Play It, Steve
Steve Cropper usually comes near the top of “greatest guitarist” lists compiled by music magazines and aficionados. Jimi Hendrix, of course, reigns supreme, while Cropper jockeys for position with maybe Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck. But it’s rarefied air up there, and Cropper stands out from the pack as a low-key sideman who prefers subtle rhythm guitar licks over flashy solos.
Cropper was the primary guitarist and one of the chief producers at Stax Records, the Memphis-based soul label that begat Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, and Sam & Dave. Millions have heard his name called out in the middle of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” when Sam Moore exclaims, “Play it, Steve!” It’s one of the most important examples of Cropper’s work and also one of the simplest. The easily identifiable intro is just a series of two-note harmonies played up and down the neck. Any guitar rookie will pick it up within minutes, though it could take another fifty years to bottle Cropper’s mojo.
Cropper once likened his style to that of George Harrison. “He’s not fancy,” he told me. “He’s not trying to impress his mom or his guitar teacher. He’s just having fun playing and that’s what I like doing.”
In the summer of 1962 — at the same time the Beatles first entered EMI’s recording studio — Cropper found accidental fame in his own right. The core members of the Stax studio band started working up instrumental jams during snatches of spare time between recording sessions, and label executives decided the tunes were worthy of release. And that’s how Booker T. and the MG’s became the biggest instrumental band in the world with breezy hits such as “Green Onions,” “Soul Limbo,” and “Time Is Tight.”
With two blacks and two whites, the group was also a civil rights standard bearer in the segregated south. Organist Booker T. Jones was the group’s nominal leader, while drummer Al Jackson Jr. kept metronomic timing. Lewie Steinberg played bass for three years until he was replaced by Cropper’s childhood buddy Donald “Duck” Dunn.
As Stax’s studio chief, Cropper co-wrote hundreds of songs, including Redding’s posthumous chart topper “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” which he completed in the studio with the heaviest of hearts after Redding and most of his touring band were killed in a plane crash in December 1967. Cropper also collaborated with Wilson Pickett on “In the Midnight Hour” and with Eddie Floyd on “Knock on Wood.” The intros for these two songs are basically the reverse of each other, testimony to Cropper’s philosophy of “following the dots” on the guitar neck.
He recalled that his intros often had little to do with the songs themselves. “It was all about getting attention. ‘Hey guys! Wake up, listen to this!’ And then the song would start. The other is — admitting this, I’ll probably get in a lot of trouble — but we designed a lot of those intros just to keep the disc jockey from talking over the record! So we do these powerhouse intros like ‘Midnight Hour’ and ‘Knock on Wood,’ ‘Soul Man,’ so that they couldn’t talk over it! They talked until the singer kicked in, never listened to the music, never cared about it, I guess.”
Notwithstanding his dislike of the spotlight, Cropper recorded a solo project in 1969. With a Little Help from My Friends featured such pals as Buddy Miles and Leon Russell who, paradoxically, were not credited on the hastily released project. Cropper left Stax the following year amid mounting creative and business disagreements and joined a short-lived label in Memphis where he produced albums for the likes of Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, and Poco. After moving to Los Angeles in 1974, he became an in-demand session player, reunited for one more album with Booker T. and the MG’s, and toured with Levon Helm. He reached a mainstream audience once again in 1980 with the Blues Brothers movie, where he played a member of the band reunited by Dan Aykroyd’s and John Belushi’s characters.
It’s been an action-packed existence. “Having the memories to talk about, I’m a very fortunate guy,” he told me in 2011, four months shy of his 70th birthday. “I literally don’t have to make anything up.”
Cropper shared his memories with me on two occasions. I first met him in 1994 just before the release of That’s the Way It Should Be, the first album from Booker T. & the MG’s in 17 years, and the group’s last to date. He was still living in L.A. then, up on Mulholland Drive, but was about to move to Nashville, where he lives today with his wife and two children. The beefy, bearded, and ponytailed guitarist was the stereotypical charming Southern gentleman, regaling me with stories from the Stax days. But he didn’t pull his punches when I asked him about Pickett’s claim (in Gerri Hirshey’s Nowhere to Run) that he alone wrote “In the Midnight Hour.” After the interview was over, Cropper told me he would “kick his ass” next time he saw Pickett. (I’m not sure if he got around to that before Pickett died in 2006.)
What do you think of the Southern rock revival, particularly with the Black Crowes covering Otis Redding?
I think it’s great. I’m glad to see it coming back. Black Crowes is a new band. They still have their Southern roots. You can tell that they were brought up on certain aspects of R&B, with songs like [Redding’s] “Hard to Handle” and all. It sorta keeps the music alive.
Were you on the original “Hard to Handle”?
No, but I had a hand in it. I didn’t get credited as a writer, no. But I definitely had a hand in the production of it. I was right there when it was done.
I read once that Wilson Pickett said you shouldn’t have been credited for “Midnight Hour”?
He’s said that more than once. He’s completely crazy. He would never tell me that to my face. He respects me and loves me dearly and I don’t understand where that comes from. That was my idea. That was definitely not his idea. He came in with a song called “Don’t Fight It” and I brought him “Midnight Hour” and then the two of us collaborated on “I’m Not Tired.” We wrote three songs the same night. [Stax co-owner] Jim Stewart and [executive/producer] Jerry Wexler were around when all that went down. That’s absolute bullshit that I shouldn’t get credited for it. What can I say? He did not write that music. He had nothing to do with writing that music. That’s absolute crap. I can’t believe that he’s telling people this, you know?
It’s more your song than his, in some ways?
Certainly. But that’s not the first time. [Atlantic Records engineer] Tommy Dowd called me one time and said, “Have you seen the last issue of Playboy?” Or one of those magazines. Somebody made a statement in there that I shouldn’t have been on “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” And I’m going, “Where in the hell did this come from?” I wrote all the lyrics and the bridge and did all the arrangement. The only thing I didn’t write was the intro and the first verse. It’s pretty amazing: He writes over three-quarters of a song and somebody says his name shouldn’t have been on there.
When we reconnected on the phone in 2011 to discuss his excellent R&B tribute album Dedicated, Cropper explained the only known downside to composing a classic. Redding is treated with such love and affection by the musical community that few dare record their own versions of “Dock of the Bay,” which Cropper estimated had been played about nine million times on the radio. The handful of key exceptions includes Glen Campbell, Sammy Hagar, and Tom Jones. By contrast, “Knock on Wood” was a massive disco hit for Amii Stewart in 1979. Cropper’s lighthearted plea? “Please cover it!”
(But wait! There’s more. Buy Strange Days here to see what else Steve Cropper said.)
Copyright 2023. Dean Goodman. All Rights Reserved.