Steve Cropper began his professional career in the late 1950s and as a member of the Mar-Keys he played on “Last Night,” which appeared on Chess Records’ first L.P. release and was a radio hit. He was the guitarist for Booker T & the MG’s, which was Stax Records’ house band in Memphis, Tennessee. Booker T. & the MG’s became one of the most popular bands in America when “Green Onions” became a chart topping hit, which had millions of teenagers across the country dancing with abandon before the Beatles, who were influenced by Croppers guitar playing, made their debut in America. They were on the bill at the first major rock festival in 1967, when they backed Otis Redding at the “Monterey Pop Festival.” Steve Cropper not only was the band’s guitarist, but he wrote and co-wrote many of the hits of that era including, “Green Onions,” “Sitting On the Dock of the Bay,” “In the Midnight Hour” and “Knock On Wood,” to name some. Over the next fifty years he worked as a guitarist, songwriter and record producer with artists ranging from Rod Stewart and Peter Frampton to Ringo Starr and Neil Young. He was and is the guitarist of The Blues Brothers as well as continuing to tour with other musicians, like the present tour that he’s doing with another music legend, Dave Mason. MOJO magazine listed Cropper as number two behind Jimi Hendrix on the top 100 guitar players of all time list. Blues Rock Review had the honor and privilege of interviewing Steve about his phenomenal career.
How old were you and how did you first become interested in the guitar?
(Laughter) I don’t know how old I was, probably 8 or 9 or something like that, I really don’t remember how old I was. I was really fascinated by a guitar that my uncle had that is now in the musician’s museum downtown in Nashville. When my uncle passed away, well, he might have played guitar, I don’t know he never did play it, but he bought one because these guys came around every Sunday after church and there would always be somebody there that played guitar that didn’t have one. He played fiddle and piano and they would stand around the piano and sing, so he bought a guitar. My cousin told me he paid $50.00 for it. It was an old Gibson. Anyway, I was fascinated with it as a young kid and I guess that I would ask my aunt if I could get it out and she would say yeah I guess it would be okay. I just thumped it like a rubber band just to hear it vibrate and I really didn’t get interested in playing one until I was probably 13 or 14. That’s when I got started and got my first one, maybe a little latter than that, I don’t know, but I really got interested in it when I was around 14.
And what year were you born in?
1941, so it was about 1955. We tell a story, which you don’t have to write, which I think is funny. Several years ago when my son was real young, well, he’s 18 this year and graduating and going to college, but anyway we went out to eat and my wife said what do you want to do tomorrow night? My son was interested in our conversation and he said, what are you guys talking about? I said, well, tomorrow night is our anniversary. He said, well, how long have you been married and then when I told him he said that the dinosaurs were still alive. When I think about it, most kids I talk to today were born in the 70s or 80s and they’re not kids anymore.
Who were your guitar influences?
When I was growing up, what we were hearing on the radio in high school as influences was the same as everybody. I started with guys like Les Paul and Chet Atkins and I realized very soon or very quickly that I wasn’t going to be one of those guys. We were fascinated by “The Ventures,” but I really got interested in a guy named Bo Diddley. I went to hear a guy when I think we were in the 9th grade or something like that and he was a senior graduating. They had talent once a week, I believe on a Friday at the school that we went to and he did the song “Bo Diddley.” Then I heard him do it again at a dance. Before I was in 9th grade, but I was in 10th or 11th grade and we were allowed to go to this dance at a place called the Casino of all places out at the fairgrounds. He did “Bo Diddley” again at this show and it just fascinated me, because it was a lot of rhythm and then I guess that I just got hooked on rhythm, I guess. The main influence on guitar was a guy named Loman Pauling and The ‘5’ Royales and I did an album several years ago called Dedicated with all their songs in it. That’s what I grew up listening to when I was in high school. I thought that it was brand new stuff. So in the liner notes it said that this was all written before 1958, but actually it was 1948 probably, because it had been out before, because King Records bought their contract and bought their masters in those days. When I grew up in the record business, record companies hardly ever released any old stuff by anybody. They all just released new stuff and I thought that was interesting. I really did think that it was brand new because I heard it on the radio, but it had been out before and I didn’t know that.
What state did you grow up in?
I was born in Missouri, but I moved to Memphis, Tennessee when I was about 10. I guess that would have been 1951 or 1952 and it went from there. I met Donald Duck Dunn (bass player in the MG’s) in grade school from the 6th grade on, 6th, 7th and 8th, so we spent 3 years together and then 4 years in high school.
How did you end up in the house band at Stax records and how old were you?
