Years after Stax, we entered the era of the
guitar god—when players became famous
for playing gigantic solos and being very
technical. That was never your direction.
That’s probably why I didn’t have a lot of hits,
but I made a lot of good records. When I produced
people like Jeff Beck and Robben Ford
and other bands that had great guitar players,
it was like, “Why even bother [trying to do
that]?” I’m more comfortable and I’m better
off here, producing behind the window and
influencing what goes on that record, taste-wise
or whatever, than I am trying to play like
these guys. If I had been locked in my room
when I was in high school, I might have come
out a better guitar player, but I wasn’t. I did
many other things—then and today.
How did you get talked into the Blues
Brothers job—and did it feel like the real
deal versus a stage show of some sort?
It just came to me as another offer, which
I initially turned down completely, pointblank.
I was in the middle of mixing Robben
Ford’s album and a call came in—and when
I’m mixing, there’s no calls, no nothing.
Well, the [receptionist] told me later that she
sent it back during the session because John
Belushi was on the phone. He said, “Yeah,
we’re doing this thing and I need you in the
band,” and I said, “I hate to disappoint you,
but I’m in the middle of a project.” He said,
“Well, we’re starting tomorrow. I need you to
catch the next plane.” I said, “Hey man, I’m
telling you I can’t do it. I won’t be there.” He
kept me on the phone and kept me on the
phone, and on and on and on. It seemed like
an hour—it was probably only 10 or 15 minutes—
and I said, “Man, I’m sorry to do this.
I’ve got to go.” Robben Ford turned around
and said, “Who were you talking to?” I said,
“John Belushi from Saturday Night Live
putting a band together and he wants me to
come up and play.” Robben said, “I’ll do it!”
And I said, “No, you won’t!” [Laughs
anyway, I called Jim back and said, “This is
Cropper. I can be there in three days.”
When we got up there, I remember
John and Danny [Aykroyd] were together
in front of the band, and I remember them
saying, “Guys, we won’t be able to make
you rich out of this, but we can keep you
laughing.” I remember them saying that,
and it’s true. It was probably about as much
fun as you can have playing live.
Briefcase Full of Blues was my first blues
album as a kid, and I expect that’s true for
lots of people. But it wasn’t a gimmick.
Well, it was serious music. I mean, the press
made it appear as if it was a joke, but it wasn’t
a joke at all. When it did come out, they said,
“These guys are just poking fun at rhythm
and blues,” and we’re sitting there, thinking,
“What kind of an interview is this? We’ve
got to educate these guys, because they don’t
know what the hell they’re talking about.”
John had played drums in a band in Canada
for a long time, and he had one of the biggest
blues collections of anybody I’ve ever run into.
And Danny had studied his harmonica, and
he’s a walking dictionary—he’s that brilliant.
His IQ must be over the roof. That’s what
these writers didn’t get, so when it was time
for us to do some interviews, we started telling
them the truth about who John and Danny
were. They weren’t just two comedians. They
were very talented musicians, and John could
really sing. And adding the comedy and the
crazy dancing stuff—it just went over. The
audiences loved it, but they also liked it on
record. Briefcase Full of Blues
sold three and
a half million copies. That’s triple platinum,
right off the bat—pretty big.
Dedicated bassist David Hood (left) relaxing with Cropper between takes at Dan Penn’s studio in
Photo courtesy of Jol Dantzig
How did you hook up with Felix Cavaliere?
Northwest Airlines had put together a band
that came out of a touring backup band
for Ringo Starr. Randy Bachman was the
original guitar player in that band, with Felix
playing, too. The basic rhythm section was
the guys that had been on the road with Billy
Joel for a long time. Chris Clouser, who was
then the vice president of Northwest Airlines
and very good friends with Felix, called Felix
and said, “We’ve got to get Cropper. Are
you going to make the call or am I?” It was
a promotional item for Northwest to throw
a concert for their frequent-flyer people and
some of their higher-up employees and that
kind of thing. I enjoyed doing it, and we did
something like 18 or 20 shows.
