After a decade of honing his craft and playing gritty clubs, Robert Cray burst onto the blues scene in the mid-1980s and became a global sensation. None other than B.B. King anointed him as the great blues hope who could carry the torch to the next generation.

Cray played with John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters; he opened for Eric Clapton and became good friends with the self-proclaimed guitar god. In 2021, Cray was slated to open a series of arena shows for Clapton, but after Clapton and Van Morrison collaborated on an anti-vax anthem, Cray told his old friend that he couldn’t participate in the tour.

From the story: “I’m not associating with anybody who’s going to be that selfish,” Cray said in a phone interview. The message of “Stand and Deliver,” starting with the line, “You let ’em put the fear on you … but not a word you heard was true,” is “just the total opposite of what I, and people I know, are all about,” Cray said.

The song, written by Morrison, gets even more provocative in the second verse when Clapton sings, “Do you wanna be a free man, or do you wanna be a slave?”

Comparing mask mandates and public health efforts to slavery “was just way out of bounds,” Cray said. “You know, he’s playing this kind of music (blues) that came about through slavery.”

After 35 years of friendship, Cray contacted Clapton, thinking he could have a productive conversation about “Stand and Deliver.”

Cray was wrong. He said Clapton has become “standoffish” recently and that he dismissed the slavery line as a reference to British servitude centuries ago.

Clapton has “a huge voice, and he could do so much for people during this crisis,” Cray said. “And he’s not using it the right way.” …

Throughout his career, Cray has walked his talk, and his withdrawal from Clapton’s tour didn’t sound like a difficult decision. “It’s more important now” to adhere to one’s principles, Cray said. “You have to fight.” In his music, as in his life, Cray has long been willing to take a stand. And deliver.