Listen to Cropper's "Dedicated to the One I Love," from Dedicated:
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 magazineMOJOnamed 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 fretboard fireworks.
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
of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music