When Felix and I had been out on the
road together for about two years, somebody
made the connection and said something
about how Felix was sort of from an R&B
background, making R&B songs with a
white group, and then Cropper, man, the
two of them ought to get together and make
a record. So Jon Tiven, the producer, was
the main guy that influenced that. He called
Felix, he called me, and he got us together
to write. That was the whole premise of it. It
was going so well, he said, “Man, you guys
ought to do this on your own and put out
a record.” So we made a deal with Concord
and made record one, and it did well enough
for them to ask for record two.
Does your guitar matched with his voice
and keyboards put you in a place where
you’re super comfortable?
The time we’re together, we’re in a time
warp—we leave the outside and go right
into what we’re doing. Absolutely, yeah. He
and I have already discussed the third record.
He didn’t want to stop, and it is a lot of fun.
The awards have been coming at you
pretty fast in recent years—from the
Recording Academy, the Musician’s Hall
of Fame, and the Songwriter’s Hall of
Fame. Did you see this coming?
Well, no. When Booker T. & the MGs
were being given a lifetime achievement
award with NARAS or another one, we
were backstage and Booker looked at
Duck and me and said, “Does this make
us dinosaurs?” You try not to look at that,
because it is that way a lot—they wheel
some guy up in a wheelchair and they
give him an award, and I don’t want to be
that guy. We’re still out there working all
the time. I’m working with three bands
on a regular basis, not counting all the
other stuff that we do. I don’t think about
age, but it does sort of date you when you
get one of those hall of fame things.
Gear Inspired by His Ear
Steve Cropper discusses his barebones rig and his
early transition from an ES-335 to T-style solidbodies.
Steve Cropper became a solidbody guitar guy years ago after a particularly hot
gig with Booker T. & the MGs. “Hot,” as in blazing sun at the Atlanta Pop
Festival. Cropper played a Gibson ES-335, a model he’d worked with off and
on since his days with the Mar-Keys. “It was the cherry red stereo model,”
he remembers. “They are so hard to find—I have not seen another one that’s
stereo. There’s close stuff—with the same neck, same shape, same inlays, and
all that . . . usually with a Bigsby. I loved that guitar.” But on that sweltering
Atlanta afternoon, Cropper recalls drummer Al Jackson, Jr. approaching him
with a cool towel over his head. “‘Cropper!’ he said, ‘Bring the Tele next time!’”
Keyboardist Spooner Oldham (of Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett fame), Hood,
drummer Steve Jordan, producer Jon Tiven, and Cropper during the Dedicated sessions. Photo
courtesy of Jol Dantzig
“Al liked the Telecaster sound for the MGs—not the more rock-and-roll,
fuzzed-up gear,” Cropper says. Indeed, a Fender Telecaster is what you see
in nearly all Cropper photos from the Stax years. As a solo artist, however,
Cropper was won over some 15 years ago by a Peavey rep bearing gifts—but
before that, he’d played Peaveys and hadn’t liked them.
“Paul Robinson, who was their top Southern salesman, called me from
Memphis one day and said, ‘I’ve got something that I think you might be
interested in.’ I’m going, ‘Hmm. Okay, Paul.’ So he shows up at a session,
and when we took a break he went out to the car and brought this guitar in.
My first thought was, “Okay, here’s another Peavey that I’m going to have to
smile and say, ‘Thank you, but no thank you’ to. I plugged it in and played it
a little bit, and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ They got it right.” That’s
the one I’ve played for 14 years.
“When we did the Peavey Steve Cropper Classic production model, we took
a lot of the things that were in that guitar,” Cropper explains. “We measured
the necks on some of my other favorite guitars and put it all on the computer
and averaged them—that’s what we milled the neck out to be. All of them,
I might add, had rosewood fretboards. I don’t remember playing a blonde-necked
Telecaster—ever—on any records at Stax. I’m a rosewood guy, because
I like that more deadened sound. 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.”
Cropper plugs his custom Peavey directly into his amp of choice, a Fender
“The Twin”—which Cropper says is easy to find to rent all over the world,
despite being discontinued. His only pedal is a tuner. He plays light-gauge
strings (.010s) and is not partial to a particular brand. His medium-gauge
picks are made by Pick Guy Inc. in Westfield, Indiana.