Steve Cropper Interview
Stopping At Kent Stage With Dave Mason
June 6, 2018
Steve Cropper is truly a living legend. This is a name that many people probably haven’t heard of, but certainly they know the music that he’s played on or has co-written. He is a founding member of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Booker T. and the MG’s (“Green Onions”), and has co-written some of Rock’s biggest hits including Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” and played on “Soul Man” by Sam and Dave.
This summer, Cropper will be joining fellow Hall Of Famer Dave Mason of Traffic at The Kent Stage on August 19 for a night of incredible guitar playing and music.
We had the chance to chat with Steve before the tour kicks off to discuss his upcoming appearance as well as his incredible career.
Greg Drugan: Hey Steve, where are you calling me from today?
Steve Cropper: I’m calling from Nashville, Tennessee from my office.
GD: So you and Dave Mason are touring together this summer. How did this tour come about?
SC: I don’t know! I guess my partner put it together somehow. He was working on a thing for Dave and that’s how it came about. Dave said, “I wonder if Steve would come out with me?” And he said that I was open because I was not going back out with The Blues Brothers. I just said that I’m not doing another European tour, I’ve been doing it for 30 years in a row! We usually work for a couple of weeks; do four or five shows and then fly back home for a couple of days.
It was nice the other day, we rehearsed up in North Carolina and did a show up there and rode a bus up and back and I was totally comfortable with the whole situation. I said “I gave up bus tours in the ‘90s!”
Dave’s a great guy and I told him this has been a long time coming. We’ve known each other for forty-some years. He’s over here and I’ve been touring Europe, we just didn’t cross paths. When I lived out in LA, I met him out there and we talked about doing something but we never could do it.
GD: So you’ve never worked with Dave in the past?
SC: No, not in shows. It’s totally new and it’s a lot of fun. He wrote a lot of things that I knew, but I didn’t know that he wrote everything that he did. Several months ago I saw him here at The Winery, I was blown away. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he wrote all of those songs!
GD: Well, we’re going to be looking forward to that; it’s going to be quite a night.
SC: You’ve got a couple of musicians and a couple of basic songwriters and I think people will be quite pleased to hear the original guys doing songs in the original ways and it’s worked out quite well.
GD: For sure! I wanted to look back on your past; what first attracted you to the guitar?
SC: I have no idea! I guess when people ask me why I picked up the guitar I always say, I guess to meet girls! (laughs) They were always digging the drummer or the guitar player, so I picked up the guitar.
GD: Did you take lessons or were you self-taught?
SC: Well, I had one or two. I really kinda cheated the system because my parents really couldn’t afford guitar lessons for me. I had a buddy in school who took lessons. So his mom would come and pick him up, and I would run home and pick up my guitar and would be waiting on his front porch when he got home from his guitar lesson. He would show me what he was taught that day and I would learn that. Then I would play rhythm for him to practice over what he was taught. So I had the best of both worlds and I kinda cheated the system!
GD: There’s nothing wrong with that!
SC: The other story, I think it’s kinda funny. About the third lesson, Len Verner was the guy he was taking (the lessons) from. Len said, “Play this.” He had me play some simple little song like “Jingle Bells” or something, and he’d play it and then I’d play it. I played it note for note and he said, “I knew you couldn’t read (music), you played what I played!” I said, "Yeah, I was playing by ear." I just couldn’t grasp reading music. I’m pretty good in math and really that’s all it is. I learned to break it down later but I still can’t speed read.
He told me to go home after today’s lesson and bring me a couple of records of songs that you like and I’ll teach you how to play them. And that’s what we did.
GD: Wow. Speaking of records, who were some of your musical influences?
SC: Well, I’ve got to go back and say the guitarist would be Lowman Pauling and the group would be the "5" Royales. We grew up on Little Richard and I was really impressed with Bo Diddley. I think that was one of the first songs I learned. It’s just one chord and a rhythm. We all listened to Chuck Berry. I got a Chet Atkins record called Teensville or something. He put out an instrumental dance record and I listened to it and I said, “My god, I’ll never be Chet Atkins!” (laughs). He’s amazing! I got to meet him later and he autographed the album and he’s a great guy, just a super guy! He even tried to help my wife play the fiddle. She wasn’t very good but she tried! He knew all of that, he played everything. And Booker T. he could play every instrument! You put an instrument in his hand and he could play it. Didn’t matter if it was a horn, a harp or a violin, anything and he could play it. It didn’t have to have strings on it. Many people don’t know but Booker T. Jones’ main instrument was the trombone. Nobody knows that unless you tell ‘em! The first record he ever did at Stax, and I wasn’t on it, I believe he played baritone (saxophone).
Floyd Newman was the baritone player at Stax and I told him we needed a piano player. He said try this young guy Booker T. Jones, he’s really, really good. So I went down to his house and knocked on his door and his mother answered and I told her who I was and told her I was looking for Booker. She said he was back in the den, so I went back there and he was sitting on the couch playing the guitar! I said, “You’re Booker, I’m Steve, I was here to look for a piano player not a guitar player!” (laughs). He’s very good at it!
GD: When was the last time you played with Booker?
SC: The very last time was the time we played “Crossroads” at Madison Square Garden with Eric Clapton. Eric goes out and does his acoustic set, then Booker T. comes out and we come out with seven guitar players. We did a couple of different songs and “Green Onions” was one of those.
GD: When you were at Stax Records, were you all session musicians before you became Booker T. and the MG’s?
