Growing up in my house, there was always music in the air…big bands, show tunes, and long ago crooners on a first-name basis, like…Frank, Sammy, Tony, Dean, Mel, Nat, Steve and Edie, and so on. My musically charged parents are in their 90s now, so they’ve been around. And if I queried them about famous musicians, the conversation would go something like this…
Me: “Do you know who Eric Clapton is?”
Them: “Of course.”
Me: “How about Jimi Hendrix?”
Them: “Well, sure,”
Me: “Bruce Springsteen?”
Them: “Oh yes.”
Me: “How about Bob Dylan?”
Them: “Of course we know him.”
Me: “How about Steve Cropper?”
Me: “Steve Cropper?”
Them: “Never heard of him.”
Of course they’ve never heard of him and neither have you, unless you are; a) a musician, b) a record industry type, c) a music aficionado, d) working in radio, e) a music writer (if you’re e, you better have), f) living in Memphis, or g) a fan of “original” rhythm and blues…in which case your answer would be, “Hell yes, who doesn’t know Steve Cropper?”
To those in any of the above categories, Steven Lee Cropper…simply known as Steve Cropper or “Play it Steve” Cropper…is an icon. He is the most quintessential guitarist extant, next to Eric “Clapton is God” Clapton himself. But to the rest of Planet Earth, Cropper is the Eric Clapton that you don’t know…but you sure as hell know his music.
Cropper, his guitar, and his music, along with Traffic’s Dave Mason, were in town last month at the Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead—a gig I could not attend—so I made it up to Kent, Ohio, to see their show on the 19th of August, where Cropper declared to the audience, that at their age, “we should be in wheelchairs somewhere but we’re so glad we’re still here to entertain you people.” Both he and Mason made the show more of a casual bar show than a rock concert where the act is disconnected from the fans.
Cropper is not the “slow hand” blues mastery of Clapton, nor the exorbitance of Jimi Hendrix, or the wizardry of Eddie Van Halen. He is more like the Wizard of Oz. Don’t mind the man behind the curtain, he’s just doing his magic act back there, behind the likes of Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Blues Brothers, Jeff Beck, Bobby Darin…oh yeah…and a couple of Fabs named John and Ringo.
And then there was Otis Redding.
In the case of Redding, as Cropper tells me by phone before his show, “Otis was the kind of guy who had hundreds of ideas. He had been in San Francisco doing the Fillmore Auditorium and he was renting a boathouse (Cropper means houseboat) and that’s where he got the idea of the ships coming into the bay. ‘I watch the ships come in and I watch them roll away again. I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay,’ was all about him going out to San Francisco to perform. I just took that, and I finished the lyrics.”
Redding had considered the song incomplete and planned to record the final version when he returned from touring…a return that never happened. Redding’s final work was recorded on November 22, 1967, with additional overdubs on December 7th by Cropper. The song fades with a whistling, originally performed by Redding. According to Cropper, “Otis had this little fadeout rap he was gonna do but he forgot what it was, so he started whistling instead.”
On December 10, 1967, Otis Redding’s charter plane crashed into a lake outside Madison, Wisconsin. After Redding’s death, Cropper mixed “Dock of the Bay” at Stax Studios, adding the sound of seagulls and waves crashing, at Redding’s request…the sounds Redding heard while staying on the houseboat.
Having played on such a monster hit, Cropper feels this way…”It’s nice to know I played on a song that lasts so long for an artist,” he says. “In the days at Stax, if you had a hit, that artist could work off that one song for the rest of their lives. That was always nice to know that I helped contribute to that. How many mouths did I feed? How many members of the family benefited from that one hit? It’s a good feeling to know that I contributed something to it.”
I asked him why Stax was so successful. “It was pretty simple,” says the man. “We made dance music. People in Memphis like to dance. We took a lot of blues-rooted songs and once Al Jackson (drums) and Duck Dunn (bass) put a beat on it that people could dance to, they became hits.”
Sounds simple enough.
Cropper only writes with another, never alone. “I’m too critical of my work,” he confesses. “I’ll never finish a song. I like to be in a room, one on one with a guy. I’ll come up with an idea and they’ll say, ‘that’s great,’ or, ‘I got a better idea.’ I like to collaborate that way.”
And who didn’t he like working with?
“I can’t recall any one I didn’t like,” he continues. “I can’t recall any collaboration where I walked away saying I didn’t want to write with that guy again.”
You’ve never heard of Steve Cropper perhaps, but you’ve heard him alright. He has played guitar on virtually every important soul and R&B hit record of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and then some. He has co-written legendary songs like the aforementioned (“Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” with Redding, “Soul Man,” with Sam and Dave, “Green Onions,” with Booker T. and the MGs, just to name some of the salient ones. You’ve heard these songs as staples of pop radio, TV commercials, movies, in the grocery store, at Home Depot, on BOB- FM, ‘60s on 6…everywhere.
