The life, achievements, and guitars of Chet Atkins are back in the spotlight at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Refinement. It’s a word we’ve come to associate (sometimes incorrectly) with luxury brands and upscale dining. Musically, maybe the term conjures up a string quartet. It’s not what you see emblazoned on welcome signs to little Appalachian Mountain towns like Luttrell, Tennessee.

But to properly consider the career of Chester Burton Atkins, native son of said mountain town, the true meaning of refinement (“to make improvement by introducing subtleties or distinctions,” says Webster) could prove more than a little useful. Chet’s not the only small-town kid to become a major-league musician, cultural force, and executive, though few have achieved so much with such humility. But on the guitar, where nails meet strings, Chet stands pretty much alone. He didn’t just create new techniques, à la Earl Scruggs and the banjo. He brought refinement from a most improbable place to a most improbable genre. His genius was in taming the wild hillbilly guitar and taking it to places it had never been, including pop radio, major symphony halls, and even the White House.

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Guitars often help their owners get through tough times, but few have seen times as tough as those faced by British Royal Air Force pilot and prisoner of war Alf Binnie and his 1940s German archtop.

Alf Binnie’s archtop features a rich antique burst finish and a pearloid pickguard.

April 26, 1942, was a day of anticipation and relief for the Allied prisoners of war at Stalag IX-C in the central German town of Bad Sulza. It was relatively early in World War II, and the POWs had no reason to believe they would be released anytime soon. They lived a squalid, crowded existence and were emaciated from meager rations of cabbage soup and hard bread.

But that Sunday marked a rare occasion for smiles: The inmates—who came from many nations, including Poland, Belgium, and France—had been given permission to put on a concert, complete with a stage, sets, costumes, and lights. Dubbed Strike up the Band, the evening gala featured sets by a rag-tag orchestra by the name of Jimmy Culley and the Stalagians, and a smaller jazz quartet billed as the Four Bilge Brothers.

Though life in the Stalag IX-C Nazi POW camp was dismal, with plenty of hard labor and disease to go around, these men had reason to smile when they were allowed to perform the occasional concert. Alf Binnie is at middle right.

Alf in a photo taken of his POW camp band, Jimmy Culley and the Stalagians.

One of those “brothers” was Alf Binnie, a guitar-playing Canadian pilot serving in Britain’s Royal Air Force. He’d recently marked the one-year anniversary of being shot down over Holland, and just a few weeks before this rare performance, Binnie had miraculously acquired a new handmade archtop guitar from a music store in Weimar, Germany. Acquiring a good guitar is special for any guitarist, but for Binnie it was part and parcel of how he survived the most grueling trial of his life. Somehow, the guitar survived too.

The story of Binnie’s POW guitar came to light earlier this year in the tiny Daily Inter Lake newspaper in Kalispell, Montana. An editor there became aware of Leslie Collins, a real estate agent in nearby Whitefish who had been helping Alf ’s widow, Joan, find the best home for Alf ’s small, precious collection of wartime belongings. The collection, now in the possession of the Canadian War Museum, includes a poster from the Strike up the Band concert at Stalag IX-C, a photo of one of Alf ’s prison-camp bands, the original bill of sale for the guitar, and, most remarkably, the guitar Alf acquired in February of 1942. It stayed with him through four more prison camps and “The March,” during which thousands of POWs were forced out of their camps and sent hundreds of miles on foot to flee from the invading Russian army. We recently spoke with Collins and Joan Binnie to find out more about this remarkable story about a man and his guitar.

The receipt for Alf’s guitar, which was purchased for him by guards on the condition that he play for them.

LEFT: The printed program from the April 26, 1942, Strike up the Band performance for the guards at Stalag IX-C. RIGHT: Alf’s pilot’s log indicates he was shot down on March 11, 1941, over Alkmaar, Holland. He was one of two survivors from his seven-man crew, but his leg was wounded badly and subsequently saved by German doctors.

More Adventure Than He Bargained For
Alfred E. Binnie was born in Montreal, Quebec, on January 6, 1920. His father, a reporter for the Montreal Star, was also the long-time organist and choirmaster for a large church. Joan believes Alf had a ukulele as a boy and perhaps a guitar, and he was an avid fan of Django Reinhardt and Louis Armstrong. Apparently Alf never harbored a desire to become a professional musician. When pressed to find work during his teenage years, he opted for adventure and a short-term commission in the Royal Air Force of Great Britain, an option open to Canadian citizens. By the time he got to England in 1939, the Germans were on the march across Europe, and in September, Britain and France formally declared war on the Nazi regime. Alf ’s program was suddenly eliminated, but with some persuading and patience, he was accepted into the RAF as an officer and pilot in training. By 1941, he was co-piloting missions in a Vickers Wellington Mk II bomber.

It’s unclear how many missions Alf flew before he was shot down, but it wasn’t many. On March 12, 1941, his plane took enemy fire and, with a badly wounded leg, he bailed out over Holland. Only one of his fellow crewmen survived. Alf managed to bury his parachute and walk to a farmhouse, where a family called a doctor. After looking at Alf ’s wounds, the doctor said there was no alternative but to call the German authorities, both to get access to a proper hospital and to ensure the family wasn’t called out for harboring an enemy combatant. Joan Binnie says the Nazis showed surprising respect and compassion for enemy officers and pilots. The next three months in the German-run hospital were agonizing, but several surgeries did manage to save Alf ’s leg. When he’d recuperated, he was processed in the German city of Oberursel and then sent to Stalag IX-C.

