Mark Goodman's Interview with Steve Cropper
in the April 8 & 15, 2009 editions of BluesWax magazine

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 companions.

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.

MG Tell me about your first meeting with Otis Redding. How long before you knew he was someone special?
SC 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.

That's kind 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.
MG 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?
SC (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.
MG 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?
SC 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 Group.

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.
MG Isaac Hayes passed just last year. Did you ever work with him after you left Stax records?
SC 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.
MG After leaving Stax, you went to Los Angeles for 13 years, then to Nashville. With your musical background, why there?
SC 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 right time.
MG From all the time with Stax until today, is there anything you really wish you could do over?
SC (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.
MG 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?
SC 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."
MG Have you done any shows together featuring this material?
SC 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.
MG This past January you did a show with Louisiana's LeRoux, Jimmy Hall, and Luther Kent. How did that show come together?
SC 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.
MG Had you had the opportunity to play with these guys before that show? Backstage, you seemed to know Luther fairly well.
SC 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.
MG How can so many musicians with different backgrounds get together for the first time and sound so good together?
SC 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 recorded.
MG Was that a one-time event, or do you have future plans with this group of musicians?
SC 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.
MG Is John's brother, Jim Belushi working with you guys at all?
SC 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.
MG 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?
SC 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.

So, 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.