Soul Man: Steve Cropper

Stax great talks to ClashMusic
Steve Cropper.jpg
Relaxing on the porch of a Tennessee cottage, Steve Cropper appears completely at home.

Born and raised in the South, the guitarist is now in semi-retirement. Doing the occasional session as he sees fit, Cropper makes time for plenty of charity work and opportunities to improve his golfing handicap. Yet in a strange sort of way, his life has come full circle with his home in Nashville just a few miles from where he cut one of his first sessions. “I got a little into the pop situation and had a friend who wanted to record, a buddy of mine, a duet” he recalls. “We called ourselves Steve & Dante, but the good news is it didn’t make it! If it had of made it then it would’ve changed my whole life. But I was in Nashville, one of the greatest engineers in the world Billy Sherill was the engineer that day and they had ace session musicians at the time playing on this thing. I got to see recording in Nashville which was different than the way we did it in Memphis so it was a good education for me.”

Every inch the Southern gentleman, Steve Cropper takes time to answer each question thoroughly despite a demanding press day. His education in Nashville was part of a musical upbringing that saw him work with some of the greats in soul and R&B. An integral part of the Memphis based Stax label, the guitarist co-wrote songs that form part of the tapestry of day to day life. Yet the songwriter took his inspirations from far beyond the R&B scene, even playing on the odd country session down in Nashville. “I rolled up one time and played a session at the RCA Studio B, which is where Chet Atkins did a lot of his stuff” he explains. “I actually played on a session, drove up for it one time. I got to see that room and how they recorded. They didn’t isolate, they had everything very loud because they didn’t want to have the delay, that ghost sounding thing. We did ours a little different because we were mono, so when we mastered it you could hear the delay which meant that everybody was behind the vocals and more spread out. Basically the Stax stuff, the early Stax stuff was cut entirely in Mono. There was no editing, we did some overdubs where you might tag on an intro or a fade out but that was about the only leverage we had to change anything we had to go with the take we did.”

Despite his work bringing untold joy to millions across the globe, Steve Cropper’s life was interrupted by the deaths of two close friends. First Otis Redding was tragically taken away, and then the demise of John Belushi ends the Blues Brothers project just when it seemed that Cropper’s work would be recognised all over again. “After Belushi passed away that just deflated my balloon, I thought “here we go again. Again and again. You get something doing that’s really fantastic and then BOOM! Someone let’s the air out of the tyres.” I just felt that way and so I sort of semi-retired. I didn’t take a lot of sessions, I refused a lot of work.”
However out of his distress Steve Cropper was to meet someone who would change his life. Introduced by a friend, the guitarist married his current wife 23 years ago. “She was a model and singer at the time and wanted to come to Nashville to get in the business, although it never really did happen for her” he remembers. “We’ve got two great children, a great life and I fly off tomorrow morning to meet them for golf and a bit of relaxation.”

Life is led at a slower pace than his Stax heyday, but Steve Cropper is still capable of commanding the stage. Brought in to work with the Silver Cornet Band, the guitarist is in town to direct Jack Daniel’s birthday show. Sharing the stage with K Flay, Warpaint and Plan B the musician is able to inject an energy, a directness which comes straight from the heart. “I don’t do soundchecks and rehearsals with the same energy that I do shows” he states. “I play with a different energy – I don’t think I play any different with my hands but I play with a different attitude and a different thought when I have an audience in front of me. Just playing for sound guys or people standing around a room – not to be rude or anything – I can’t put the same energy into a soundcheck as I would for a live show.”

Admitting to making a few mistakes during rehearsals, Steve Cropper explains that during songwriting these mistakes and ad libs would become part of the emerging song. “The intro to ‘Knock On Wood’ – Eddie Floyd was sitting waiting on me to come up with an intro. I just couldn’t think of one. Man, we had the song finished but we just had to have an intro!” he laughs. “I beat myself to death but I couldn’t come up with anything. I don’t know what fell out of the ceiling but I thought “I wonder what ‘Midnight Hour’ would sound like backwards?” If I played the same changes the other way up? That’s the intro to ‘Knock On Wood’.”

“The intro to ‘Soul Man’ is a pretty famous lick” he continues. “Isaac Hayes came running in the back when I was logging tapes and asked to borrow me for a minute. “Now, I know Dave and I have wrote a hit today” – because we were going to cut Sam & Dave –“I know we wrote a hit but I can’t think of an intro. Can you get your guitar and help me come up with an intro for it?” So I get my guitar, plug it up and sit by the piano as he plays a bit of the song. I said “just play me some changes.” He played the changes, I started doing the hammer licks and that’s the intro to ‘Soul Man’. Its things like that, which happened accidentally on purpose. So accidents do happen!”

Steve Cropper spoke to ClashMusic as part of Mr. Jack's Birthday @ The Jack Daniel Distillery, Lynchburg, Tennessee.

Read our full review from the event HERE.

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