Mark Goodman's Interview
with Steve Cropper
in the April 8 & 15, 2009 editions of BluesWax
Steve Cropper is synonymous with
the Memphis Sound and the great music recorded at Stax Records,
and is easily one of the most recognized guitarists in modern
American music. With the help of some very talented friends,
Cropper defined a sound that is uniquely his own. That sound
can be heard in hundreds of songs from such legends as Otis
Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and Albert King. This
is only a smattering of the artists to whom he has contributed
his immense talent.
When Cropper left Stax Records
for good, he headed west to Los Angeles. He then became one
of the original members of the Blues Brothers Band, featuring
Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. He spent 13 years in the City
of Angels before coming back to Tennessee and settling in Nashville.
After more than four decades in the music business, he continues
to write and perform. His latest release, Nudge It Up A Notch,
came out in 2008 and was in collaboration with Felix Cavaliere
of Young Rascals fame.
He recently performed with Louisiana's
LeRoux at the Spanish Town Mardi Gras Ball. There he was joined
by friends Jimmy Hall and Big Luther Kent for
a rousing performance of his greatest hits and those of his
I had the pleasure of seeing the
show live compliments of LeRoux bassist Leon Medica.
Leon, along with drummer David Peters, recently ended their
stint as the rhythm section for Louisiana Bluesman Tab Benoit.
The band's current configuration backed Benoit on his Grammy
nominated recording, Brother to the Blues, as well as
Power of the Ponchartrain and his live release Night
Train from Nashville. Drummer David Peters and bassist Leon
Medica were Benoit's rhythm section for the past several years.
In the mid-seventies, LeRoux backed
the Legendary Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Medica,
Peters, and Rod Roddy were part of those tours. After LeRoux
retired from full-time touring, David Peters returned to Gate's
band where he spent the next 14 years.
Tell me about your first meeting with Otis Redding. How
long before you knew he was someone special?
Well, I don't remember exactly how it was arranged. Phil
Walden was his local manager and he knew Joe Cochran out
of Atlanta. I don't know if they initiated coming to Memphis
or it was Jerry Wexler. Jerry had sent down several artists
such as Wilson Picket and so forth. They were Atlantic
artists and Otis was never with Atlantic, although they
wanted him real bad. All I knew was this guy was coming
in to do some demos, and for us to audition him. Basically,
we were out front of the studio smoking a cigarette when
they pulled up. You didn't communicate in those days like
we do today. We knew he was coming in but didn't know when.
Anyway, this car pulls up with Georgia license plates and
this tall guy gets out and starts to unload amps and guitars.
Finally I said, "You won't need those," and he
said, "Well, this is the way we set it up." I
just assumed he was a roadie, although we didn't call them
that back then, we called them valets for some reason.
Anyway, during the session that day he had gone to Al Jackson
whenever we would go to the control room to listen to playback.
He said to Al, "I need someone to listen to me sing."
Al came to me because I was the A&R man for Stax in
those days. I would audition people on Saturdays and Sundays
and everybody knew that. He said, "He really
wants to have someone hear him sing." I said, "If
we have time at the end of the session, I'll listen to
him." Well, after the session Al came up to me and
said, "You got time to listen to this guy? He is just
bugging me to death." I had completely forgotten about
it. I told Al to bring him down to the piano and we all
got around and I said, "What do you want to play?"
He said, "I don't play piano, I play a little guitar,
but just play me some of those church chords," and
he kind of rocked his hand back and forth. I knew what
he meant, those kinds of triplets you know. So I just picked
a key, B flat or whatever it was, and he started to sing "These
Arms of Mine." Holy Mackerel (laughing), the hair
on my arms just stood up and I said, "Wait right here."
I went into the control room and got Jim Stewart. I said, "Jim,
you've got to hear this guy's voice, you're not going to
believe it." Jim heard about one verse and said, "Wait
a minute, get the guys back in here and we'll get this
on tape." Most of the guys were splitting because
they had night gigs. Duck was already putting his bass
in the trunk when we got them all back. The next morning
we were cutting the B side of Otis Redding instead of the
guy we were supposed to be recording.
of how it went. I counted one time, and from that first
song These Arms of Mine to Dock of
the Bay we had 16 hits in a row. We never had what
we called a "flop" record with Otis Redding.
They always went up the charts and sold product.
Booker T Jones just released his first solo record
in almost twenty-five years. Are there any plans to get
the MG's back together?
(Laughing) Well, we've never been apart. As a matter of
fact, we leave on March 17th for a few shows in Holland
and we did a week in Japan back in December. I don't know
what he has planned. He may go out with his other band
and promote the record, or we could do more dates. I'll
probably find out in Holland.
I'm almost embarrassed to ask the next question, but I
couldn't find the answer on the net. Just what does the
MG stand for?
