Steve Cropper is an American music legend. When he was nine, his family moved from Missouri to Memphis and within five years, “Crop” was playing in local bands. By age 20, he’d had an instrumental dance hit with his group the Mar-Keys and stepped into the guitar chair at Stax Records, where he and the other members of the famed label’s core studio ensemble would form Booker T. & the MG’s.
His world-class riffs have helped power huge hits by Booker T. & the MG’s as well as a host of other Stax stars for whom he wrote and co-wrote songs and supported in the studio and on stage. These include Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” and dozens more.
Cropper has continued to have a distinguished career in the post-Stax years, recording and touring with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, the Blues Brothers, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash, Felix Cavaliere and even John Lennon. But his solo output hasn’t been so prolific. In fact, it’s been 42 years since his last solo album, 1969’s With A Little Help From My Friends.
Now Cropper’s stepped back to the plate for a new CD, due July 5, called Dedicated. On the disc, Cropper explores the repertoire of the 5 Royales, a ’50s and ’60s R&B group whose smashes like “Think,” which Cropper later recorded with Otis Redding at Stax, “Tears of Joy” and “Dedicated To the One I Love” had a profound impact on Cropper as a youthful six-stringer. In particular, songwriter and Gibson player Lowman Pauling was a major influence on Cropper’s own terse rhythm ’n’ riff style.
And once again, Cropper’s got a little help from his friends. Gibson guitar legend B.B. King, songwriting giant Dan Penn, Bettye LaVette, Buddy Miller, Steve Winwood, Sharon Jones, Lucinda Williams, Dylan LeBlanc and John Pepper are among Cropper’s guest singers, and Queen’s Brian May contributes guitar.
Speaking by phone from his Nashville home, Cropper filled Gibson.com in on the album, his roots and the chemistry of Booker T. & the MG’s:
Why record an album dedicated to the 5 Royales?
They were one of the first out of town bands who really caught my ear. In Memphis you could see a lot of great bands. But I was too young to go to places like Club Handy, and I didn’t have the money to go to the Auditorium to see Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Later I saw Bo Diddley and a few people like that there. But the 5 Royales were one of the first bands that I really loved and I got to see them live at the Beverly Ballroom, so they left a strong impression on me. Especially Lowman Pauling, the guitar player.
Me and Duck Dunn saw them. We worked at a little club downstairs from the Beverly called the Tropicana. We were underage, maybe 19 or 20, but the owner of the Tropicana snuck me and Duck in the back door. Seeing Lowman Pauling with a long strap on his guitar — man. At the time they had some of my favorite songs: “Think” was a big one, and “Dedicated To the One I Love.” That was quite a night.
Do you remember what guitar Lowman Pauling was playing that night?
He had a Les Paul Junior — probably the same one on the cover of the album that I had.
What Gibson model are you playing on the cover of Dedicated?
It was a blonde cutaway Gibson Byrdland, and that picture was taken at the Royal Peacock Lounge in Atlanta. I played it live with the Mar-Keys and on the Mar-Keys album. On the song called “The Night Before,” I’m playing it on that. The Byrdland had a real small neck, and as I grew bigger it just didn’t work for me, so I had to go to a guitar with a fatter neck.
In ’69 I had a solo album out and I pulled out some of my Gibsons for that. I had a favorite from then that’s on this new album as well: a Gibson Switchmaster.
Why record another solo album now?
People have been after me for a long time to do another solo album, but I don’t care about being center stage. That’s not my goal. I’m a band member; always been a band member. [Producer] Jon Tiven called me and asked me about doing a solo album, and I said “not really interested.” We had done two albums together with Felix Cavaliere and Felix was the singer and I was the guitar player and I was happy with that.
But then Jon called and asked me, “How would you like to do a Steve Cropper album as a tribute to the 5 Royales?” I guess he’d been reading some of my press and saw I was always giving credit to Lowman Pauling and the 5 Royales as my main influence. I said, “Are you kidding? Can we get a record company to get behind that.” He said, “I’ll call you back.” And a little later, he did and we had a label lined up.
