Soul Man: Steve Cropper Interviewed By Delvon Lamarr

Soul Man: Steve Cropper Interviewed By Delvon Lamarr

When the Stax legend met the modern-day organ supremo...

There's a common misconception that soul as a genre vanished into a puff of smoke as the 70s dawned.

The 21st century, though, has brought with it a slew of new soul warriors, using vintage equipment to secure a sound that is both traditional, and resolutely modern.

When a KEXP session propelled the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio to unlikely - but deserved - stardom, it represented more than a decade of work from the musicians involved.

One of the funkiest outfits on the planet, the three-piece take the organ sound perfected by Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff and give it a fresh lick of paint.

New album 'Cold As Weiss' is out on February 11th, and it's a fantastic return, with the slightly re-jigged line up taking that sound to a whole new level.

Delvon Lamarr has long been a fan of Stax Records, citing in-house band Booker T & The MGs as a key point of inspiration for his own work.

So, Clash hooked up Delvon Lamarr with Steve Cropper - seminal Stax songwriter and mercurial guitarist with the MGs - for a Zoom call.

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Delvon Lamarr: It’s an honour and a pleasure to be in your presence! This is truly special.

Steve Cropper: I appreciate that.

D: Congrats on your recent album!

S: Thank you. It’s funny… we had a few singles from it. When I was younger, if you had enough hits, you got an album! Everybody had to have an album.

D: Now, you worked with Otis Redding back in the day… now I’ve got to ask: how was he offstage?

S: He was a great guy. I always looked up to him as an older brother – even though we were the same age. I always thought we has older than me, but he wasn’t! Phil Waldon was his manager, and his brother Alan did an interview one time, and he was asked: what was Otis like? And he said, well, he had a million dollar smile. Which was true. If you spotted him from 100 yards out, you would be his new best friend by the time you got to him! He greeted everybody the same. And it’s great that he did that. He never refused a fan an autograph… ever. He would stay there for however long it took, and do what he had to do. But he was great to hang out with! He would always ask you about yourself: what are you here for? What do you want to do? He was sincere to everybody. He wasn’t marking time, he was sincere about it.

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D: I try to be as versed in music history as possible, and it’s super-rare to get to speak to someone who’s been there, and done it! I’m organist, so Booker T is my guy! I’ll say that right now. What was it like being a part of that group?

S: As far as the MGs were concerned, we were only allowed to work weekends as we were recording during the week. As a back up band. Even with the hits that didn’t change. We had to be back Monday morning by 11am!

D: That’s interesting.

S: But that’s what we did! And it all worked out pretty good. We played on a lot of records. Fans would ask me: how do you play that lick on this song? And I’d be like: I can’t remember… I played on 100 songs after playing that lick! But play me the record, I can remember it.

D: If you look at Otis, he was as serious about life as he was about music. Who sang a song like it was the last song you could ever sing. And it was Rod Stewart, of all people! Thing about Rod, is that he knew that you knew he would change the lyrics, the melody… all that. All while signing it like the last song he would ever sing. So that’s why he got the best players behind him. Some artists do it different – they think just because they’ve got the talent, it might hit anyway. It’s better to have the emotion and the energy of having everyone all fired up about it.

S: It’s funny, when I was young – too young to be in bars! – Rod Stewart came in, and he just sat and watched me play. I was on drums back then!

D: Not many people on this planet can light up a room just by walking in… but he can!

S: I ended up talking to him, and he was a super cool dude. I really like the new album, it goes back to your early days!

D: Oh yeah, that’s what we wanted. It’s raw, and it makes folk want to dance. To me, if you can’t dance to it, it ain’t worth doing.

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S: Now, I read you used to play on a Fender Esquire back in the day…

D: I did, yes. On a whole bunch of songs – ‘These Arms Of Mine’ for instance. And then I got another one, as that one was getting a little old and rusty! I played the new one on ‘Dock Of The Day’ but I don’t have it any more – it’s in the Smithsonian!

S: Do you have any of your gear from back then?

