“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:
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:
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.”
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
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.”
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.
*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.