Shaking Steve Cropper’s hand is more
than an honor. It’s a bit of a revelation.
His hands are massive, less like a guitarist’s
than those of a dockworker from a time
when “the Memphis sound” was chiefly
Mississippi River boat traffic. Even in the
photo displayed at the top of his website
), his left mitt swallows up
the first four or five frets on the neck of his
signature Peavey solidbody.
Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier
to cop ideas from Cropper’s fretting hand,
but that’s not where the mystery lies anyway.
This era-shaping guitarist wrote his
name in the history books with the percussive
qualities of a sharp pick attack and
simple, supportive musical ideas. When
the prestigious British music magazine
named him the No. 2 rock guitar
player in history after Jimi Hendrix, it
was a ringing endorsement of the principle
that taste and timing are every bit as
important to the greatness of a record as
Cropper was born in rural Missouri, but
fate took a musically fortuitous turn when
his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee,
when the future legend was just 10 years
old. This put him in the middle of perhaps
the most musically fermented place in
America at the very dawn of rock and roll.
When Cropper was old enough to dive in,
he did so at a dynamic time—when music
made it from the ramshackle studios to
radios and then to the radio charts with
stunning speed. His first band of note, the
Mar-Keys, turned a loose recording session
into a Top 5 nation-wide hit with the
timeless instrumental classic “Last Night.”
Cropper was just 19 years old.
An autographed promotional glossy showing Cropper in the Stax studio with his famous Tele. “The lacquered
blonde necks are too glassy for me, too wiry. They might have worked live, but I didn’t play live onstage a lot,
so I always liked that deader sound from the rosewood fretboard.” Photo courtesy of the Stax Museum of
American Soul Music
Satellite Records, the fledgling label that
released “Last Night,” would change its
name to Stax—and that is, of course, where
Cropper truly made his name. Not only
was he the ace guitarist in the company’s
famed house band, but he also got involved
in every aspect of the label: talent scouting,
engineering, promotion—even sweeping
the floor, when necessary. Most important
was his role as songwriter and producer.
As the musical mind behind “Dock of the
Bay,” “In the Midnight Hour,” “Knock on
Wood,” and scores of other Stax-produced
hits, he became a chief architect of
American soul music.
That house rhythm section fused into
its own performing group. Booker T. & the
MGs—which consisted of Cropper, organist/
pianist Booker T. Jones, bassist Lewie Steinberg
(replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn in 1965),
and drummer Al Jackson, Jr.—became famous
for their groovy instrumental hit records and
for having an interracial lineup despite being
smack in the heart of the segregated South.
Cropper had originally just wanted to meet
girls and play rock and roll, but he wound up
becoming a musical pioneer and an unwitting
civil rights activist in the bargain.
Booker T. & the MGs—(left to right) second bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson Jr.,
Steve Cropper, and organist Booker T. Jones—in a circa-1965 promotional shot. Photo courtesy
the Stax Museum of American Soul Music