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Steve Cropper: The Royale Treatment

Steve Cropper: The Royale Treatment

The MGs in a promo shot for their 1970
album, McLemore Avenue, which Booker
Jones reportedly intended as an homage to
the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Photo courtesy of
the Stax Museum of American Soul Music
But anyway, I continued on, and I shined shoes. I mowed other people’s yards, set bowling pins. I did whatever I could to make a quarter or 50 cents, and raised 17 dollars. That’s how much the Silvertone flattop, round-hole guitar was in the catalog. I had my mom help me order it, and I had my 17 dollars and I waited there on Saturday, because they were going to deliver it on Saturday. I sat on that front porch till my butt got raw. Finally, here comes the Sears truck around the corner, and I’m going nuts. They brought it in a box—no case, a cardboard box. They pulled it off the truck and brought it up to the front porch—I couldn’t wait to get in there to see this thing. They said, “That’ll be a 25-cent delivery fee.” Nobody had said that! It wasn’t in the catalog. They didn’t tell me that on the order form. I thought delivery was free, and I go, “Mom!” [Laughs.] So Mom always said if she hadn’t lent me the quarter that day, I’d never have been a guitar player. That’s her claim to fame.

Eventually, your dad bought your first electric guitar, and you started playing locally. I read that you took lessons from a local player named Lynn Vernon.

Lynn was a great player, a great jazz player and a good teacher. I took, I think, about three paid lessons from him—three or four. It wasn’t expensive by today’s standards, but they were expensive then. A true story: He opened the page to the music and said, “Okay, play this,” and then he played. Then he listened while I played it, and he goes, “I knew it—you’re not reading the notes. You’re playing what I just played.” I said, “Dang, I got caught,” you know! I thought he was going to kill me, but he didn’t. He said, “I’ll tell you what you do. Why don’t you get three or four of your favorite records or songs you want to learn, and bring them next time. I’ll teach them to you.” One of them was “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures. I think the other one was part of the solo stuff in “Honky Tonk,” from Bill Doggett’s record. And it all started from there.

Later, Charlie Freeman [a friend with whom Cropper started the Mar-Keys] was taking lessons at Lynn Vernon’s. I would go home and get my guitar, walk to his house, and be sitting on his front porch when he got home, waiting to download what he had been taught that day. The benefit was twofold. One was, Charlie had somebody to work and rehearse with, and it caused me to learn a little more rhythm to play behind what he was doing—because Charlie was more of a jazz-solo guy. He would teach me the chords that he’d learned that day. I would play the rhythm chords and he’d start playing solo stuff, so we became a team. I didn’t want to learn a lot of jazz stuff—I just wanted to do, you know, rock and roll songs and stuff like that, which we did.

What do you think you brought to the guitar intuitively?

Well, I don’t know if I helped the instrument any [laughs]. I just used it a little differently. I learned that, in music—kind of like in golf—less is more. I don’t know how it was across the country, but I know how it was in Memphis, Tennessee, on sessions: The more you played, the less they liked it. Most sessions—at least in the rock ’n’ roll or R&B stuff—were all “head arranged.” There were no charts. You could do what you wanted to do as long as you didn’t get in the way of what was going on, like the singer and all that. So I learned very early to play less and get out of the way. And now they talk about it and say, “Wasn’t he brilliant? He left all these holes.” [Laughs.] Usually the holes were left because I wanted to keep the job that I had, and the other times it was because I couldn’t think of anything to put in there! Simple seemed to be the better way to go.

That’s all changed today—everybody is stepping on everybody. It changed in L.A. 25, 30 years ago. When you’d go to a session, there would be four or five other guitar players on the date and I’d wonder, “What the hell is this all about?” The reason there was one guitar player on most of the Stax early hits is because they could only afford one guitar player, and I was willing to work for 15 dollars a session. Other people weren’t.

Once you started working at Stax, you did much more than play guitar on sessions. People say you worked very hard. Can you describe your mindset at the time?

Cropper’s first solo album, 1971’s With a Little Help from My Friends, was all-instrumental—just as the MGs’ had been.
I saw it as something that had to be done. As far as work ethic, I was just on automatic pilot. I knew that you couldn’t sit in the studio or sit at home and get airplay. So I teamed up with one of the local distributors and got to be friends with a guy named Bill Biggs. He used to get in his car with boxes of records and call on the jukebox operators. While he was calling on those guys, I would have him drop me off at the radio station and I’d find a station manager or the program manager or the local disc jockey that was on the air, and say, “Hey, I’m Steve Cropper from Stax in Memphis, and we’ve got this new record. I’d like for you to hear it, and if you like it, maybe you’ll play it for us.” I hit all of the major cities within 150 miles of Memphis. With “Green Onions,” Bill and I went all the way to Texarkana [Texas] and back. We hit Fort Smith and Little Rock and Texarkana and made the rounds. We went down next week into Tupelo and Jackson, Mississippi, then Jackson, Tennessee, and made that circle. Within a week and a half, we’d saturated the market with “Green Onions.” New York Atlantic got wind of this and went, “This is the hottest friggin’ record since . . . Get it out!”

How did you connect with Booker T. Jones?

I asked around. I said, “We need a keyboard player,” and they said, “Oh, go check out Booker T.” He was still 15 or barely 16, but he could really play. What I didn’t know was that he played everything—bass, baritone sax . . . he was taking trombone in school. He was a great musician and still is—one of the best in the world.

I remember the day I went to his house—it was so strange. I knocked on the door. His mom comes to the door, and I said, “Is Booker home?” and she said, “Yeah, he’s back in the den. I’ll show you.” Didn’t question me or ask, “What’s this white kid doing on my front porch?” She just assumed Booker knew me. I go back in the den and he’s sitting on the couch, playing the guitar. I’m going, Wait a minute— what’s wrong with this picture? I’m here to ask him to come and play keyboards!

Booker brought up when I was working up front in the record shop before I knew him. He said, “You don’t remember that. I used to come in there to listen to records, and you were the only salesman that would let me listen. I could stay in there for hours and I got to listen to all these good songs.” He said, “I was fortunate enough I had a memory and I could go home and remember what I just heard, because they didn’t always play those records on the radio, and I couldn’t afford to buy them—but you would let me listen.”

How unusual was the idea of Booker T. & the MGs being an instrumental band, writing their own instrumentals, and covering songs in an instrumental fashion? And why did that persist as an instrumental project, by and large?

For one reason and one reason only: Our first hit came out of a jam session. We were waiting on an artist to come in and do demos. He didn’t show. We were just making time with our instruments and goofing off and playing around. Jim [Stewart, founder of Stax] had everything set to record. We were playing this blues thing and he just reached over and hit the record button on an old Ampex 150 mono machine. At the end, we were all just laughing, and Jim says, “Hey, guys, you want to come in and listen to that?” We go, “Listen to it? You mean you recorded that?” “Yeah, come in and listen to this. It’s pretty good.”

We were dumbfounded, because we were really just goofing off. He said, “If we decided to put something like this out, have you got anything you could put on the B side?” And I said, “Booker, you remember that thing you played me a couple of weeks ago?” “Yeah, I think so.” So we went out and played it, and Jim said, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. Let’s do that.” Three cuts later, we had Green Onions, which became a No. 1 one record—that’s why we were an instrumental group.

The MGs in another promo shot for McLemore Avenue. Photo courtesy of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music
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