Steve Cropper: It’s More a Religion than Music
Steve Cropper’s resume is staggering. As the guitarist for Booker T & The MGs—and therefore the house guitarist for Stax Records—he not only played with the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd, he wrote with them, too: “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “Midnight Hour” and “Knock on Wood” are just a few to his credit. Never one to rest on his laurels—he’s toured and recorded with everyone from Neil Young and John Lennon to Jeff Beck and Levon Helm—he’s recently released a new album with The Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere on the reinvigorated Stax label.
What was your last new album for Stax, musician or producer, prior to Nudge It Up a Notch?
Instrumentally, I think the last major album we had as Booker T and the MG’s was an album called Melting Pot, which I believe came out in ‘70, and we’d been working on it for a while.
You recorded very few albums under your own name. Why?
I never had the interest to do it. My whole goal, from almost day one, was basically to be a rhythm guy who loved to be a band member and back other people and knew his limitations and knew he wasn’t a very good singer. I could sing, I can carry a pitch, but I don’t have any range—I have physical restrictions. I don’t think vocal coaching and lessons would really help much.
I’ve been very fortunate recently to work with Guy Sebastian. He’s one of the best singer/guitar players I’ve ever worked with.
That’s a big statement.
Guy has perfect pitch, perfect harmony and can play rings around most of the world’s guitar players. A lot of people don’t know that, and they go, “Oh yeah, the Hispanic guy who plays flamenco, da da da da.” No. He can play it all. He’s just phenomenal. You’re probably going to ask me, Who’s the best singer you’ve ever worked with?
If I didn’t say Otis Redding you could probably shoot me right where I’m sitting. He was not the greatest singer technically, but he was the best communicator, entertainer, groover guy that’s ever existed.
I’m still on the road with Eddie Floyd. Eddie Floyd, at his age, is still one of the best singers around, and he’s amazing – one of the best entertainers that has ever been. He can walk onstage with anybody and entertain the audience and they’ll sit there and say, “How does he do that?” Because most everybody else, aside from Mick Jagger, is just standing there in front of a mic and singing. Mick is a bright genius because he knows his limitations and he makes up for it by entertaining people.
I think that the younger generation is thankfully discovering and more deeply appreciating classic soul and R&B, understanding that much of today’s music emanates from it. Even a popular song like “Green Onions.”
That song gets used in more movie trailers than probably any song on the planet. It doesn’t always make the movie, but it always makes the advertisement.
It’s cool that it set a precedent for what composers and guys like David Holmes go after.
It’s amazing: It’s a song from ‘62 that’s almost timeless. I don’t get tired of hearin’ it, either. When that thing comes on the radio it’s like gangbusters! And I said, “I don’t remember sounding this good when I recorded it.” I wasn’t the first one to hear it on the radio, but I was in the radio station when they played it.You’ve said, “I never liked to get away from the rhythm too much. The whole bottom falls out.”
Would you say that’s where a lot of more modern rock music fails? Does anyone succeed at it?
I wouldn’t say it fails. I grew up in a world of dancers and that’s what we were all about: the more people we could get on a dance floor the more success we had. [Our drummer] Al Jackson was always watchin’ what the kids were doing. We played a lot of colleges and he would really watch their steps and their tempos. We’d go back into the studio after being out for a weekend playing colleges and stuff, and duplicate that tempo. Al would remember that tempo, he didn’t need a metronome to do it, he just had it, and we would write songs. Of course, in those days , there was no communication like there is now; you put one song on iTunes and 50 million people hear it in ten minutes.
Each college had its own, that’s where these dances come from. The song “Land of a Thousand Dances” was written about how everybody had their own little style and own little thing. One of the most universal dances at the time was the twist. That was more universal than any other dance step and a lot of other stuff came out of that. “Green Onions” was a twist instrumental. That dance was sorta over by the time Booker T came in, so “Green Onions” just fell in line with all the dance steps that the kids were trying to do.
That’s really my mentality—I think in terms of the beat, not of the music. I don’t think about the notes, I think about the rhythm and the pulse of it. In today’s market, I don’t know if that’s really been that important. To most of these kids, it’s the notes, and the approach to the notes, that they’re listening to, and not necessarily the beat; the beat is secondary. Consequently, you have a lot of music out there that is much more jazz influenced than rhythm influenced. I love reggae music – why? It makes you want to dance. Any of that old beach music, shag music, all that stuff. To me it’s not about what they are talking about. It’s about just the rhythm and the music. I never studied reggae when I first was really hearing it, to realize a lot of the lyrics were very political. I was just listening to the beat. I didn’t care what they were singing about.
In doing my research, I came across the following in relation to Jeff Beck Group’s self-titled album: “…[Jeff Beck Group] was slagged off by critics for Steve Cropper’s admittedly lazy production.” How do you respond?
I’ll let the sales speak for itself. [laughter] Let them tell me that “Goin’ Down” ain’t one of the greatest pieces they’ve ever heard. I really don’t care. People want to criticize me, that’s fine, just don’t criticize the artist. Because when asked in an interview, “When are you going to make another Memphis record?” Jeff Beck said, “Never.” So there you go.
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