It’s pretty simple basically, because Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton were the two owners and the agreement that they made was you can have your studio if I can have my record shop. Well, her son played saxophone and he turned out to be pretty good and he was in my high school band. I used to go and pick him up in the mornings when I had a car and stuff like that or I’d go over to his house and we’d just walk to school together. When she was talking about having a record shop I said, well, could I be a salesman in your record shop and she goes up to Jim Stewart one day and says you got to start paying him because he spends more time in the studio than he does in the record shop. So they made some agreement and all of a sudden out of Jim’s studio budget he started paying me a salary out of there instead of the record shop budget. And that’s how I became whatever I became. I didn’t care, just as long as I was connected with the studio. I used to go back and forth and I’d sell some records for a while and then I’d go back in the studio. I started out just cleaning up and picking things up, logging tapes and doing whatever. Sort of like the guy in the mail room working his way up in a company, sort of the same thing and he’d learn how to do everything. I was never really a guitar player, you can talk about it, write about it, people do all the time, but I learned on the job, just like a plumber would working with his dad. You learn how to mend pipes and that’s what I did, you know, and I learned every facet. How to set a studio up, how to mix, how to engineer, how to play, like songs and so forth. We got very lucky I would say, lucky and fortunate that I was a part of a lot of instrumentals, so Jim Stewart who was the president and engineer originally of “Stax Records,” before “Stax Records” when we were “Satellite Records” at one time. They never asked for any songs with lyrics in them even though I was writing songs with lyrics since I was 14 or 15. He didn’t want to hear it, so business wise I said, well he won’t listen to any of my songs, so I grabbed his favorite artist Carla Thomas and said Carla and I had written a song that I think you would really like. So she goes down to the piano and I played it for her and she say’s I really like that, I want to cut it. Okay. So it was a business move and she did cut it and had a lot of success with it. Now the person I’m calling Carla Thomas came up with a #1 record called “Gee Whiz,” and they spent, I don’t know how many times or how many attempts to kind of do what we call a follow up. Something as good or something that would work and nothing ever really did, they didn’t sell any volume of anything. So this song I wrote for her, “No Time To Lose,” I wrote with Danny Parker. It did pretty good. It did okay on the charts, I forget what number it went to, it’s been so long ago, but you could look it up somewhere. It did make some money and sold some records and all of a sudden they wanted to hear all of my songs I’d written. They liked some of them, but none of them really made it, so originally I started writing with William Bell and then Al Bell, he was a disc jockey at the time, a friend of mine and he said I’ve got a buddy that you guys could really write some songs with together and that’s Eddie Floyd , we really wrote a lot of songs together and had some hits together and so forth.
How have all the changes in the music industry affected you personally?
Well, I’ve got to go back a ways because I still have a studio, but as a technician, it’s far advanced over my little brain, so has technology, period. How can I best explain this, because I was still mixing on they call digital flying fingers and that kind of thing in L.A.. Now that was 30 years ago. So I basically hired the guy that is now basically the engineer of the studio that I had. I hired him to do the internet, because I thought that we could sell records on the internet. I knew that was where it was going. That is where it went for a long time, but he wanted to be more of an on the job engineer than he did sitting at a computer. We had protocols and all advanced equipment and he’s an expert at it, he’s real fast and a total expert at it. His name is Eddie Gore and he started a company called Eddie Gore Productions. He’s writing with somebody that is producing and they do stuff 6 and 7 days a week, just like I used to do. When I was at “Stax” I worked an average of 14 ½ to 15 hours a day. I’d go home and take a shower or whatever and get 2 or 3 hours sleep and get back up and head out again. That’s what we did, I did that for 9 ½ years.
You really got a lot of practice in that’s for sure.
Yeah, when you work that long in the studio you learn to do everything perfectly.
So that was when you connected with Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett and the rest?
Exactly, I was in there every day and with those guys when they were out of town I would go down to their hotel or motel or wherever they were staying and we’d write until it was time and we’d go crash I guess. So that’s the work I did outside the studio. So I remember Wilson, the first we got together he had a song and I had an idea and he had an idea for music for one and that was for “In the Midnight Hour.” He brought down a song from New York called “Don’t Fight It.” We changed that and so Jerry Wexler, who brought him down took Jim Stewart to dinner and came back and said, “how are you guys doing?” Well we’re playing “Midnight Hour” and he says well keep it going. So we finished the “Don’t Fight It” song and then wrote “I’m Not Tired.” We wrote three songs that evening and cut all three the next day.
That was pretty fast?
You could do it in those days. A lot of songs, like “Last Night” was a hit and “Green Onions” was a hit. I got in the car with a box of records and hit all the juke box operators and radio stations. We broke that record in about a week and a half I guess. Atlantic got wind of it and said you got a smash. I remember Jerry Wexler calling and said you gotta get that record off of “Volt,” we don’t have time to promote a new label because it was only the second release on “Volt.” Get that record on “Stax,” so “Green Onions” actually came out on “Volt” first and then “Stax” later.
