By Lee Zimmerman
Steve Cropper is an unassuming individual. Yet considering the wealth of hit songs he’s been a part of, he has every reason to be a bit arrogant. Nevertheless, with his rich southern accent and propensity for laughter, speaking with him feels like reconnecting with an old friend. He’s eager to talk about his achievements, but does so in a matter-of-fact way that’s both casual and confident, the mark of an easygoing guy who seemingly takes his accomplishments in stride and eagerly engages in conversation when the opportunity arises.
Indeed, from the early ‘60s on, those triumphs took the music world by storm, creating a connection between pop radio and the R&B airwaves that only Motown could match. As the in-house guitarist, producer, arranger and sometime songwriter for Memphis’ fabled Stax Records, Cropper put a signature sound on dozens of records that have since become staples in modern music realms. “Soul Man.” “Knock on Wood.” “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” “In the Midnight Hour.” All played with the most iconic artists imaginable. Otis Redding, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, The Blues Brothers, Rufus Thomas, The Mar-Keys, Jeff Beck, Carla Thomas, Albert King… It’s hard to imagine anyone he hasn’t shared the stage with.
Steve Cropper’s latest collaborator is Dave Mason with whom he’s embarking on a tour that will take them across the country through September (Mason will speak to Goldmine next issue, during the middle of the tour). We spoke to Cropper prior to the start of the sojourn, asked some questions and then let him take it away.
Goldmine: How did this tour with Dave Mason come about?
Steve Cropper: We met many, many years ago, but I’m not sure how it all got put together. I’ve got a guy who works for me and I told him I was tired of going to Europe with the Blues Brothers Band for 30 years. So they ask me, “Why do you go to Europe so much” and I tell them, “If you’re a fisherman, you go where the fish are biting.” This started many years ago, when there was a big demand, and this was started well after Belushi passed away. The movies did very well over there. Even the second movie did well over there. So that’s where the crowds are for us. There’s always work in Europe to be had. Not over here. Because over here, it’s real simple and I understand it. John Belushi’s dead and we don’t have a new movie. It’s a little more difficult than back in the day when we were making hits. We have a new album that most people haven’t heard, but we’ve been playing around colleges for a few months and done very well.
GM: You would think that those guys would want to have you guys involved.
SC: You would think that, but they don’t. It’s one of those things. We play for big, big crowds in Europe. We’ve played for as many as 40, 50, 60 thousand. So back to the original question. I said I didn’t want to do Europe any more. I never said I’d never do it. I just don’t want to do another tour with the band the way we’ve been doing it for 30 years with a sore butt at the end of every flight. Then, stupidly or not, I said I’d go to Australia. So now we sit on a plane for 15 hours going down there. Nonstop, 15 1/2 hours? That’s crazy. We’ve done Moscow before where you fly over the North Pole and that’s 14 1/2 hours.
GM: So is the tour with Dave the chance to bring your music to a Stateside audience for a change?
SC: Yeah, it’s essentially the same stuff. I’m playing with new guys. I’ve been working with the guys in the Blues Brothers for over 15 years. So Dave Mason’s band knows his stuff and they’ve been having fun learning my stuff. My stuff is pretty simple anyway but they all wanted to play it and we had a lot of fun doing it. “Knock on Wood,” “Soul Man” and different stuff.
GM: There have been so many hits that you’ve been a part of one way or another…
SC: (Chuckles) I know. It’s kind of scary. The older you get, the more you go, “Wow, did I play on that?”
GM: So every time you hear one of your hits played on the radio, does it bring you back to when you recorded it? Fond memories and all that?
SC: I don’t know. I don’t want to say no and I don’t want to say yes, because it’s sort of in the middle somewhere. You play for the moment. When I think about it, we’ll do what you and I are doing now. You’ll ask me a question and it opens up a whole bucket of information that I hadn’t talked about for awhile. So I don’t know. It just depends on the question. We do these songs every night, so they have some sameness, but the audience wouldn’t know the variations that are going on onstage unless they went to a concert every night for five nights in a row. The way we look at it is, yes they are the same songs, but we don’t play them the exact same way. It just doesn’t happen. Even in the days of Booker T. and The M.G.’s, we tried to play them differently. Al Jackson, our drummer, said, “We’ll never play the same way we did on the record. It sort of fell flat. There’s a difference between studio play and live play. There always has been.
GM: When, in the song “Soul Man,” Sam and Dave shouted out, “Play it, Steve,” was that spontaneous?
SC: Absolutely. That was the third take, and that’s the last time he did it. I think Sam is sorry he did it, but it was spur of the moment and it worked out pretty good. “Play it, Steve!” Then Belushi picked it up and made a big deal out of it.
GM: How exactly did you come up with that riff?