Well, the cat's been out of the bag on that one for a long,
long time. That was in the days when people named their
bands after cars. Chips Bowman had a hit record called "Burnt
Biscuits" and his band was the Triumphs, so I suggested
the MG's. Well, when Atlantic went to secure the rights
to use the MG from the car company, they refused. They
said they didn't want be associated with, and I don't know
if they said black or what, but they didn't want to be
associated with a rhythm and blues band. Jim Stewart came
in and said, "Boys, I got some bad news. We have to
change the name of the band." I said, "To what?
We've already got this thing going." We had already
pressed the record. It was on Volt at the time and Atlantic
called and said you have to get it off Volt and put it
on Stax. We don't really need to promote a new record label
and this thing is so hot it would really be good for Stax.
Anyway, I don't remember exactly whose idea it was, but
somebody said, "Why don't we just change the initials
to MG and call it the Memphis Group. We said, "Great,
they can't sue us on that." So it was always Memphis
Later on, when Duck was around (Donald "Duck"
Dunn), well he was always around since high school. He
was in my original band The Mar-Keys. Anyway, when
he was off the road, I would add more sessions and he wound
up in the band. Duck always said the MG stood for musical
geniuses. Now, I wouldn't say something like that (laughing),
but of course Duck would.
Isaac Hayes passed just last year. Did you ever work with
him after you left Stax records?
No, not physically work with him, but we did a few shows
where he was on the bill. I know we did some shows at the
Beacon Theater in New York, and I'm sure that were some
others that I can't think of. We would see each other at
award shows and when there was a promotion for the Stax
Museum because we were all on the board. We received the
Tennessee Governor's Award at the same time, so
we got to hang out for a couple days.
After leaving Stax, you went to Los Angeles for 13 years,
then to Nashville. With your musical background, why there?
Basically for the purpose of song writing; recording in
LA hadn't dried up but it wasn't much for song writing
and so forth. Anyway, there was a guy out of Washington,
D.C. named Guy Beatty who was putting together a publishing
company and was signing writers. Basically it was through
Mentor Williams, who had been very successful in Nashville
and had written some country songs and gotten some recorded.
He was already famous for writing Drift Away (recorded
by Dobie Gray), and he's the one who talked me into coming
in to meet with these guys. I told him that I wasn't interested
in a deal because I had just got out of two of them. He
said, "Just come down on their dime and have lunch
with them. We can hang out and I'll show you around Nashville."
So I did, I stayed about a week and met with these people
and they basically made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
I would have been stupid to turn it down. I really like
it here and have a lot of friends that came here from Memphis
and became successful. I just felt like my time had run
out in L.A. I had been working with Levon Helm and the
RCA All-Stars on the road so I wasn't spending much time
there anyway. It just seemed like the right thing and the
From all the time with Stax until today, is there anything
you really wish you could do over?
(Laughing) Yeah, I would have signed some different paperwork.
You know, I took everybody at their word and so did Jim
Stewart (co-owner of Stax Records). We didn't know then
what we know now. We were still getting our feet wet and
we were very green business wise. We knew about music,
we knew how to write songs and make records, but we didn't
know about the rest of it. We didn't have good lawyers
or good advice, and that's about the only thing I would
have changed. The wording in some of those contracts let
somebody else own my publishing, which is not the worst
thing, but it would be nice if I owned it.
Last year, you released a record with Felix Cavaliere (Young
Rascals). Do you still get together to write and are you
planning to release another album?
Every Tuesday at noon we get together at Jon Tiven's house,
so we actually have a writing session today. Basically,
when both of us are in town we get together. Hopefully,
this one won't take two years to do. We don't really have
a schedule because they don't expect to release anything
till 2010, so that gives us a year to get it together.
The other one we did, it kind of hung around. We shopped
it around a bit, and then toyed with the idea of selling
it ourselves on the Internet. Then Concord was nice
enough to give us a deal and the product is still selling
weekly so they're happy with it. They said, "Go to
work and get us another one."
Have you done any shows together featuring this material?
We have not. We've had an offer to go to Japan but we don't
have anything planned over here. It's not big enough to
change what we're doing, but if somebody put something
together we certainly could.
This past January you did a show with Louisiana's LeRoux,
Jimmy Hall, and Luther Kent. How did that show
Leon Medica and Brian Mabry are the ones that put that
together. They took me to lunch a few times and talked
me in to doing it.
Had you had the opportunity to play with these guys before
that show? Backstage, you seemed to know Luther fairly
I do, I had met him years ago when he sat in with the
Blues Brothers Band. That worked out real well,
and we even discussed the possibly of him joining the band.
Jimmy Hall I've known for a long time. I've worked
with him some, but not a whole lot. I'm very familiar with
his work and I've seen him perform a few times.
How can so many musicians with different backgrounds get
together for the first time and sound so good together?
Well, basically it's pretty easy because we all have the
same taste in music. I thought it was interesting when
they first came to me because LeRoux is a New Orleans-type
band. At Stax we even tried to emulate some of that sound.
We did different versions of Coal Mine and so forth.
Al Jackson (original drummer, Booker T. and the MG's) liked
the beats, and I've always been fond of that style of music.
