Steve Cropper oozes rock and roll history. As the house guitarist for the Stax label’s recording studio in the 60s, he backed soul legends such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave. Not only that, he co-wrote the soul classics Dock of the Bay, Knock On Wood and In The Midnight Hour. His name is even referenced in the lyrics of Sam & Dave’s Soul Man for God’s sake! As a member of Booker T and the MG’s he co-wrote the timeless instrumental Green Onions, plus he’s also that cool guitarist dude in the shades in the Blues Brothers band. He has backed Neil Young, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Ringo and John Lennon and is generally recognised as one of the most important guitar players in rock music. Occasionally he records his own albums, which is the reason he is on the line to AM’s Greg Phillips.
Cropper has just released an album titled Dedicated, his homage to 50s rock group The 5 Royales. Steve was captivated by The 5 Royales’ songs such as Think (which became a hit for James Brown) and Dedicated To The One I Love (a number two single for The Mamas and Papas). It was The 5 Royales’ guitar player Lowman ‘Pete’ Pauling who had a profound effect on Cropper as a teenage guitar player. Steve and his mate (fellow Blues Brother) Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn saw the band play when the two underage teens snuck into the Tropicana in Memphis. They loved the way Pauling played guitar, with his guitar slung low by an extra long guitar strap. The Dedicated project came about (with not a lot of arm twisting) at the suggestion of producer Jon Tiven.
“Young people wouldn’t think to look for this sort of stuff for themselves,” said Cropper in explaining his reasons for recording the album. “They may have heard covers or songs influenced by The 5 Royales but not known its origins.” Rather than just book a studio and lay down these tracks, Cropper and Tivens sat down and drew up a wish list of the artists they wanted to collaborate with on this album. The aim was to reach as many people as possible with this musical treasure trove. Cropper claims surprise that absolutely everyone on their list who was free, agreed to jump onboard. In reality, who’s going to say no to Steve Cropper? The only two guys he didn’t snare were Robert Plant and Huey Lewis who were in the middle of other commitments, which they couldn’t shift. Among those who did assist were Steve Winwood, BB King, Bettye La Vette, Brian May, Buddy Miller, Sharon Jones, John Popper and Lucinda Williams.
On the cover of Dedicated, Cropper is pictured with a rare Gibson Byrdland guitar, but it’s the Telecaster he is famous for playing. Asked why he originally switched to the Tele, Cropper suggested that it was a sound the studio engineers wanted. “They liked that horn stab sound, more like horn lines and also the Tele was a more resilient instrument.” The Tele was also the guitar sound of choice for drummer Al Jackson Jr, who played alongside Cropper for many years at Stax and in Booker T and the MGs, and he encouraged Cropper to play that guitar. It was no surprise that in order to capture some the sonic authenticity of the day, Cropper dragged out a selection of old gear for this recording, in addition to his signature model Valley Arts guitar. However, most of the guitar overdub work was played through the ART SGX2000 box, which resides in producer Jon Tivens’ studio. “No amp required,” Tivens told Australian Musician. “That includes most of the solos, with the exception of “Someone Made You For Me,” “Sugar Sugar,” and perhaps one other. No amp on the solo guitar on all the instrumentals, just my box.”
Cropper was keen to talk up the Dedicated album, but this was a perfect opportunity to hear first-hand about some genuine music history, so I temporarily diverted the topic. Being in the house band for the famous soul label Stax, I wondered what the experience was like for a young white musician in a black man’s world, particularly on tour in the segregated South. “We never really had any problem,” said Steve. “The only time would be if we were booking into hotels in small town America and they may have queried the mixed booking. If that happened, we’d just say, we’re out of here and drive onto the next town.” An interesting fact is that Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd wrote the song ‘Knock on Wood’ in a room of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the same motel where civil rights champion Martin Luther King was assassinated a year later. The assassination led to an immediate chain of riots around the USA in response to the murder. I asked Steve about his memories of the night Martin Luther was killed. “We were booked to do a show for the promoter Bill Graham. Bill said I don’t think this show is going to go ahead, The Supremes, who were also booked had decided not to fly in. But then he called later and said you better get down here, there’s a line of a people waiting to get in going right around the block. So we played and it was a great gig, but I’ll never forget that day.” It was a story mirrored America-wide that night. With the threat of continuing riots, many shows scheduled by black artists went ahead as an act of calm and unity. James Brown is said to have famously saved Boston from riots by going ahead with his show, which was televised throughout the state. Authorities figured that Afro-Americans were less likely to hit the streets to riot if they could tune into a free James Brown concert on TV.
Back to the Dedicated album, if you like your guitar tones clean and played with finesse and feeling, then there’s no better exponent than Steve Cropper. In a world where many players love to surround themselves with an arsenal of effects, I asked Steve if it bothers him that so many guitarists rely on gadgets rather than their own abilities. “If you want to play with a lot of pedals, that’s your choice, but with my hands I can create a whole bunch of sounds. I can bend notes, I can do vibrato or sustain or whatever. I can do all of that with my fingers,” he proclaimed. Another reason Cropper is so revered as a guitarist is that he has great insight as to when not to play, a lesson learned from watching The 5 Royales’ Pete Pauling. “He had a way of weaving his fills in when there was a hole in the melody and vocal, then he would get right back to the rhythm. I applied a cardinal rule that I learned from watching and listening to Lowman. You don’t step on top of the singer. You’re there to lend support until your time for a solo comes up.”
As to what Cropper hopes people get out of listening to the album, “It’s been the most fun I’ve had making a record in a long time,” said Steve. “I just hope people get that same enjoyment out of these tunes. I think the album will be a success and I hope that the families of the guys from The 5 Royales can get something back from it too.”