SC: I don’t know. There were some hammer licks I was using and I remember that day. Isaac Hayes came back to the control room where I was mixing tapes. It was the day before the session and Isaac said, “David (Porter) and I have definitely written a hit that we want to record for tomorrow’s session, and can you come up with the intro?” Somehow I hadn’t gotten tagged as an intro guy. And I said, “Well yeah.” So he said, “Come on and get your guitar,” and we both kind of looked at each other and I said, “Well, are you going to play me the song or what?” And he said, “Just play some changes,” so I played something and he said, “That‘s it.” It was that simple. It took maybe two minutes. I just played the set of changes in front of the song.
GM: Back in the day, when you were working for Stax, the other powerhouse of black music was Motown…
GM: So was there any rivalry between the two companies?
SC: None whatsoever. I remember those days well. At the time, we got asked that question a lot. We didn’t listen to a Motown record and then go home and try to write something exactly like it. We just didn’t. We were doing our thing and they were doing theirs. The way I used to describe Motown was that we were both in the R&B business making dance records, but their whole direction was towards pop airplay, and ours was towards ethnic airplay. We were out to get play on all the R&B stations. And then we luckily got picked up in L.A. and San Francisco and got some hits there. The M.G.’s had a hit in San Francisco that never got picked up anywhere else called “Chinese Checkers.” I guess because of the title of it. It was a hit at the time. I forget how many it sold, but it was a big hit by our standards. It wasn’t played anywhere else.
GM: Back in the ‘60s, there was a sizeable racial divide, but here were white guys playing with black musicians for a black label.
SC: Right in the thick of it (chuckles).
GM: Did the racial scenario ever enter into it?
SC: No. I’ve always said this. When we walked into the Stax studio from the sidewalk, everything was left outside. There was never any discrimination of any kind. I never cared that my compadres were a different color from me and vice versa. I had that backed up by the guys who were there. There was none of that that even existed at all at Stax. I guess we were just prior before all that broke loose, with Martin Luther King’s assassination and the sit-ins and that kind of thing. I moved to Memphis when I was about 10 and just grew up with it. There were certain things you just accepted and took for granted and never questioned. Memphis was totally segregated, and I didn’t even know it. I used to hangout at the two main radio stations, WLOK and WDIA, and those people became my really, really close friends, and they still are to this day, I ask myself, what were they doing putting up with some snot-nosed teenager. I guess they were just glad to have someone around. Rufus (Thomas), of all people; he was a big, big star and a big radio deejay too. He used to invite me over for dinner, and I used to go over there as one of the family and that’s just the way it was. Nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to do that. Nobody questioned it. Nobody said, what are you doing over there at his house? I never got asked that question and so I never had to answer it. Today, it might be different. I’m more aware of it today, but maybe I’m aware of it because the news covers it and I’m old enough to watch the news now.
GM: So was there a white backlash?
SC: None that I know of. I can’t even remember what year it was, but we were in San Francisco when that all went down. We would put a lot of our artists when they came to town — especially Eddie Floyd — up at the Lorraine Motel. I don’t know how many hits we wrote at the Lorraine, but I could probably look at a list and tell you where we wrote it. A lot of hits were written there and I have wracked my brain trying to figure out what hits we wrote in the room where Martin Luther King was killed. He got shot out on the balcony and I know exactly where that was. It was only a two story motel and his room was by the pool. I tell people if you go outside and down one, that’s where we wrote “Knock on Wood.”
GM: Rumor had it that The Beatles wanted to come to Memphis to record.
SC: They did, and that’s another story. For some reason, Brian Epstein didn’t feel like the security was good enough. (laughs) It was totally secure. Much safer than New York. He said, “Would you mind coming to New York?” And I said, “I guess I could do that.” And then he called me back and said, “This album I want you to work on, they already got it done, so let’s put it off and do the next one.” And by the next one, I guess the idea was gone. But I knew most of them and played on their individual albums.
GM: They just reissued the Ringo album.
SC: They did? Thanks for telling me that. I didn’t know. With Klaus Voormann and Nicky Hopkins? That’s great stuff. (Starts singing “Every time I see your face, it reminds me of the place…” and then laughs.) I remember they brought the song “Photograph” in and played it for the band, and (producer) Richard Perry goes, “I don’t know, guys. We might put this off and not record this one.” And I looked at Nicky there in the control room and said, “Let’s go out there and put a groove on this thing. And he went out there and started playing, and I started playing, and Jim Keltner came out and started playing, and Ringo came out and started playing. And then Klaus came out and the next thing you know, we’re pushing the red button and we’re cutting it.
GM: What amazing memories you must have.
SC: Well, a little bit.
GM: Yet, of all these people you worked with, were you ever intimidated? For example, you were part of the tribute to Bob Dylan some years back.