Listen to Cropper on his seminal piece, (“Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” Put on headphones or earbuds so you can hear the subtle but prominent chords and string plucking of Cropper’s Fender Telecaster. To the casual listen, we hear Redding’s tearful voice, but underneath, where Cropper creates most of his musical incantations, he provides the underbelly of this tune of a lost soul.
The self-effacing Cropper doesn’t see himself as a guitar player, but as a musician and a session player that has played in a lot of sessions, on a lot of hit songs. Despite what Cropper alleges, he is a guitar player…a guitar player’s guitar player. Keith Richards, who plays in an old English band called the Rolling Stones, and who can play a little guitar himself, says of Cropper…”Perfect man.” That’s no shabby endorsement.
When Cropper was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 as part of Booker T. and the MGs, he was wedged onstage between Johnny Cash, Neil Young, U2’s The Edge, and Little Richard, as they did a jovial rendition of “Green Onions.” Cash is all eyes on Cropper as “Play it Steve” takes his solo turn.
Cropper has always been a session man in the studio of Stax Records in Memphis, where he formed the Stax house band of Booker T. and the MGs (Memphis Group), of “Green Onions” and “Time is Tight” fame—one of the earliest interracial bands in the south—long before the civil rights movement was in high gear. But it was the Blues Brothers with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd that put him on the road for the first time—something he was not akin to—and has been touring ever since, minus some years after the death of Belushi. That’s 31 years on the road.
The MGs never toured because they were consumed recording behind Wilson Pickett, Johnny Taylor, Albert King, Eddie Floyd…and everyone else who came through Stax. There, some of the most famous guitar riffs were born, like the intro and bridge (“Play it Steve”) to Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” (also covered by the Blues Brothers), or the guitar accompaniment of Booker T. Jones’ Hammond organ in “Green Onions.” You know these riffs…they dwell in the back of your consciousness, outside of your awareness.
For this piece, Cropper calls me exactly on time (thank you, Steve) and before I can ask the first question, he has already answered my first three. I suppose he has the interview process down by now at 76 years old but that’s not really it. It’s more of an uncontrollable tsunami of musical anecdotes he spews my way. And so it goes for 70 minutes…I ask one question, he answers four, whether I was going to ask them or not. He elaborates, he expounds, he chuckles (a lot)…the man loves to talk, that’s a natural fact. He’s a “good ole boy” from the south, born in Missouri, crafting his guitar life in Tennessee. But when I ask him who his favorite artist is or was, who had the most influence on him as a guitarist, who his favorite producer was, his most this and most that…he’s tight-lipped. He holds no favoritism—except for Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”), the paragon he considers family—and maybe Bob Dylan, with whom he feels great kinship.
And yet, Steve Cropper is not just a pretty face with a six string—he’s a top-notch producer, too—as evident on (“Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” Locally, Cropper produced an Iron City Houserocker record with Joe Grushecky back in the day. He spent two weeks here in Pittsburgh rehearsing with the Houserockers before they entered the studio. “I’ll always remember that name, the Iron City Houserockers,” chuckles Cropper. “I got a pretty good education about Pittsburgh.” And I gave him a little more education when he asked about the venue where he was going to play with Mason, the Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead. He clearly likes Pittsburgh.
At the Kent Stage show, Cropper continued talking where he left off with me, going on and on about how the song “Green Onions” got its name and how it became a huge hit. He even confessed to the audience that Dave Mason told him not to talk onstage, but in his own words, “I know this story gets long and Dave told me not to talk,” he groans loudly, “but I’ve got to, I can’t help myself.” “Green Onions” is Cropper’s ringtone on his phone. He then gets into a rendition of the MG’s classic with the band and the audience responds accordingly. As a guitarist, Cropper is fluid and easy.
(As for Dave Mason…the man has not lost an inch—not in his guitar work (or his wah-wah pedal) and certainly not in his voice, which is crystal clear and youthful. In this age of aging ‘60s rockers, whose voices are long gone from prime time (like Rod Stewart, Stephen Stills, Elton John, and Greg Lake—long before he died), Mason sounds ageless.)
Steve Cropper is full of life and musical experiences, having worked, and is still working with the pantheon of artists, mostly whom are still close friends. Sam and Dave gave him his first “Play It Steve” shout out in “Soul Man,” as did the Blues Brothers when they covered the tune. And he got another one on Ronnie Baker Brooks’ track, “Show Me.”
So yeah, go ahead and say it…”Play It Steve.” And he still does…after six decades.
Lee Kann is a filmmaker, media producer and freelance writer for the New Pittsburgh Courier. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org