Steve Cropper: It’s More a Religion than Music
You’ve said, in reflecting on your Stax years, that you’d be on the golf course by 6:30 or 7 in the morning before going into the studio, often on just a few hours of sleep. What did or does golf do for you?
It helps you unwind. Jean Chrisman used to play with Duck Dunn and me and we would be at the tee at daylight, get in 18 holes and sometimes had time to get home and take a shower before we went to the studio. Sometimes we just showed up in our golf clothes. We just had a complete passion about golf.
Golf is a wonderful thing. If you don’t play it’s kinda hard to explain what goes on on a golf course between people. You can read a guy at a golf course. I don’t care how good you get, you always want to do better.
It’s really no different than producing records; you have two or three number-one records, you want to make ten of them. You have five or six chart records, you wanna have twenty of them. So you’re always trying to do better, and I think golf is a real good training ground for that.
Otis Redding at Monterey was what broke him to white audiences. What’s your memory of that gig, before and after the performance? Was there a sense that this was going to be a really big deal?
We didn’t know the significance of what Monterey was going to become. But certainly the day of the show, and the night of the performance, we knew there was something going on that was very magical.
We had just returned from that Stax Volt tour in Europe, where we played five countries or whatever it was, and had had much success in England and so forth. And we all had that feeling, that maybe what we were doing was a lot bigger than we knew. Which could have been a good thing, could have been a bad thing. I think it was kind of a bad thing. All of a sudden everybody comes back from Europe as a superstar in their mind. Maybe they were, but they didn’t need to be thinking that. That’s not a good thing.
I think the significance of the reception we got from this young audience really told us that there is a whole other market waiting out there besides the one we have been dealing with. We wanted to cross over and be on the pop charts. Naturally.
So then we come from Europe, from these audiences that just went nuts over Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding and so forth, and there we are on our side of the water getting the same kind of response. That was a good feeling. It gave us a new ground, if that makes sense. A new attitude about what we were going to do next and the songs we were going to write.
Otis Redding, point blank, sat down one night and told me (we were sitting in the room writing), “Steve I’m gon’ start looking for a place in Memphis and I’m gon’ move here for awhile,” because we just had so much fun writing together. That was what he had in mind; of course he never got to pull it off. I don’t know if he talked to his family about it but he certainly talked to me about it. He didn’t talk to the record company. He wanted to get into producing, too; he had made that record on Arthur Connelly, which was very successful. He produced that down in Alabama, I forget where he cut it. He really enjoyed doing that – he liked to produce as well as sing.
He was the biggest impact on your playing. In particular because of how he could articulate his vision.
Absolutely. He was amazing. There was not a musician that played for him who didn’t say he’s the greatest visionary. What he lacked musically, man, he could hum it to you, or get the beat, and get you to play what he was hearing in his head. He didn’t have to write anything down. He knew exactly what he wanted. He had so much fun. And the horns had fun listening and trying to duplicate what he was getting them to play, which turned out to be some of the most unique horn parts… ever.
There is the story that Jerry Wexler tells about how “Midnight Hour” was written by simply putting you and Wilson Pickett in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniels.
I don’t remember the Jack Daniels, I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think either one of us were drinking. I know we weren’t [laughing]. That’s not how it happened because if we had a bottle of Jack Daniels I probably wouldn’t have made the session the next morning. We went into a Holiday Inn. He and Jim Stewart went off to have a meeting and go to dinner. I don’t even remember Wilson and I ordering anything in the room. I remember the night well: I know we wrote three songs, went and recorded them the next day, and they were all three chart records. One of them being the flip side of “Midnight Hour” and the other was the second release, I think.
The Blues Brothers was another quick hit of sorts.
One of the most fun and greatest things that we ever did was work with John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd. Nobody can ever take away the fact that [Donald] Duck Dunn and I played a very significant influence into that music. They were strictly going after the blues aspect, they could care less about R&B. That’s what Duck and I brought to the table. We said, “Hey, you guys, if you’re going to be standing up there together why don’t you do something like Sam and Dave, do some dance steps?” Oh really? Well what did they do? I looked to [Paul] Shaffer and I said, “You know ‘Soul Man?’” And he said, “Yeah.” Hit it. John said that’s too high for me. So we took it from G, whatever it was, and took it down to E. He started singing it and boom. I think that was the biggest selling record that we had single-wise. And it brought to life the younger ears because they had the comedy aspect, and the success of Saturday Nigh Live. And so that music got to relive itself again.
As you pointed out earlier, it’s important for people my age to be engaging with this music and artists like you while we still can.
We never did do this for the money. Money comes with success and success only comes with hard work. You have to really work hard; you might have success once, but you’ve got to follow it up. I got frustrated, but we had so much fun playing I didn’t care if we didn’t get airplay.
There comes a time in your life when, if you’re going to have a good time, you’re going fishing or you’re gonna play golf. So we were playing with Levon Helm and he says, “Boys, I think it’s time to open up the bait shop.” You know, we’re going to have to retire and sit on the lake and sell worms because we ain’t doing nothing playing music. I will never forget that. I don’t think it’s time to open up the bait shop yet. I’ve got too much going on.
You’ve said, “I’d like to follow in the footsteps of Tina Turner. Wouldn’t that be nice? A 30-year overnight success?” Fair to say, while lighthearted, there’s plenty of truth in there?
For those in the know, yes. For those not in the know, she was an over night success because it was new ears, it was a new generation. That, hopefully, is what we do today. I’ve had many, many people say to me, “You don’t have to be out here. Why are you still doing this? Do you just love it that much?” Yeah, I love it that much. It’s all about the new generation. It’s about educating these young ears to the music we helped create and not letting it die. To us it’s more a religion than music. It’s deeper than our hearts and our soul.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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