You heard the show we did. LeRoux didn't put a New Orleans
groove on the Stax stuff, they played it the way it was
Was that a one-time event, or do you have future plans
with this group of musicians?
Well, we have one more coming up and we'll see how it goes.
They would like to pursue it a little more aggressively
and I'm not against that at all, but I've always been a
wait-and-see kind of a guy. We'll do the next show and
if everybody's happy, and we pull it off and the crowd
seems to like it, then maybe we'll pursue it a little further.
One problem is if I pursue that, it takes time away from
the original Blues Brothers Band. This year will be twenty-one
years that we've been doing that. We quit when John Belushi
died, it was over in our minds and we said, "That's
it." Then, Dan Aykroyd's wife Donna put the band back
together for a surprise birthday part for Danny. We did
that up in Canada, and when we were through we looked at
each other and said, "Man, we've got to keep this
thing going." We had forgotten how much we enjoyed
playing together. Belushi had brought it to an abrupt end,
but we decided it was time to get it going again. We talked
to a promoter out of Boston who had been booking dates
for Booker T and Mat "Guitar" Murphy and he set
up a small tour in Italy. We did ten or eleven shows over
three weeks and it was extremely successful. So, they started
booking more dates in other countries and it's grown into
a pretty big thing with a great following over there.
Is John's brother, Jim Belushi working with you guys at
No, we did maybe two shows with him. We did an opening
for the House of Blues in Atlanta during the Olympics and
another opening in Chicago. That's between Danny and Jim,
plus he has his own band, Jim Belushi and the Sacred Hearts
Band. They sometimes go out and perform as the Blues Brothers.
It doesn't really do us any good but that's what he wants
to do and you really can't tell him he can't. I mean, we
are the original Blues Brothers Band; we started this thing
with five musicians twenty-one years ago. We got most of
the guys together for the Blues Brothers 2000. Eddie Floyd
is our singer now and he was in it. Tommy McDonald had
a small part, but it's too bad the movie wasn't bigger
than it was. It was a victim of the Titanic syndrome. Every
other movie sank but Titanic. It was unfortunate that it
came out the same time as ours because it killed every
other movie on the planet.
There can't be too many items left on Steve Cropper's "Bucket
List?" Is there anything you have left to do that
you haven't accomplished several times over?
You know, I've pretty much seen and done it all and I'm
comfortable where I'm at. Some guys don't like to do the
same thing or repeat themselves, and I kind of understand
it. Booker T summed it up one time in New York. We were
doing a sound check and the house sound guy wanted us to
play a complete song so he could get a feel, or mix for
the band. Booker looked at Duck and me and said, "Let's
just do Green Onions for him." So we did Green
Onions, and when we got through Booker looked at us and
said, "Man, I'll never get tired of playing that song."
So that really sums it up for me. We just don't get tired
of playing that music, it goes down so well. Songs like
Soul Man and Midnight Hour are still great
songs. People still like to hear them, and still like to
dance to them, so I still enjoy playing them.
you ask about a Bucket List and the things I haven't done,
I don't really have one. I've seen the movie, and I understand
the psychology behind it but I've traveled the world and
like I said, "Seen and done it all". I'm a homebody,
I've got the kids now, and the less I have to go out, the
better. When I do, I want to be with Booker T or the Blues
Brothers, but we'll see where it goes with LeRoux.
They're a great bunch of guys and I enjoyed playing with
them. It would be silly for me to make a career change
at this point. I could have gotten a manger and gone out
and done Steve Cropper stuff, but that's not me. I'm more
comfortable being a band member. To go out a try to do
an hour and a half in front of a band, I'm just not into
it. I'd rather step back and let somebody else do it. That
show with LeRoux was a lot of fun and the people seemed
to get off on it. The folks that booked it really enjoyed
us and sent me a letter of gratitude. They said it was
one of the best shows they ever had and want us back again
next year. If we get the kind of response when we do it
again, with different people, then that's a good reason
to pursue it.
If the response of the Spanish
Town Krewe was any indication, you would have to be comatose
not to want to dance and sing along. LeRoux opened the show
with a set of their favorites including the Medica penned
New Orleans Ladies. Anyone who has seen a Tab Benoit
show over the past several years knows this song, as well as
Leon and David.
LeRoux was then joined by Jimmy
Hall and Luther Kent. Each performer brings a slightly
different flavor to the band. Then the "Colonel" takes
the stage and it's a greatest hits of R&B. Songs such as "Dock
of the Bay," "Soul Man," "Wait Till the
Midnight Hour," "Knock on Wood" are timeless.
Even the twenty-something's in the audience were on their feet
and groovin'. Personally, I hope the next show is a smash so
these guys take it on the road for all to see.
I had the opportunity to met Steve
Cropper at the Blues Music Awards a few years back. While
holding court in the lobby bar (BMA veterans know this is the
place to meet and greet) the "Colonel" kept us enthralled
for hours with his tales of legends. I can say without question,
he is one of the most interesting and entertaining people I
have ever met.