and make statements about how much he enjoyed my talents. I didn’t take it too serious because I’m not a player like him and felt he was such a serious guitar player that he wouldn’t appreciate anything I do, because I don’t play like that. But in music the level that you play isn’t always the level of quality you bring to the board.
People have always known what I do is Blues and Rockin’ Blues music and I honestly feel that any form of music has the Blues in there some kind of way, but I’ve always known what my musical strong points are and stay focused on that, which in a way caused me to stay in a bubble. When you want chicken and rice you go to the Colonel, you know?
Anyway, I’ve always felt that Joe is such a superior player to me that when I heard he was playing my music on his show, I didn’t make too much of it. But a good friend of mine, Larry Mitchell, had a 50th birthday party that I played at and he knows Joe personally and said he heard him talking about me again, so to make a long story short, he gave me Joe’s number and within 30 minutes of me reaching out to him, Joe called me back and said he was doing some things with his label and would love to make a record with me.
I was just blown away. I’d met Joe years ago in Nashville and we did a gig together at B.B. King’s, so after we spoke about getting together to record about four or five months passed, so I reached out again but didn’t want to bother him and figured he’d forgot about it. But the next thing I knew he called me up and asked what I was doing the following week. He reached out to me and said he would be here on this certain date and then he came. I honestly didn’t believe he would come to Bay City, Michigan, but he did.
REVIEW: Wasn’t this right around the time your long time manager Paul Koch passed away? That must have hit you kind of hard as well, having worked with Paul for 30 years.
McCRAY: Yes it was. It’s hard for me to talk about Paul because I don’t wanna talk ill about the dead. Paul was a savior for me at a particular time that I needed to get away from a bad situation. He did a lot of good and had a strong knowledge of the business and his heart and soul were in the right direction, but he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and because of his ways he made a lot of enemies. I missed out on a lot of opportunities because he couldn’t connect the dots, which was unfortunate.
REVIEW: So tell me about the sessions that you recorded with Joe Bonamassa.
McCRAY: We’ve already recorded eleven songs and are doing two more. I went to Los Angeles to record with Joe and two tracks were recorded here in Michigan. The band consisted of Lamar Carter on drums - he’s a session drummer who plays with guitarist Josh Smith, who I’ve known since he was 13-years old; and then we have Travis Carlton on bass, who is Larry Carlton’s son; and then on keyboards we’ve got Reese Wyman, who is Stevie Ray Vaughn’s former keyboard player.
When Joe spoke to me he basically said that he just wanted to help me because he felt as a musician and artist I’d been overlooked. He said that I should be doing better than I did and wanted to help turn things around for me. He told me how he felt about my playing when he was a kid and how much he appreciated the way I treated him when he was up-and-coming, which is just what I do. I always treat people with respect. And I remember the first time I saw Joe perform I appreciated his talent. As far as I’m concerned, it’s okay for other people to be good. Some people’s ego won’t allow them to give props to anybody but themselves, but I’ve never felt that way. I felt my own talent was good, but knew what my focus was at and what helped me survive all these years.
REVIEW: Well Larry, in my opinion you’ve always been as equally modest as you’ve been talented and for a lot of these younger musicians out there, you are the vanguard and the standard bearer for the American Blues. A lot of the original pioneers like Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Freddie King are all gone, so now you’re more or less standing at the front line. What’s that like for you?
McCRAY: I feel very honored that people refer or regard me that way. I just know I’ve always felt that maybe I’m the last connection to that generation, as I got to work with those guys quite a bit coming up, which was another blessing in my career. I’ve had some really cool things happen in my career. Being accepted into the Allman Brothers circle I regard as a blessing and a privilege that they would take an interest in me.
It’s funny, because I remember one of the first criticisms I ever had was that I lacked that edge of the Chicago Blues. But the Blues came from the South and the living conditions in the southern hemisphere of the United States - in the cotton fields and the woods, where I was born into and experienced that first-hand. Blues music is nothing more to me than waking up and having a cup of coffee - I didn’t have to work to make it authentic.
REVIEW: So do you have a tentative release date for the new album?
McCRAY: Not yet. Joe is touring right now and focusing on that, and I’m trying to get my affairs in order and am in discussions trying to cultivate new management contracts, so I’m just following Joe’s schedule and his tempo.
REVIEW: How do you feel this new music is any different or evolved from your prior outings?
McCRAY: I feel early on in my career and even as it matured I tried to focus on my showmanship. When you’re young it’s all about rockin’ those blue licks and getting attention, which is all well and good; but music that endures comes from the soul, many times on a ballad that reaches people. It’s all about the message. People are impressed with the message of the music, which comes down to focusing more on the songs than the delivery in many ways. That’s the direction I’m leaning towards moving forward.
REVIEW: How’s it going with securing a new management deal? Have you been getting lots of interest?
McCRAY: Right now I have an agency showing me they want to be involved. I feel the most important thing is to have an agency enthused about working with you. The Bonamassa camp is helping direct me about setting up a team with good people around you to get the job done. The problem with my former manager Paul was that he was 100% hands-on and wouldn’t let nobody else get involved with managing my career, which is why nothing never really worked. It takes more than one person to make it work. It’s a team effort and takes a lot of people to make successful situations come together. With Paul I could never get anyone else involved.
But I’m excited to be playing live shows again as much as I am working on this new music. All the songs on the album will be my own music and I’m just looking forward to getting out and playing with new personnel. The professionalism I’m working with has been a joy.
It’s a joy putting the music first. That’s what we’re trying to do. No egos. Music, first.
16th November, 2023