One Track Mind: Steve Cropper on “Knock on Wood,” “Dock of the Bay,” “Soul Man,” others
Steve Cropper, of Booker T. and the MGs and Stax Records fame, has trouble picking any one moment on his upcoming star-studded project Dedicated as his favorite. So, we went further back into his legendary soul-soaked career.
“I can tell you it was a lot of fun,” Cropper says of his new 429 Records release, due in August. “To be there in the studio, and watch B.B. King sitting on the coach with a microphone on a short stand, singing on your record. That’s about as good as it gets. But everybody put in 200 percent. It would be so difficult to pick a favorite moment. Impossible.”
Instead, we’ll delve into Cropper’s mythical past in Memphis, as he appeared on genre-establishing sides as a sideman and producer with Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, the Mar-Keys and Otis Redding, among many others …
“SOUL MAN,” with Sam and Dave (SOUL MAN, 1967): A Grammy-winner, this hit (Billboard R&B No. 1/Pop No. 2) mentions Cropper by name. “Play It, Steve” later became the title of a 1998 solo album, and the title of Cropper’s Web site, as well. With empowering lyrics co-written by Isaac Hayes, is one of the best examples of the brilliantly concise solos for which Cropper’s become so famous.
Cropper: The one thing about ‘Soul Man’ is, it was one of the hardest sessions I ever played on. It sounds like a lot of fun, but that little lick I did? I did that with a Zippo lighter. To get that slide lick, I had to sit there and be still. We always stood up and played, especially on the early stuff. The ‘Knock on Woods’ and the ‘Midnight Hours’ were cut live with a whole band. We recorded ‘Soul Man’ on a four track, but there still weren’t any real overdubs.
“CROP DUSTIN,’” solo (WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS, 1971): The opening cut on Cropper’s long-awaited debut as a leader for Stax Records’ Volt subsidiary. On an album featuring several familiar covers – including “Land of 1000 Dances,” “Funky Broadway,” “In the Midnight Hour” and, of course, the Lennon/McCartney-penned title track – this is one of the standout originals. Cropper subsequently left Stax, going on to produce artists such as the Temptations, Harry Nilsson and Tower of Power, mounting memorable MGs reunions behind Bob Dylan and Neil Young and then recording and touring with the Blues Brothers.
Cropper: That was a fun one. They’re going to re-release it, and they want me to do more of a discography, to talk about who’s on it. I was working with Buddy Miles out in California, and the label rushed it out. They had me do a rush mix. By the time they had an album cover, I hadn’t turned in the credits yet, so it never had any. Leon Russell was on it, (Booker T. and MGs bandmates Donald) ‘Duck’ (Dunn) and Al Jackson. I think, Roy Cunningham of the Bar-Kays, too. He was one of the musicians who went down in the plane with Otis. I remembered 30 years ago, but I don’t remember today. (Laughs.)
“KNOCK ON WOOD,” with Eddie Floyd (KNOCK ON WOOD, 1967): Co-written by Cropper, the title and opening track from Floyd’s debut release for Stax went to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts and No. 28 on the Hot 100. (The song was later covered by Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, David Bowie and Amii Stewart.) Like a number of songs in the Cropper canon, it was written at the now infamous Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was later murdered.
Cropper: Eddie Floyd and I used to hang out at Lorraine all the time. Walter Bailey was the manager, and if the honeymoon suite was not booked, he would give it to us. That was the biggest room, in the back of the hotel, and really quiet. It was done up in red velvet; it was unbelievable. We wrote a bunch there.
“LAST NIGHT,” with the Mar-Keys (Stax single No. 107, 1961): In an early band featuring all four future members of the MGs, Cropper appeared on an instrumental track that shot to No. 3 on the Billboard charts. It sold over one million copies, earning gold disc recognition. “Last Night” is notable for being the first side issued on the Stax imprint and, interestingly, because it didn’t feature Cropper on guitar.
Cropper: I played the whole thing on organ, a whole note. We did that before we know about the matchbook trick! (Laughs.) If you took a book of paper matches, you could use it like a wedge — sticking it between the keys. Later on, Booker used to do that all the time. He’d get up and the organ would still be going. He’d stroll around and the place would go nuts.
“(SITTIN’ ON THE) DOCK OF THE BAY,” with Otis Redding (THE DOCK OF THE BAY, 1968): Co-written with producer Cropper, and featuring one of his most touching guitar signatures, the basic track for “Dock” was put down just days before Redding’s death on Dec. 10, 1967 when a charter plane carrying the singer and the Bar-Kays crashed into Lake Monona outside of Madison, Wis. All but one of the passengers was killed. Completing the song, and the album, became a labor of love for Cropper, who roused himself from crushing grief by approaching the project as a tribute to Redding. “Dock” was released on Stax’s Volt label in early 1968, becoming the first posthumous No. 1 single in Billboard chart history — and a Grammy-winning crossover sensation for a performer who was then played primarily on black radio stations.
Cropper: That whole album was still raw. All of it was taken from stuff that was in the can. At the time, Otis had left us with 14 songs that he had done vocals for. The label called and said we had to get something out right away. I said: ‘Guys, I can’t go in that studio and work on this today. It’s impossible. Let me sleep on it.’ I got up that night, because I just couldn’t sleep and hit the studio at about 7:30 that next morning. I locked myself in the control room and started working on the mix of the song. I had it going pretty good but it felt like it still needed something. I got the idea to add a sound effect recording, with some ocean waves and a seagull. I called a buddy of mine at a jingle company, and he found me some seagulls and ocean waves. I went in and dubbed them down on a two-track machine, with the waves on one track and the seagulls on the other — in a big loop. The next morning, I came out of the studio at about 6:30 or 7 and handed that mix to Atlantic. They had the record out in about five days; it was out before Christmas, and he had died on Dec. 10. A lot of people think it was the last thing Otis recorded, and it was in a way, but it was done about two weeks before the plane went down. We knew that was a hit, a crossover record that could be played on pop radio. It was very different with Otis. He was so funky. That was it, though, the crossover. Who knows what would have happened if he would have stayed alive? I can’t say. But I was glad to have worked on it.