Steve Cropper owes much of his tasteful twangy style to Lowman Pauling, guitarist in a little-known gospel/blues/doowop band, the 5 Royales and now he’s made a special tribute album. Julian Piper catches up with him
Mention the name of Steve Cropper and the brain immediately registers the chiming introduction to Soul Man or the solo on Green Onions… that all-time classic guitar moment where Cropper slams on the bridge pickup of his Telecaster and stomps on the reverb switch. It’s simply a unique and magical event in rock’n’roll history.
Steve Cropper is no stranger to England. He first came here in 1967 with the fabled Stax/Volt Record tour, backing up Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and the rest of the Memphis gang. Without a Fender amp in sight, the grainy black and white footage of the shows sees Cropper standing in front of a Marshall stack. ‘Our amps wouldn’t work because of the different voltage, but we didn’t know that until we got over here, so without transformers we were at the mercy of British amplifiers!’ he laughs.
Cropper and your G&B scribe first met in 2001 after Booker T and the MGs had turned in a sensationally tight reunion set at the Bishopstock Blues Festival. Amazingly the band hadn’t played together for 10 years, and drummer Anton Figg – a stalwart of the David Letterman house band – hit the stage without any rehearsal whatsoever. Needless to say, they were pinpoint-tight as you’d expect. A full decade on, however, it’s all change, and Cropper – a guitarist for whom the term ‘less is more’ might have been invented – has recently been stalking stages in the UK with the resurrected Animals. It’s an unlikely pairing, but then the affable Memphis guitarist’s never made any secret about being a gun for hire.
‘I like a challenge and to have fun with it,’ he says. ‘And I’m not a person who likes to change a show every night – I like to relax and just play it. If it’s no good, then let’s change it… but if it’s good, then let’s keep it going. It’s so far so good with this one, but I really don’t know how it came up; the Animals had been working with Spencer Davis and I think they thought they’d give him a rest and give me a try!
‘The band do a whole set,’ he continues. ‘Then they take a break, and get me up to do about half an hour of Stax stuff and mix it up with some of the Animals songs. I give everyone Green Onions at the end and let them go home rocking.
‘I’ve lived with those songs all my life. They’re like children – you have to take care of them and protect them, try not to let them get too wild, and keep them in the public eye. Hopefully some of them get covered or used as commercials, and that gets them out there again. It’s a never-ending business – Jay Z and Kanye West have one of Otis’s things right now.’
Another big change is that Cropper, who never normally went anywhere near a microphone, is now actually stepping up to the mic and singing. ‘I don’t normally, but somebody’s got to do it, and as I couldn’t get hold of Eddie Floyd I figured it had to be me,’ he remarks drily. ‘I always say what they don’t know don’t hurt ’em. I’ve never looked upon myself as a singer – or a guitar player – but I’ve made up for it in other areas.’
As understatements go, that’s a good one. In the history of rock, few musicians have been as quietly influential as the 69-year-old Steve Cropper. He wrote his first hit when he was just 16, and three years later he formed the Mar-Keys, an outfit that would later evolve into Booker T and the MGs, one of the most legendary bands in music history. The unique Cropper touch has been heard behind just about every major artist on the planet – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Beck, John Lennon and Aretha Franklin. He helped mastermind the phenomenally successful Blues Brothers Band, and for decades has been a sought-after producer. And let’s not forget Stax Records, spiritual home of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Albert King and, in 1973, the 12th largest black business in America selling $10 million worth of ‘stone soul’ vinyl. Not only did Cropper write many of the company’s greatest hits, he served as house producer and discovered Otis Redding – and his skeletal guitar lines became an indelible Stax hallmark.
With such a frenetic career, it’s easy to understand why it’s been 42 years since his last solo album hit the shelves. But now, with a cover sporting a photograph of a youthful Steve Cropper playing a Gibson Byrdland, his new album Dedicated features the songs of the 5 Royales, a 1950s harmony group whose name will be a mystery to all but the cognoscenti.
‘It was early music – most of those songs were written prior to 1953,’ Steve affirms. ‘But it was very ethnic, and there was no crossover to white audiences; King Records did a compilation “best of” album in ’57 with Dedicated To The One I Love on it and did their best to keep them alive. But they were overtaken by acts like Hank Ballad and The Midnighters, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. They just moved on… and we moved in!
