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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 is 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.] So, 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 Nashville.
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.