Steve Cropper – Journeyman

“Probably my favorite guitarist of all time. You can’t think of a time when he really ripped off a hot solo but he just plays perfectly.” – Peter Buck. 

When asked what he thought of Cropper Keith Richards said, “Perfect, man.”

Wikipedia: Steven Lee Cropper (born October 21, 1941, on a farm outside Dora, Mississipi), sometimes known as “The Colonel,” is an American guitarist, songwriter, and record producer. When he was nine his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee.

At age ten he strummed a guitar for the first time, his brother-in-law’s Gibson. Cropper received his first guitar at age 14 and started playing with local musicians. His hero at the time was a guy named Lowman Pauling of the Winston-Salem, NC band, The Five Royales.

Having already been exposed to country music, it was in Memphis that he first heard black church music, R&B, and early rock and roll. Cropper got his first mail-order guitar at the age of 14, just in time to hear the early work of Elvis and other rockabilly stars-to-be.  His guitar heroes were an eclectic bunch including jazzer Tal Farlow, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, and Chet Atkins.

Steve hooked up with a local guitarist named Charlie Freeman who was well-known in Memphis but not so much outside of it. (His death at age 31 of drug and alcohol abuse may have prevented the world from knowing more about him.)

Together they formed a band called the Royal Spades while they were still in high school. They tried to get a record made for local Satellite Records (the forerunner of Stax), unsuccessfully, even though the label was owned by the mother and uncle of the group’s tenor sax player, Charles “Packy” Axton.

When the band eventually made a record, Axton’s mother, Estelle Axton, convinced them to change their name, and they became “The Mar-Keys.” (After the Satellite, later Stax marquee.) Eventually, the Mar-Keys began playing on sessions and had a hit single of their own with “Last Night” in 1961.

Cropper: “Jerry Lee ‘Smoochy’ Smith came up with the piano riff that was played on the organ. Since [producer Chips] Moman didn’t want a guitar on it for whatever reason, I wound up playing the hold-down on the organ on the root note. It hurts me in the Mar-Keys history when people say I wasn’t in the Mar-Keys because there’s no guitar on ‘Last Night’ but I have to differ with them.”

The song is basically just a three-chord blues but it’s still kinda funky anyway. The record made its way to the Top 5 of the pop and R&B charts:

Spotify link

Steve’s connections didn’t hurt him at all. The president of Stax Records was a guy with the tremendous, beautiful name of Jim Stewart. Stax needed not only a session guitarist but also an Artists and Repertoire man.

Jim Stewart had met Rufus Thomas who played him a demo of a song called “ ’ Cause I Love You,” which he had written as a duet for his daughter and himself. This became the first Stax record and had a baritone sax part played by a young Booker T. Jones.

Booker also became a member of what became the Stax house band Booker T. and the MG’s which eventually included bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Booker T. and Jackson were black, Dunn and Cropper white. And it was an incredible thing to have a mixed-race band at that time especially in the Deep South.

With Jones now effectively being leader of the house band, the music started to jell. One day in the studio while waiting for the singer they were backing to show up they started jamming on a slow bluesy number. They needed a B-side to the record so they worked on a mid-tempo shuffle. Stewart liked it so much he released it as the A-side.

Released in the fall of 1962, “Green Onions” established the sound of Stax with the clipped guitar sound and that funky, funky Hammond organ. It became a hit and was easily the funkiest thing on the radio at the time, especially considering that the competition included “Surfin’ Safari’ and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Here’s a longer live version by the band to a crowd of people who cannot seem to get their groove thing on. Meanwhile, Duck Dunn is so into it it’s like his head is gonna fall off:

Spotify link

Phil Walden – who founded Capricorn Records – had signed a blues guitarist/singer named Johnny Jenkins*. They had booked time at Stax in ’62 to have Booker T and the boys back him up. Alas, there wasn’t much fire in Jenkins that day and they couldn’t do much with his material.

Since the studio time was booked, the guy who drove him to the studio asked for a chance to sing. This surprised the guys as they thought this other guy – Otis Redding – was Jenkins’ valet.

