Legendary blues guitarists travel to Hampton Township to record with Larry McCray

This summer marks a new chapter for Bay City’s King of the Blues, Larry McCray.

For five years, two musicians well known in the blues world have been talking about visiting McCray. In July, just months after the sudden death of McCray’s longtime manager and friend Paul Koch, that visit became reality.

The two visitors were Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith. Bonamassa, ranked the no. 1 best living blues guitarst in a Nov. 21, 2019 Guitar World magazine, started his career at12 when he opened for B.B. King. He’s recorded 15 solo albums and seen 11 of them reach no. 1 on the Billboard Blues chart. Josh Smith, named the 16th best living blues guitar player by Guitar World magazine, also is singer-songwriter, and producer.

From left, videographer Robin Davey, Producer Josh Smith, Songwriter Jimmy J., guitarist Joe Bonamassa, guitarist Larry McCray, McCray's girlfriend Peggy Smith, and manager Jeff Wever met in McCray's Hampton Township home.“I’ve been wanting to do an album with Larry for five years,” says Smith, at McCray’s home near Hampton Township. “I was in Chicago (then) and I said, ‘Man, get yourself to L.A.. Just find some money and use my studio for free. I’ll write, I’ll do anything you need.”

McCray has been in the midst of an inspiring music writing frenzy, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s had multiple artists reach out to him in recent months. Networking between former Allman Brother/Gov’t Mule leader Warren Haynes, guitarist Larry Mitchell, Bonamassa and Smith helped get the ball rolling for a visit to Bay City.

“The common denominator in all of this is the love of Larry McCray,” Bonamassa says. “That’s why I am here, that’s why Josh is here, that’s why Warren’s involved. Whatever you guys need, I want to be involved.”

Along with pre-production, which included IPhone demoing many all-new McCray songs straight from the source, Bonamassa brought along videographer Robin Davey to film a documentary behind the scenes of the blues man’s rebirth. McCray surrounded himself with his girlfriend, Peggy Smith, as well as a circle of friends for the two-day visit.

Videographer Robin Davey captured the session between Larry McCray, at right, and Joe Bonamassa, at left.“I really want them to know my sincerity and my thanks from the bottom (of my heart),” says McCray. “The first thing I said to Joe was, ‘Man, look here. I know you’re Joe Bonamassa. You don’t have to do a damn thing that you don’t want to do.’ I could never express to them my gratitude for this situation. If nothing comes out of this, just the fact that they came and were willing (is enough).”

The first time McCray came across Bonamassa’s radar was when he received McCray’s national debut release as a consolation prize early in his career.

“The first time I heard Larry McCray music was when I was rejected by Virgin Records and they gave me a Larry McCray CD,” laughs Bonamassa. “I think they gave me Ambition, which was the first CD they put out for Larry. It was before (my band) Bloodline, ‘90-’91.”

“I’ve loved Larry since the moment I first heard him when I got that CD,” adds Smith. “Around the same time (as Joe), I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I would hang out at this club, The Musicians Exchange. I would hang around the office and they also had a music store. The owner and booker of the club would get press packs all day long back when (music labels) would mail these giant packs. Whoever was booking Larry at the time sent Ambition and I stole it from the office and took it home and listened to it. I was probably 13 years old.”

It wasn’t long before McCray was running into Smith and Bonamassa on the blues tour trail circuit.

“We’ve played a lot of shows over the years here and there,” says Smith. “We’d bump into each other. I’m such a fan, not just of him as a musician, but personally. He was always so kind to me. When you are a young musician, and I know Joe feels the same way, you make a list of the people who are genuine and kind. It doesn’t get more real than this man. You don’t forget those things when you grow up.

Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith had been planning the visit for five years.“So he was always in the back of my mind once I started producing records, I’ve got to do something with Larry McCray, Because, selfishly, there is a record from him that hasn’t been done yet and I’ve got to make that happen.”

McCray is humbled by their memories.

“Look at all the great musicians in the world today. If you’ve got an attitude about who you are, what you do with an instrument – I mean I knew right off the bat that was not my calling. But I knew that I could be good at what I do. I just try to stay in my lane and focus on what I do. That’s what allowed me to keep going.”

Both Bonamassa and Smith knew McCray was ready for another great album and national focus as a top-tier blues artist, fulfilling one of McCray’s biggest dreams.

“I was asked in an interview earlier, what was my biggest regret,” adds McCray. “What I forgot to mention was, I was never able to be included when focus was brought to blues music. They always used other musicians, which were deserving no doubt about it, but I was never included or could not be. I wanted to be there, but the timing wasn’t right. It wasn’t for me. So when that happens, you have to learn to accept things the way that they are, unless you are a quitter or plan on quitting. You have to accept those things and learn how to regroup and re-try again.”

Bonamassa agrees. “Our goal is to get the best record we can right now and concentrate on the songs and delivery. There is no doubt in my mind that we are going to achieve something great here.”

Larry McCrayGoing to Los Angeles to record during the first nine days of September, McCray felt he was able to tell his tale and be genuinely heard.

“Between the two of these guys here, you know how I feel about their music,” says McCray. “They play so well at such a higher level. I never even thought they would even like a note I’ve ever played. I just didn’t feel that was possible.

“That’s another thing what kept me humble. I didn’t go out there thinking I put an impression on anybody that way. But as a total package, playing my songs and doing what I do, I might/could be good. That’s all I could ever hope for to be at a certain level, to be at an acceptable level. Then whoever want to be the number one dog, let them worry about that. I just want this spot right here. That’s the way I looked at it.”

While McCray talks, both Smith and Bonamassa are shaking their heads ‘no.’ To them, McCray is a legend.

Looking out the front window at beautiful sunsets behind the walls of corn, McCray spent much of the visit elated, yet near teary eyed. When reminded he once was ‘dreaming’ of the Joe Bonamassa publicity outbursts he saw on social media and in magazines, he had now been introduced right to the family source.

“That’s the machine behind it,” smiles Bonamassa. “We built our own machine. I’m just excited to be here, get through all the songs, kind of sit with them, write some other songs. And just by where we are at today, I’m extremely confident that we are going to achieve everything we set out to do.”

“I’ve been trying to help,” adds McCray. “Right now it’s all kinds of people calling on me for help. I’m not used to receiving help. But for me to get some help … It really hit me. It hit my heart.”

Announcing his plans on Instagram just a day prior to the engagement, Bonamassa and Smith were caught by area friends and fans in both Uptown Bay City and at Herter Music Center, 901 N. Washington.

“I like Bay City, it’s good,” Bonamassa says.

“It’s been very cool,” adds Smith. “We went yesterday to the music store. We’ve (hung) around the hotel and it’s been really nice.”

They plan to visit Bay City once again after the album is released. Bonamassa looks forward to that, with a simple goal for McCray.

“Change his life ... that’s it. If I don’t do that then I didn’t work hard enough. Failure is not an option.”