Catching Up With Steve Cropper
by Terry Mathley
A member of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Songwriters Hall of Fame, The Musicians Hall of Fame and just recently, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. As a member of Booker T. & the MGs, basically the house band for Stax Records, Steve Cropper played on hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, “Sam & Dave and the entire Stax roster. He co-wrote, “Green Onions,” “Midnight Hour”, “(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay” and numerous others. His discography as a writer, producer and player would take two days to recite. Most people with credits like these would be happy to sit back and let their past speak for them. Not Steve Cropper! He continues to tour with both Booker T. & the MGs and the Blues Brothers. When he’s not on the road, he stays busy writing, producing and recording. As a matter of fact, just a few months ago he released “Midnight Flyer.” His second album with Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals.
I had a chance to catch up with Steve at his place in Nashville, Insomnia Studios. We talked about the new album, guitars, Otis Redding and the Blues Brothers.
T-Bone: What was it like working with Felix Cavaliere again?
Steve Cropper: It’s sort of like stepping back in time. The fact that he sort of came out of high school singing as a teenager and I was playing and singing as a teenager and wound up with Booker T. & the MGs and he wound up with The Rascals doing all those great songs and all. When I say a “step back in time” literally – if you close your eyes, he sounds as good or better than he did when he was 20 years old! And that’s what is really fun. Working with Felix, his attitude is so cool and when you hit a lick or something like that he doesn’t have to say, “What’s that lick?” He just feels it or knows it.
The neat thing about Felix and I – we had already worked together in another band. An all-star band, we did like 21 shows for Northwest Airlines. Went to a lot of cities and had a lot of fun together. Basically it was like a “Hits Band.” We played the ones that people knew and recognized and that sort of thing. It was mainly for their Frequent Flyers Program. People that had earned enough miles, they’d do a little banquet for them and a show.
Second time around it was a little easier, basically because we kind of knew what to expect. The first time we worked together on the album, “Nudge It Up A Notch” it was more of an experiment at least initially at the onset. We didn’t know what we were going to do. We just got together and came up with grooves and stuff like that. Then between 7 and 9 songs into the project we sort of thought we had a direction and went ahead and completed it.
SC: This last album, I’ll be the first to tell you- you probably won’t read about it in interviews, but I’ll tell you here… we were more than 3/4 of the way through the songs and Felix called one day and said, guys it’s not that I dislike what we’re doing, I just want to do some things that are a little more progressive. I’ve tried it and I’m just not real comfortable with the songs. And if it doesn’t upset too many people, I’d just like to start it over again. And we did- you could say we started over in midstream. It’s sort of like fishing and deciding to throw the tackle box overboard (laughs) and pick up some different bait and try fishing for a while.
T-Bone: So, you had to start all over again? Go in a new direction?
SC: Well, we got into that mindset and started working with Tom Hambridge, who is a great drummer, an incredible producer and just a fun guy to be around. And he just sort of put it into a “new spirit.” I wouldn’t say a new direction, put things into a new spirit. So we got together here in the studio, Felix was sitting here, playing the piano and kind of mumbling some words- and I was sitting about 3 or 4 feet away coming up with different grooves. And Tom was sitting over in the corner- and he would just kind of log everything. And our engineer, Eddie Gore would record what we would do. Whenever we would finish a groove that we’d like, Eddie would put it down on tape and Felix would take it home and we all sort of worked on the words together. And we wound up with a little record called, “Midnight Flyer.” Hope you guys like it.
T-Bone: Let’s step back in time a bit, and touch on influences. Who were some of the guitarists that influenced you early on?
SC: There are so many that the list would be endless- but the one guy that I always give credit for the inspiration, that I got to see live- is a guy named Lowman Pauling. The guitarist and I guess the bandleader of the Five Royales. That goes back to the fifties and early sixties. I got to see him live in Memphis, TN and it just blew me away. And the funny thing about him- he did a thing when he took a solo, well kind of like Chuck Berry- when Chuck would take a solo, he’d drop his strap down and play between his legs and do all this crazy stuff. Play behind his head and everything. Lowman Pauling didn’t have to drop his strap down- he had a really long strap, so his guitar always hung down below his knees. I thought that was the coolest thing I ever saw in my life! I couldn’t wait- I got home that night… my mom said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m trying to find one of my old belts… I need to make my guitar strap longer!” (Laughs) And I did! I found one and got my guitar strap and did some finagling and punched a hole in it and got longer so it would hold way down. And I think you can see that on one of my websites- or at least a silhouette of me playing the guitar WAY low. That’s that guitar and that picture came from a live show down at the Royal Peacock Nightclub in Atlanta, GA in 1961. I was an old guy then (laughs)… I don’t do that anymore, but it always stuck with me… so I always give credit to Lowman Pauling. There’s a song called, “Think” – all you guitar buffs out there, go and listen to “Think.” (Starts singing) “Think about the good times…” And listen to the guitar on there- it’ll blow your mind.
T-Bone: Anyone else?