SC: We’re all there for the same reason. I know so many people who have been heralded as great superstars, but in real life, they’re seldom like their public persona. I mean, you can’t like everybody. You can’t gravitate to everybody like they’re kin, but still when you get together in a room — I don’t care if it’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Grammys, or whatever it is —when you’re playing onstage, you’re all in it together. You want to entertain that audience and you want to go over well. You’re right. I’ve worked with people like Justin Timberlake and I could be intimidated, but I’m not. They expect me to be me and I expect them to be them. (chuckles) They often want to do Stax songs and they don’t expect me to play the music they had their No. 1 hits with.
GM: Still, it’s a rare musician who can go onstage and stand on his or her own merits…
SC: I think there’s a handful of really good musicians who can go in the studio and work as well in the studio as they do live. The big artists know they can get to them and know they can trust them. Sometimes it could be about the money, but I don’t think it’s ever about the money. It’s the person, the musician, the artist wanting to do something. I know that for years I have not played for the money. Yes, I do get paid, and it’s a living, but that’s not the reason for my purpose. My purpose is to make the music and have fun. So when you get bombarded with a lot of projects, you pick the ones you enjoy doing.
GM: Have you heard the Stax reissues they’ve put out recently?
SC: Yeah, and you don’t know this yet because there hasn’t been any publicity, but there’s a new one coming out too. And the original guy who wrote the notes and got the Grammy is putting out another one. It’s going to be all the Stax singles. Everything that was ever released on Stax is coming out pretty soon.
GM: Did you have anything to do with the reissues?
SC: The production? No. I didn’t have anything to do with any of them. It’s probably a good idea, because I would have mixed them a different way. I kind of refer to our old stuff the way the producers and directors refer to the old black-and-whites. “If I wanted it in technicolor I would have shot it in technicolor.” There’s a lot of notes that come out when it’s remixed digitally that would not have come out when we mixed it mono-wise. So when I hear stuff on the radio, I say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I let that note stay in there,” because a lot of the stuff I mixed. Once we recorded them I’d go back and mix them, so that pretty much stayed the same.
GM: You did two albums with Felix Cavaliere. Any possibility you might reconnect with him?
SC: Probably not. The only real interest we got on those records was that that they wanted us to come to Japan. We talked about it, but it meant that we’d have to use a whole new set of musicians and start a new band and rehearse all those guys, and it just a little bit more work than we both wanted to put in. He tours as The Rascals and I tour as The Blues Brothers. That’s what we do, Why break that up?
GM: What about putting together a new version of the M.G.’s?
SC: Well, Booker is out there all the time. He’s playing here in Nashville tonight.
GM: Still, it seems like it would be really viable to go out and do an M.G.’s tour.
SC: It would, but there’s only Booker and I left. Al Jackson left us many, many years ago.
GM: But still, there’s the two of you…
SC: Well, that’s true, you still got the top part of it. Right before Duck had his heart attack, we played five nights in Nashville and five nights in Tokyo, so that’s 10 shows and he played all 10. But then the next morning, he didn’t get up for the transportation home. So we had a different group of guys out of Memphis without Booker, and it was working and people were accepting it. And we did a lot of Booker’s tunes, and people still accepted it.
GM: You were responsible for co-writing a lot of hits yourself. People think of you as this great guitarist but you are also a superb songwriter.
SC: I did. I’ll tell you this: I didn’t just put my name on them. I physically wrote them. I didn’t just help with the changes or put lyrics to the songs. I helped artists finish songs when maybe all they had was a title and a verse or something. I’d put music to them and help them finish the verses or help with the bridge. So we collaborated together. It wasn’t just one-sided. Otis (Redding) and I did that a lot. Otis wouldn’t finish a lot of songs. He always had a guitar with him, and he always had 10, 12, 15 ideas. “Do you like this one, Cropper?” Sometimes we’d come up with the inspiration for a song just listening to Otis talk. And one of them was “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa Sad Song.” He was trying to give me the sound of a saxophone on this song he had just written, and I said, wait a minute, there’s our song right there. (Sings fa, fa, fa…)
GM: Then there was “Dock of the Bay.”
SC: He knew he had written a hit. He said, “Hold on, Cropper, I’m coming right down there. I’ve written a hit.” He flew into the airport and called me. He wanted to make sure I was at the studio. We recorded it the next day. I don’t even think we had the full band when we recorded it.
GM: And how ironic it became such a big hit posthumously.
SC: I can’t believe it. A lot of people said it wouldn’t have made it if he hadn’t died. We had that song in the can two or three weeks and just kept on playing it every day. We’d pull it out and say, “There’s our hit.” We’d go into the studio and write some great songs, but we kept pulling that one out and saying, “There’s our hit.” We knew we had one.