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Since parting with Stax in 1971, Cropper has stayed busy across a wide front. He lent cred and chops to the Blues Brothers, a semi-comic tribute that became a torch carrier for music from the Cropper school. He arguably helped shoot them into the mainstream by suggesting they record Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” which became that hit album’s big hit single. Cropper also performs occasionally with Booker T. and Duck Dunn in an updated incarnation of the MGs. Most recently, Cropper has written and recorded two albums with blue-eyed soul singer Felix Cavaliere (formerly of the Rascals) for a revived Stax imprint within the Concord Music Group. Cavaliere (whose past hits with the Rascals include “Groovin’” and “A Beautiful Morning”) meshes easily with Cropper’s wiry guitar parts, proving there’s ample life in that original version of soul music that radio stopped playing decades ago.
In Cropper’s latest gesture toward the music that shaped him, he has presided over and played on a multi-artist project celebrating the music and legacy of the “5” Royales. Based in Winston Salem, North Carolina, the 1950s R&B group had hits with songs that would become even bigger hits for others, such as “Think” (which James Brown and the Fabulous Flames took to No. 7 on the R&B charts) and “Dedicated to the One I Love” (which went to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the Mamas & the Papas in 1967).
Cropper was enamored when he first heard the band on the radio, and when he caught them live in Memphis he became a fervent fan of the group’s showy guitar player, Lowman “Pete” Pauling. On the Stax hero’s new tribute album, Dedicated, Cropper pays heartfelt homage to Pauling alongside such notables as B.B. King, Sharon Jones, Lucinda Williams, Steve Winwood, and Delbert McClinton.
We recently got to shake Cropper’s mighty hand at a Greek diner in Nashville, where he’s lived for two decades. There, over eggs and coffee, he reminisced and caught us up on life as a hard-working, award-winning guitar legend.
The MGs and friends hard at work in the studio in the mid to late ’60s. Left to right: Isaac Hayes sits at the piano
while Sam Moore and Dave Prater lean on the piano, Duck Dunn plays his Fender bass in the
background, Booker Jones plays the tuba, and Cropper plays through what appears to be a
blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb. Photo courtesy of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music
How did the “5” Royales originally come to your attention?
Basically, through the radio—there was one particular song these guys did, a song called “Think.” I went to a school in Memphis called Messick, and it was a big dance school. We all loved to dance. So this song came about, and it had all these guitar riffs in it. It really got my attention. And I said, “That’s a song I want to learn.” Prior to that, I’d been learning Bo Diddley things and so forth. But Lowman got my attention because of the way he played rhythm.
And then you got to see Pauling and the “5” Royales live, right?
Yes. We were working at a little club out on Lamar called the Tropicana, and one Saturday night they had this big show coming in with the “5” Royales. The owner said, “There won’t be a gig this weekend, because we’ve got the “5” Royales coming upstairs in the big room”—the big Beverly Ballroom. So Duck and I said, “Is there any way you can get us in?” And he said, “You guys know you’re underage.” I said, “Yeah, but can you sneak us in?” Anyway, he believed we really needed to see this band, so he got us in there. We politely sat in the corner and got to see the whole show. We were afraid to introduce ourselves, but we observed everything and just went crazy.
Lowman Pauling had this long strap, and I had seen Chuck Berry take his guitar off or throw his strap and hold his guitar down by his knees and play and dance across the stage and do all sorts of stuff— or pick it up and play behind his head. That night, I couldn’t wait to get home. My mom said, “What are you doing?” and I said, “I’m looking for an extra belt.” And she says, “You’ve got to go to bed.” So the next morning, first thing when I got up, I took the buckle off this old belt and stitched it into my guitar strap to make it longer so I could play like Lowman Pauling.
I’ve been told that Pauling’s stabbing, horn-like approach influenced you a lot, too.
Exactly. If you listen to the old Stax records, most of my licks, when I’m not playing backbeat rhythms or something, are more like horn lines—horn stabs. When I was a kid, I used to think, “Oh yeah, I can play that lick,” but when I got into this project I really focused and really listened to what Lowman Pauling does. And I’m convinced I don’t have it yet. I think he had some kind of funny tuning—and when I say “funny,” I mean anything other than standard tuning. Because there are some things he plays that I just can’t find in the position I’m used to playing in. I couldn’t get the inflection on certain things. He’s not alive for me to ask, so I may never know.
How did this tribute album come to be?
It was not my idea. While nothing’s ever over till it’s over, I had been saying for the last couple of years that—with our age and the age of the Booker T. & the MGs and Blues Brothers projects— the time for releasing new records and doing things is just about to reach an end. But [producer and saxophonist] Jon Tiven, who we worked with on a Felix Cavaliere record, was looking for some kind of project he and I could do together. He called me one day and said, “Would you be interested in doing a record as a tribute to the “5” Royales music?” And I said, “Are you kidding? Do you think you could get a record company involved in that?” He said, “I’ll call you right back.” And he did! We got a record company and a budget, and I’m going, “Holy mackerel! When do we start?”
Stepping back a bit, when you were a teenager in Memphis, starting to play and attending sock hops and so forth, did you aspire to play professionally? When did that idea strike you?
No. There was a guy out of Memphis who later came to Nashville and became a fairly famous country singer. His name was Ed Bruce. If I remember correctly, our school had assemblies the last Friday of each month. I don’t remember how often they did the talent show, but I saw Ed Bruce at one of them. I was in the ninth grade, a freshman, and I think he told me that when he did that he was a junior—so he was two years ahead of me. He came out with just his guitar, his Gibson electric guitar and an amplifier, and sang Bo Diddley [songs].
And then there was a place that we used to go and dance on Friday night called the Casino, and I remember seeing Ed Bruce again, live on that stage, and he did Bo Diddley again. I somehow just was drawn, like a magnet, and made my way to the backstage. There was no security—nobody told me I couldn’t do it—and I walked back behind the curtain and he was putting his guitar up. I said something stupid like, “Man, how do you do that?” And he said, “Well, son, you just got to get you a guitar and learn how to play it.” Okay, end of conversation.
What happened then?
When I got home after school, the first thing I did was grab the Sears and Roebuck catalog and start looking at the guitars. I asked my dad to buy me a guitar and he said, “Son, we can’t afford a guitar.” “But Dad, it’s only 17 dollars!” “We don’t have 17 dollars.” And they didn’t. So, I started doing odd jobs for money. My dad, at the time, would pay me 50 cents during the week to mow the yard and hand-trim the grass around the sidewalk. If I didn’t get it done by Friday evening, I didn’t go out—not only did I not get any money for it, I got grounded as well! He was a pretty strict guy.