SC: I was mainly influenced rhythm wise by Bo Diddley, he’d be an idol of mine. Chuck Berry, others like that. I listened to a lot of the jazz greats, I won’t name them all… but, I listened to Chet Atkins and realized I couldn’t play like that. I listened to a guy who’s now a real good friend of mine, Duane Eddy. I love that kind of low stuff that he did. I grew up on The Ventures like everybody else in the 60’s. And one of our big influences, at least for the band we had was Bill Doggett. I still have Bill Doggert’s old vinyl and I get them out every now and then and play them. The first song I learned on the guitar was (plays the main riff to the song, “Honky Tonk”). It took me two weeks to learn how to play that (laughs)… it’s so funny. An old song called, “Honky Tonk.” It was actually in the key of F, and we didn’t have capos then. We had horns in a band called The Mar-Keys, so we’d start off playing it in the key of E… then when the horns came in, we’d modulate up to F. So, I had to learn in the early days to STRETCH! Never really learned how to use a capo. All these guys have capos and move ‘em up and down the neck. Which is like moving the nut up the fret markers to whatever key the song was in so you could play in the open position. I changed keys by using my index finger. So, I’m just not that educated on the guitar. I’m self-taught basically and just learned how to play some of the records that we liked. That’s how I wound up playing guitar.
T-Bone: While we’re on the subject of guitar, what gear are you currently using, both live and in the studio?
SC: I get asked quite often, either after a show or in the street somewhere- what my gear is and what I’m playing. Or I’ll be going through an airport and someone will ask, “hey man, what have you got in there?” And it’s always difficult for me to tell them what’s actually in there, because the number one thought of the headliner is- what do you play? I play a telecaster. But it’s not made by Fender (laughs). Most of the guitars I play live are custom made, so they’re basically one of a kind. They’re not production models and they’re either the initial prototype or they are just one of a kind custom made for myself. And they are of the telecaster style- just a little more streamlined. I’m not one of those guys that really goes back – I own a lot, well I probably own more vintage guitars than I need to! It would be very easy to go into the guitar locker and just pull out a guitar. I have all those great old pickups from fender and the Gibson P-90’s that all of these guys use. The difference between me and some of these other guys that really like the vintage stuff- I don’t have a floor full of footswitches. I get mine from my hands and the amplifer- go straight out of the guitar, I usually have it wide open. I play on the neck pickup- I get my tone settings on the amp.
T-Bone: What are you using for amps these days?
SC: I use a red knob Fender “The Twin” which they don’t make anymore. Not a Twin- there’s a big difference between a “Twin” and “The Twin.” And I sort of try, even though my ears are a lot older than they used to be – I try to duplicate what I used to get out of a Super Reverb. Live with Booker T. & the MGs, I used to play a Quad Reverb because it was a bigger speaker cabinet and because it got a little more level out of it. The amp that I play is a 100 watt amp, which I really need to drive the pickups that I have- they’re just custom made Peavey pickups. That’s what I play.
Now on some albums, I’ll move around on some certain guitars and different combinations of amplifiers and so forth. We use a Victoria Twin on a lot of the recordings and I have a red knob Bassman head that I plug into an old Peavey cube and I’ve used that on 5 or 6 different albums. Most engineers love that sound and it always comes over the radio- you can pretty much tell it’s me playing. So, I kind of like that combination.
T-Bone: Where do you think Otis Redding would be today if he was still here?
SC: God, I hope he’d been in the studio here writing songs. I can tell those people and tell anybody who is a Otis Redding fan- most of you, if you are a fan- know he died in a plane crash. What you probably don’t know is that before he left to get on the plane. The week we were writing, the week he was recording for the first time in a period of about two week recovering from a throat operation. He was just having so much fun writing and singing and all that. He told me, “Steve, I haven’t told anybody yet, but I want to come off the road some. I just love producing and writing and recording so much I’m going to get me a place and Memphis and move up here and you and I are going to write and produce records.” That’s what he told me the week before he passed away in that plane crash. So, all those dreams didn’t get to take place.
Where Otis Redding would have been today, because he would probably have had to stay on the road all the time like James Brown did and like Aretha does… always working, always working, always working. And would still be the “King of Soul.” He would have been the guy. James was the Godfather and Otis Redding was the King. That’s why we made the King and Queen album with Otis Redding and Carla Thomas.
Otis and I were the same age. A lot of people don’t know that- so he would have been the same age as me and probably still out there doing it. I have as much fun today as I did 30 or 40 years ago. Playing, I enjoy people’s company and talking about music. And I enjoy getting up and performing for them and seeing the smiles on their faces. Seeing them dancing and grooving and moving. I’m all about the groove- I’m not about playing. I can’t impress anybody by what I may or may not be able to play. What I do- I like to get their spirit moving and have a little fun rhythm-wise. I have more fun leaning on and playing with a drummer and of course, my good buddy Donald “Duck” Dunn. There’s no band in the world that is more fun to play with than Booker T. & the MGs. We get to do that quite often. I also get to play in a great band with some of the best musicians on the planet- the Original Blues Brothers Band.
T-Bone: Speaking of the Blues Brothers, were you surprised that the Vatican endorsed the Blues Brothers movie?
SC: Well, I doubt if they would have endorsed the dialogue in it 30 years ago because it had some pretty cruel words in it that got us an “R” rating. Of course they’ve cleaned it up a lot for television and maybe that’s where it’s all coming from. But it’s nice to be endorsed by the Pope… or at least from where he lives. So that was pretty cool. I hope John is up there lauging his kazoo off about that and just thinks it’s great – because we definitely were on a mission from God and we’re still on a mission from God. So, peace be with you guys.