We started with a list of all the 5 Royales songs. Several years ago I got on the Internet and bought everything I could by them, to have as many of their songs as I could find. So we sat down and decided who we’d like to sing the songs. He started making calls and everybody we called agreed. We had a few people fall out due to other obligations, but I love the group we have here.
Everybody guesting on Dedicated is from the roots world except Brian May. How did he get drafted for the album?
I have a lot of respect for him, but wasn’t sure how you put Queen and Stax together. But Brian loves American music and R&B. He is a friend of Jon Tiven, and when Jon called him, he was in. And his tracks sound great.
Where did you record the album?
We did most of it at Dan Penn’s home studio in Nashville. I’ve known Dan forever, from the Memphis days. Great songwriter, great singer, great engineer — and we really went back to old school, right to analog tape, all playing together.
The guests who could make it to Dan’s place did. Delbert McClinton, Bettye LaVette, Buddy Miller, Dylan LeBlanc… they were available and all wanted to cut with us in person. For the others — Lucinda Williams, B.B. King, Sharon Jones — we had to travel to get the tacks. Steve Winwood and Brian May did their tracks in England and sent them over, and John Popper was working in Texas and did his track there. We like to do it all together so we have a real performance, but this new idea of sending files backs and forth works really good.
Where does your sensibility for writing great guitar riffs come from?
Some of it is from listing to guys like Lowman, but part of it is also experimenting. When I’d get together with somebody like [Memphis songwriter/producer] Chips Moman in the old days, I’d ask for his advice. I didn’t have much experience working with producers and engineers, and I asked Chips what they’d be expecting from me. He said, “Crop, just go in and do what you do and if they don’t like it they’ll let you know.” My idea was to just play the rhythm until I felt a little opening in there, and I’d stick a lick in or a fill. The producers just loved that, so it evolved from there.
It’s easy to lay a track and play a rhythm, and then have somebody go sing or lay a solo over it, because the rhythm is nailed down.
Will you, Booker T. Jones and Duck Dunn get back together for some Booker T. & the MG’s dates at some point?
A: Absolutely. It’s just a matter of timing and the right bookings. There’s some talk of a New Year’s Eve gig that I can’t disclose. Duck and I are up for it and we think Booker is, too. Me and Duck will do some work this summer with Eddie Floyd. And all three of us did an album together with an artist out of Australia named Guy Sebastian. Booker couldn’t do that tour, but me and Duck and Lester Snell, our other keyboard player, did it.
The shows Booker T. and the MG’s played with Jim Keltner on drums in 1993 supporting Neil Young were fantastic.
We just did a thing for Third Man Records with Jack White producing for Jerry Lee Lewis. We played an indoor concert in Nashville on a Saturday and an outdoor concert on a Sunday with Jim Keltner on drums and it was fantastic. Jerry Lee is getting up there in age, but when he sits down on the stool he turns 16 years old again.
When you, Booker, Duck and Al Jackson first got together to play as Booker T. & the MG’s, did you realize from the start that you had amazing chemistry?
Well, we knew we had a hit on “Green Onions.” That was the first time we did anything as a band besides just being at Stax as the house band. One Sunday afternoon there was an artist booked at Stax who didn’t show up, and [Stax co-founder and producer] Jim Stewart just started recording while we were jamming. We were playing a blues in the key of F and when we got through he said, “Hey guys, come listen to this. We might entertain the idea of putting something like this out.” We were dumbfounded. Jim said, “Do you think you have something for the B side?” I asked Booker if he could remember this riff he played when we were jamming a couple weeks earlier, and that riff was “Green Onions.” We started putting it together, and in the middle I was doing these little “chinks.” Jim suggested I put those at the beginning and just play a regular solo in the middle, and that’s where it started. There was some kind of magical nucleus there.