D: Not really. Some of it, maybe. My current guitar I’ve had for 10 years, and the only reason I ain’t retired it yet it because it still sounds good! I’m different to most of those guys – they’ll have 15 guitars onstage with ‘em. I’ll try to get what I play on every song down on the same guitar. I’ll plug it in and play!

S: That’s what our guitarist does! He’s got a 1964 Silvertone – no effects, just one amp… plug and play. But the tone he gets, it’s amazing man!

D: I feel like that’s almost like a dying art. I don’t hardly see anyone play just with guitar and amp any more – if they do, I’ve missed it!

S: I mean, the guitar has come a long way. I actually have trouble playing those old Telecasters now! But I was on tour one time a long time ago, so I took my old Tele’ out – used lighter gauge strings, though!

D: So, what is one of your funniest experiences on the road?

S: Oh so many! Hard to single one of them out. We did this movie once, we went down to rehearse the choreography one morning. It was in LA, and I lived five minutes away. Well, we all piled into the van to go to this soundstage, so we could rehearse. Someone comes up and says: ‘shh… it’s asleep!’ And it was the lead actor! He’d been out all night, only just back… but he knew where the soundstage was, so he could sleep! But that was John Belushi, actually. He was a superstar, there was no question of that! Everybody knew who he was. I used to hang out with him in New York, and kids would run across the street just to get to him… and he’d always stop and speak to ‘em!

D: Have you had any disastrous moments on the road? S: Just make fun of everything! If don’t make fun of it, it makes fun of you! So I’m always laughing. Always thinking of something funny all the time.

D: That’s one thing I don’t have, is jokes!

S: That’s what we did at Stax! Between takes, we’d been laughing like shit, just trying to come up with the funniest jokes. It’s crazy when you look back – I’ve got a birthday card from Muhammed Ali! Some of the memories are unbelievable. But you can’t live on that. You can put pictures on the wall for people to see, but you can’t live on that.

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D: One of my favourite drummers – ever – was Al Jackson Jr. I feel like Al is one of those names that people should know! It doesn’t get mentioned enough.

S: No, not near enough. I always said, he was the greatest player on this planet. The best R&B drummer. Go watch the shows we did in Oslo and Norway, for proof of that. I always said the guy with the camera must have been a drummer because he loved Al Jackson! It’s our tour in 1967. The film crew followed us around. That Stax/Volt tour was the first time – that I know of – when the guys who played on the record backed up the guys onstage. And we didn’t want to quit! That was more fun than being in the studio. The studio, we made fun out of it, but it was still work. It was a day job. Being on the road, you can sleep all day or party all day! They’re paying you to walk to airports, and carry luggage – but for that two hours you’re onstage, it’s well worth it. All the stuff you argue about all day long, it goes away when you’re onstage.

D: What do you do outside of music?

S: I’ve done it all, in terms of hobbies. But I love to fish. I love deep sea fishing. That’s what I missed when I lived in LA – you couldn’t fish!

D: I’ve never done fishing… I did try golf, though! Now, how did you get started in music? Were you self-taught?

S: Self-taught, definitely. I couldn’t afford lessons even if I wanted ‘em. I did try to get lessons one time – he laid out the music, played the song, and I played it right back, same as him. He said: that’s what I thought, you can’t read music! He wasn’t playing what was on the page! So we started learning licks from some of my favourite records.

D: I learned to play organ by watching somebody do it. There aren’t any organ teachers around.

S: You need to speak with Booker. He’s honestly one of the greatest musicians I know. He can play anything that’s ever been invented.

D: That’s funny because we played San Jose jazz festival, and we watched his set. He jumped from the organ to guitar, and kept playing! I was like, I had no idea he could play guitar!

S: Oh a lot of times at Stax, he’d take in a song he’d written. And I’d say: instead of wasting time teaching me, why don’t you just play that song?

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'Cold As Weiss' will be released on February 11th. Steve Cropper's new album 'Fire It Up' is out now.

Photo Credit: Frank Willey

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