‘Duck [Dunn, Stax bassist] and I played in a band called the Royal Spades, and about the same time we went to see the 5 Royales live. Their guitarist was a guy called Lowman Pauling, and he was my total inspiration; seeing him play with this long strap on the Les Paul Jr – man! If you listen to him and then to some of my licks, you’ll know exactly where my playing was coming from!
‘He’d play the rhythm right up by the neck, a kind of cool shuffling style as a backing to the singing, then when he soloed he’d reach down, pick his guitar up and hold it and play back by the pickup. When he’d finished, he’d drop the guitar again on the strap – I’d never seen anything like it! That whole idea of one guitarist being able to play rhythm and solo when needed carried through to my Stax days, and it’s the way I still work today.’
Cropper’s Dedicated Lowman Pauling tribute has an all-star cast – BB King, Lucinda Williams, Brian May – and from the opening bars of Thirty Second Lover, a tongue-in-cheek soul stomper with Steve Winwood in fine voice, it has the unmistakable stamp of greatness and that biting Cropper guitar. ‘It was fun, and we had some great people,’ he enthuses. ‘I got a call from Keb’ Mo’, who sings background on one track. He said “Crop, I heard your record and it’s fantastic.” It’s nice when people take time out to do things like that.’
If you ask Steve Cropper about what went wrong at Stax, he won’t pull any punches. He’s proud of the Stax legacy, but talking about the demise of the company still touches a raw nerve after all these years.
‘There was never any rivalry with American Records or Motown,’ he points out. ‘Muscle Shoals were mainly cutting pop records, and we were very much more ethnic until ’67 or ’68 when Dock Of The Bay went to number one in the pop charts; we’d hoped that might happen earlier after the success of Green Onions and the Mar-Keys with Last Night. Otis really opened things up for us. We had the Staple Singers, and Hot Buttered Soul with Isaac Hayes, and Stax was just as hot as it ever was. Then in the mid-’70s some of the distributors weren’t paying Stax as they should have been, which tightened the cashflow. Suddenly the money was gone, and the company pretty much had to shut the doors.
‘It was sad, but disc jockeys just weren’t playing our type of music… they’d moved onto disco. Places were firing bands and hiring DJs. That’s what the kids were buying and drinking to, so we didn’t have any choice – and before long singers like Eddie Floyd and Johnny Taylor had to step aside.’
Looking at old photographs of the studio, Stax seemed to have the atmosphere of a family gathering. ‘Yep,’ Cropper agrees. ‘There’s a picture of us all gathered in the studio – Isaac Hayes, Booker T and David Porter – and there’s Duck in his golf shorts! You can tell we just got in from the golf course… my left hand’s as wide as it could be from carrying a golf club.’
Steve’s always admitted that he doesn’t consider himself a blues player, so it’s an irony that he was instrumental in rejuvenating the career of Albert King, and that he was also a founder member of the Blues Brothers band. ‘Albert was a little slicker than some of the other blues coming out, he had his own style, and with the arrangements we came up with his albums made it into the pop racks,’ he points out. ‘And when the Blues Brothers started a lot of people thought the blues was dead, but basically it was R&B with Duck Dunn and I reliving our careers again, playing the same thing we’d been playing all our lives. Once the movie took off it went crazy, and nobody could believe it was happening. I think it helped a lot of young kids coming on the scene who thought they could play the blues! But you know, I’ve never really tried to play fast… I just play the licks that feel good.’
Recently Steve’s taken time out to work with fellow Memphis legend Jerry Lee Lewis on an album involving the White Stripes’ Jack White. ‘Jack’s produced a record and we played two shows together, one indoors and one outdoors. It’s mainly Jerry Lee’s band with Kenny Lovelace playing guitar, Jim Keltner on drums, and myself; Kenny’s from Franklin, Tennessee, and just gets better as far as I’m concerned – he’s played behind Jerry for ever. I haven’t heard it but I think it’s turned out real good and I feel very honoured to be involved.’
So how is ‘The Killer’ these days…?
‘Well, he’s not getting any younger – he doesn’t hang out as much, let’s put it that way!’ Steve laughs. ‘But when people ask me I tell them that he gets up onstage as an old man and then turns into a 16-year old! It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. He sits down, turns on a switch and becomes Jerry Lee.’