Can you think of an interesting story about Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding?
Do you mean as people or musicians?
Anything, any incident, it doesn’t matter if it’s musical or personal.
I make the comment that a lot of musicians really didn’t get along with Wilson very well. His own musicians didn’t, but I reminded some of my guys, I said you know you may be right about that, I can’t disagree with you, however, he’s the only artist that ever came in and tipped the band after a session. And the other one was on Otis when you ask about Otis, I think Alan Walden summed it up one time when a fan came in with the same kind of question, well sort of. He asked; “What made Otis Redding so popular?” He said, Otis was just effervescent and had a million dollar smile. I guess in those days that meant something, a million dollar smile. What he meant by that, he said you could be a hundred yards away if you saw Otis. By the time you walked all the way up there he never stopped his smiling and you were his best friend by the time you met him. That’s the way Otis was. He just took to everybody. He made everyone comfortable and John Belushi was that way too, I know that you didn’t ask about him but he was the same thing. I hung out with him quite a bit in New York and L.A. and stuff and I never saw him refuse an autograph person or a fan to shake his hand or give them an autograph or wave at them or whatever they did. He just was always on all the time and was nice, one of the nicest people that you ever want to meet. That’s the way Otis was.
How did you get involved with John Belushi and the Blues Brothers project?
The story I heard was that Belushi was hanging out with Phil Walden, who was Otis’s manager and he was talking to him about putting a band together and all that. So Phil said, well, you need to get Steve Cropper to play guitar. And he said, who you mean that long haired hippie guy? He’s not a guitar player he’s a roadie. I was mixing an album in studio B at the Roth Brothers studio at Cherokee, I guess that was in 78 or 79 and I get a phone call and it’s Belushi. I hung up on him the first time because I didn’t believe him. He called back and said, no this is really John Belushi and I’ve already talked to your buddy Donald Duck Dunn and I understand that you guys don’t get along together. I said what are you talking about? He’s my best friend. He said that’s what I’m talking about. He said that Duck had already agreed to be in this band I’m putting together and I want you to be in it too. I said I can’t do it right now, I’m mixing and I hung up the phone. The guy I was mixing for was Robben Ford and he turned around and said, I’ll do it and I said, no you won’t and I called John back and I said when do you need me? I can’t be there tomorrow. He said can you be here in a couple of days? I said, well, I think so. I had already talked to the engineer and he said, well, I know you’re not finished, we got two more songs to mix and he said, I’ll mix them. He was doing it anyways. I was there as a producer and mixer too, but I had assistance with Bruce (Botnick) and he said, I’ll do it. I don’t know if it was his idea or mine, because he had mixed some stuff for Jerry Wexler and played it to him over the phone. I said well if I go on the road can you finish mixing this stuff and send me copies or play it to me over the phone and I’ll decide whether you need to do more of this or more of that or whatever. That’s what he did, but that might have been after the fact I think, that was after the Blues Brothers already had hits.
How much longer do you intend to keep on touring and performing?
That is a good question? I’ve told everybody until they stop wheeling me up to the mic I guess. I don’t know and my doctors say that I shouldn’t fly on long flights anymore and I was with a chiropractor yesterday and he said why would they say that and I said that I don’t know. I’ve gone against their wishes three times twice to Australia, but they don’t want me to fly back and forth to Europe anymore. They didn’t cut out all flights, they just said these long trip flights, you know.
Since the 1960s was the decade that was your heyday during the hippie counterculture revolution, did you participate in mind expansion with LSD or other psychedelics?
No, we didn’t even get connected with that, there was absolutely no alcohol, no drugs of any kind. I think that pretty much everyone smoked, as far as “Booker T and the MG’s.” I was talking to someone the other night about it and I said, you know it’s really funny that Booker and Al Jackson both smoked mentholated cigarettes, Kools or whatever they could get hold of and I think Duck smoked Marboro’s and I tried Kent’s for a while and different things. I stuck with filters, but I basically liked Winston filters. I started out smoking Pall Mall’s and unfiltered cigarettes along with Camel’s that are a little stronger.
Nowadays they’re trying to make all the cigarettes illegal while marijuana is becoming legal.
I had a guy jump in my car one day and he lit up one of those vapor things and I said I don’t allow any smoking in my car. He said, this is a vapor cigarette. I said it still has smoke coming out of it. So I have a lot of friends who do smoke, but not in my car, their car. They roll down the window for me and let it go out the window, but I can still smell it but it doesn’t matter. I used to bother me after I quit, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.
Interview by Bob Gersztyn