He’s the soul man behind the soul men, his guitar providing the curlicues that surrounded and supported a plethora of Stax soul artists. Immortalized by Sam Moore’s shout-out, “Play it, Steve” on Sam and Dave’s 1967 Stax hit “Soul Man,” guitarist Steve Cropper not only played on but also wrote many of soul’s greatest hits while serving as a session man at Memphis’ Stax studios from 1961 to 1970. He was co-writer on “Green Onions” and “Hip Hug-Her” for Booker T. and The M.G.s. Cropper and Wilson Pickett crafted “Midnight Hour” and “635-5789” together. Eddie Floyd’s soul classic “Knock on Wood” was a co-write, as were Otis Redding’s “Dock of The Bay” and “Fa-Fa-Fa.”
Cropper has always admitted that he got his guitar technique from 5 Royales guitarist Loman Pauling, whose churchy chords led the Royales across the aisle from gospel to R&B as one of the first crossover bands. Cropper released 2011’s Dedicated as a tribute to Pauling’s influence on him, with an all-star cast that included Bettye LaVette, Sharon Jones, Lucinda Williams, B.B. King, and Sharon Jones whomping the bejeezus out of a stellar collection of Royales tunes.
Cropper’s latest release, Fire It Up, is also a tribute, this time to the sound of soul. Even though he calls it “old grooves,” he’s not recycling any of his hits, just paying homage to some of grooviest music ever created. But it doesn’t sound retro, just cool, with a thump and a twitch to fire you up and make you strut.
Producer Jon Tiven, who also contributes bass, saxes, keys, background vocals, and harmonica on the record, culled tracks from leftover cuts from two previous sessions with Felix Cavaliere that Cropper released before the Dedicated project. The duo reworked the tracks, adding some new ones as well.
Vocalist Roger C. Reale comes out roaring like Leslie West over a Bo Diddley beat on the title cut as Cropper runs soul man lines around him without tangling him up.
“One Good Turn” sounds a bit of out character for Cropper with its gospel-tinged country-rock feel, but Cropper quickly proves he’s just at home cranking out holy cowboy fare.
Reale clones Robert Palmer for “She’s So Fine,” Cropper chunkin’ clumps of greasy Memphis soul stew around for Reale to stomp big-footedly through.
Cropper’s instrumental homage to all-terrain mowing takes up three cuts, the band plowing through “Bush Hog” as efficiently as its namesake, feeling like an updated Booker T. and The M.G.’s cut with a hefty funk injection.
“I’m Not Having It” is arena-worthy bombast with Reale once again Robert Palmer-izing over a lively strut. A three-way collaboration of Cropper, Tiven, and Reale advocates a break from reality on “Far Away” due to a current absence of kindness and comfort. The tune is laid-back, but the head-for-the-hills lyrics belie that as the band lopes off into the sunset.
Although rooted in the past, Cropper’s latest output still has a place in today’s music. Move over and let him in.