Booker T. had gone home so Cropper sat at the keyboard and at Otis’ request played some “church things.” Steve later said his hair stood on end but Stewart said “No one was particularly impressed. It was different, but I don’t think anyone jumped up and down.”

Spotify link

On hearing this tune, Phil Walden signed Otis to a contract which led – for 5 years till Otis’ death anyway – to a great recording career and a string of albums, all recorded at Stax with the MG’s.

Over the years, Cropper and Redding wrote about a half-dozen songs together including the posthumously released “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” (Cropper also co-wrote ‘Knock on Wood” with Eddie Floyd and “In the Midnight Hour” with Wilson Pickett.)

Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd

Spotify link

Since he’s so well-known as a sideman you’re probably wondering if Cropper ever released any solo albums. Well in fact he recorded several and in 1969 released one called With a Little Help From My Friends. Since you hear him play rhythm so much I thought you’d like to hear him cut loose on a little blues. Here’s “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water.”

Spotify link

Stax had been a great place to work in the early days with a lot of great camaraderie. But the race riots of the Sixties brought a lot of mistrust that had not been there previously.

Cropper left Stax in 1970, set up TMI studios, and produced artists such as Tower of Power, Rod Stewart, John Prine, José Feliciano, The Jeff Beck Group, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon. In 1978, Cropper and Dunn became members of Levon Helm’s RCO All-Stars and then went on to appear in the Blues Brothers Band and movies.

In 1992, Booker T. & the M.G.’s were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That same year, Cropper played at Bob Dylan’s 30th-anniversary show with a bunch of luminaries. Neil Young later grabbed Cropper’s group to tour and record with him. In June 2004, Cropper appeared with Dunn and Jones as the backing band for Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival.  On June 9, 2005, Cropper was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Cropper is 39th on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time and turns 78 next week.

I’ll leave you with Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” (co-written by Isaac Hayes.)  Play it, Steve.

Spotify link

*Phil Walden, of course, later struck gold with the Allman Brothers Band. In 1970, Jenkins released an album called Ton-Ton Macoute! which featured most of the Allmans.

Sources: Wikipedia: Gould, Jonathan.Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, Crown/Archetype.

17 thoughts on “Steve Cropper – Journeyman

  1. Great acknowledgement of a great guitarist generally flying under most folks radar. As you’ve noted, he’s been a large part of rock history, and should be more known; you’re helping out with that.

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    1. Yeah, I take a lot for granted but I know for a fact I have a lot of younger readers who want to know more about the classics. I once watched ‘Woodstock’ with my then 25-year-old son. I had to tell him who just about every band was.

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  2. Great post. When it comes to soul music, Motown was my go-to for the longest time. While I still think the Motown sound is infectious even though it’s repetitive, nowadays, I much prefer Stax. The music that came out of that label especially in the ’60s was just amazing. And Booker T and the MGs were a fantastic backing band.

    Apparently, Cropper who is now 78 is still rockin’. Late last year, he was featured on a cover of Shake Your Money Maker, recorded by Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band at Sun Studios. Just the thought of it makes you happy. Here’s the tune:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4Bhx4HouRg&feature=emb_logo

    And here’s a second video capturing the recording session.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJCm6sI43CY&feature=emb_logo

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    1. I think there were really three strains of Black music in the Sixties: Motown, Stax, and James Brown-type funk. All good in different ways. Anyway, thanks for the tips on those tunes!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this guy. Part of my musical journey. I used to go over to a friends house when I was kid, they had one of those combo TV/record player radio things. They had a bunch of 45’s stuffed in a compartment. I found this one by the MG’s ‘Time Is Tight”. That was me done.

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      1. Yeah I know and listened to that version. Camera guy didnt want to feature Steve’s work. Jackson is killer on the skins. Still gets mentioned by drummers as one of the best. Dunn isnt to shabby either.
        But were here for cropper. Good live version of ‘Tight’ filmed while on tour with CCR. They stretch out and you see how much fun they had playing together.

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  4. One of the big session men from the heyday of the Stax label and also known from Booker T. & The MG’s. As a guitarist, he masters every style that is associated with “groove” in the classical sense.

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  5. Steve is an amazing player with one of those discographies and quiet, unassuming set of chops to make anyone envious – a real player’s player. Great selection as always, sir

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