SC: We were all hired session musicians. My connection to it was that I hired the saxophone player in high school who told me that he had three months of lessons. He said his uncle owned a recording studio so I said, “Can you be at rehearsal this Saturday?” That was Charles Axton, his mom was Estelle. She’s the Ax part, “ST” for Stewart (her brother Jim) and “AX” for Axton, so that’s STAX. I don’t know how many pots of coffee they sat over to come up with that name. Originally, it was called Satellite Records but someone already had that name so they got a letter from a lawyer saying they had to change it, so they came up with Stax and that was pretty good.
GD: What was it like working with all of that talent coming into Stax Records like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes?
SC: They were just guys. They were kinda like songs, we didn’t know they were hits because they were all hits to us. If something would hit, some fan would come up to me and say, “Play that lick that you played on so-and-so.” I’d say, “My god, I’ve played on a hundred sessions since then!” Play me the record and I’d bet I’d figure it out for you. (laughs) We didn’t know, there was no favoritism shown on songs.
Take “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay,” Otis and I would pull that thing out for every session. We’d say, “There’s our hit right there.” We never finished it. I put guitar licks on it, and put ocean waves and seagulls on it and filled it out. Otis and I thought he wanted to put something with it, because it needed something. Otis said what about background? I said, “After I’m done with you, I have The Staple Singers coming in and I know they would be more than happy to sing on your record.” He said that was a great idea, but he passed away before that happened. I was doing a tribute to Elvis one night in Mississippi, and I asked if I could do “Dock of the Bay” and they had the Jordanaires down there. The leader of the group came up to me and said, “Steve, I understand you’re doing “Dock of the Bay,” do you mind if we sing backup? I said, “Are you kidding me?” That’s the first time I ever heard real background singers sing on “Dock of the Bay!” I hope there’s a recording of that out there somewhere.
GD: Wow, me too! Speaking of that song, who came up with the whistling part at the end? Was that planned?
SC: No, that wasn’t planned at all, that was Otis. I don’t know how many songs we wrote together, but we never wrote fade-outs because he made up something on the end. When we got to the end of this song, he just started whistling. I think the take before, someone said, “Otis, you’ll never be a whistler.” Well, he showed him on the next take. I do it in a live show and people think that I did the whistling on it, but I have to tell them that it was Otis who did the whistling on it.
GD: You have worked with so many talented artists over your career, who have been some of your favorites to work with?
SC: I did three albums with Jose Feliciano who was fantastic. When people ask me who’s my favorite guitarist I say Jose Feliciano. They say, but he plays a gut string acoustic. I say, “Yeah, he does. You’ve never heard him play electric, but I have!” (laughs). Singer wise, it would have to be Rod Stewart. I always compare Rod Stewart to Otis for one reason, they both sing like it’s the last thing they're ever gonna sing. They put that much energy into it. He’s still around and he’s really, really good!
GD: Is there anyone that you haven’t worked with that you would like to?
SC: (laughs) That’s another good question and there’s a definitive answer. I wouldn’t want to do it now because I think it’s too late, but there’s an artist out there that I never got to work with but I always wanted to and that’s Tina Turner.
GD: She’s great! You’ve been immortalized in “Soul Man” when Sam says, “Play it, Steve.” Did you know that was coming or were you surprised when he said it?
SC: No, that was totally an accident. I say it today that he'd probably wish he hadn’t said it! Because that little bit has become just as popular as the song. Ol’ Sam is still out there doing it and he’s singing up a storm.
GD: I got to see you guys (Booker T. and the MG’s) when you toured with Neil Young back in the ‘90s and you guys were great. What was it like playing with Neil?
SC: Yeah, it was ‘93. It was great and he really enjoyed it. He liked it because we always knew what we were doing.
GD: I’m glad I got to see that.
SC: I believe it was voted the tour of the year that year but we all got fired! I’m glad you liked it but Neil got a whole lotta hate mail for that tour. The fans said, “Booker T. and the MG’s are too slick for you!” (laughs) I think they wanted to see Crazy Horse.
GD: I believe the last time you played in Cleveland was for the Rock Hall Inductions in 2015. You were instrumental in getting the “5” Royales inducted into the Hall.
SC: Thank god (they got in)! I didn’t ever think it would happen. People said if you would have never done that album called Dedicated ,(which was covers of all of their songs) it wouldn’t have happened. The reward I got out of that! I did get to induct them. I did get to see them live the first year I was out of high school. We were playing down stairs at a club and they told us the "5" Royales were playing. Duck and I said, can you get us in? The owner said he didn’t know because they sold alcohol but he did get us in. Duck and I got to stand at the side and watch the "5" Royales play. My god, what an influence that was!
GD: So, you are playing with Dave Mason later this summer. What can fans expect from this show? Are you going to be on the stage at the same time?
SC: Yes, I’m up there pretty much the whole show. I may walk off stage for a couple songs, but that depends on the venue. The one I don’t play on is "We Just Disagree.” He's up there on a twelve-string by himself. You'll probably hear a lot of songs you’ll recognize.
GD: Steve, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. I wish you great success on this tour and I hope to see you when you get to Kent!
SC: Thanks for doing this! Tell the fans to come ready to party because it’s gonna be fun!
Come see two guitar legends who also happen to be Hall Of Famers at The Kent Stage on August 19th. If you want to hear some outstanding guitar work, you need to be at this show!
Interview by Greg Drugan