A British government public-domain photo of a Vickers Wellington Mk II bomber like the one Alf
began piloting for the Royal Air Force in 1941. He was shot down, captured, and given
medical treatment for his wounds in March of that year.

The prison camp was part of a complex that held as many as 47,000 inmates in horribly overcrowded conditions. Some reports say as many as 150 people lived and ate in 120' x 60' rooms. Prisoners were sent to work daily in nearby salt mines and stone quarries. Disease was rampant, and Joan Binnie says Alf felt fortunate to have never gotten dysentery, which was commonplace. Alf also avoided the hardest manual labor by virtue of being an officer. But he didn’t escape the prison’s ghastly dentistry, on one occasion having the wrong tooth pulled before passing out. “They (also) gave them very little to eat, which was very hard on them,” Joan says. “Mostly just soup and hard bread. I asked Alf how they managed to exist, and he said it was only because they were so young. Nineteen or 20. He said you could take a heck of a lot [at that age].”

Alf’s guitar features a bound headstock with a handsomely aged pearloid veneer that, unfortunately,
bears no labels or marks to indicate who made it. Note the well-worn tuning buttons and the zero fret.

A Light in the Dark
Alf ’s 6-string deliverance was made possible by a remarkably unusual circumstance—at least for a jazz musician: He didn’t smoke. Cigarettes were literally currency in the camp, and inmates could either smoke their meager tobacco rations or use them to buy personal effects. Somehow (Joan attributes it to a particularly compassionate camp commandant), Alf ’s desire to spend his saved-up cigarettes on a guitar moved up the chain of command and was approved. A prison guard apparently bought it on his behalf. The receipt from the August Becker Musical Instrument shop specifically notes that “The aforementioned instrument is the property of A.E. Binnie (inmate 39159). He has bought and paid for it out of his own means, or resources.”

When Alf got the guitar, says Joan, he “just about fainted. Because it was a beautiful thing and it was just handed to him. He was absolutely floored.” It was a copy of a Gibson L series, but nobody has been able to find a maker’s mark on it, so its provenance is unknown. A luthier who repaired its neck after the war said it is a very fine instrument. One can only imagine the solace and the relief from boredom such an instrument could afford. Not to mention the camaraderie that came from being able to form bands, which—according to accounts and photographs—was not uncommon. Performances, however, were rare, and life in camp was interrupted by lockdowns after escape attempts and outbreaks of disease. But it does seem that Alf was able to keep the guitar and play it basically when he felt like it. Joan relates that, at some point, Alf ran out of guitar strings and his father corresponded with one of the Dorsey Brothers (a popular jazz group from the 1920s and ’30s that was fronted by Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey), who helped arrange for delivery of a care package that included new strings.

At some point, Alf’s guitar—a copy of a Gibson L series archtop— was damaged and the neck needed to be rebuilt. According to his widow, Joan, the Canadian luthier who repaired it said it was a quality instrument.

LEFT: A detail shot of the supple carves on the back of Alf’s guitar. RIGHT: A close-up of a hairline crack that runs parallel to the strings all the way from the f-hole to the anchor of the trapeze tailpiece. Note the clean,
art-deco-like lines of the adjustable saddle piece.

The latter stages of the war should have meant the worst was over, but the opposite was true: Russian troops had purged the Nazis from their homeland and were marching west, liberating countries in eastern Europe as they went. This led to a frenzied evacuation of prison camps all over Poland, Czechoslovakia, and eastern Germany. About 80,000 prisoners were sent on foot across hundreds of miles in the dead of the coldest winter in decades. Thousands died, some from starvation or exposure, others to friendly fire incidents when Allied planes strafed the columns of men they mistook for retreating German troops. Alf saw friends and comrades die in such a manner.

All this time, Alf kept his guitar slung on his back, covered with some of the inadequate clothes still in his possession. Rations were literally scavenged from fields and farms en route, and it was never enough. As his group reached Gresse, east of Hamburg, their long-awaited deliverance arrived.

“They were on the road, and it was miserable because it was wet and raining,” she says, “but all of a sudden the guards all left, and then they heard that the war had ended. He and this friend went into this small town and took this soldier’s motorcycle. The Americans were coming towards them, and they [the prisoners] were waving at them. They had a white flag. They stopped that first night at a German farmhouse and took a ham [from it]. They stayed in the barn and they weren’t bothered. But those guys were something—they took the ham, but they left cigarettes [as payment]!”

LEFT: The crack in the top of Alf’s guitar widens a bit as it approaches the binding, but it’s not bad for a guitar that survived both a POW camp and “The March” at the end of the war. RIGHT: The binding appears to be separating from the body a bit, but it’s otherwise in remarkably good condition.

Lifelong Companions
Alf recuperated in England and returned home to Canada, where despite his wounded leg he went back to his passion for skiing. He bought a small hotel and became chief ski instructor at a larger resort called Jasper in Quebec. That’s where he met Joan. “I was working in Montreal,” she says. “I went up every Friday.”

Although many things that brought back memories of life in Stalag IX-C were repugnant to Alf throughout the remainder of his life—for instance, he couldn’t stand the smell of boiled cabbage—his guitar stayed with him as a source of joy till the end. He had the neck repaired when he was back home, and he often played for hotel guests, sometimes alone and sometimes sitting in on informal jam sessions with musicians who came up for breaks from New York or Montreal. “It was romantic,” Joan recalls. “I don’t think I appreciated it enough at the time.”

Around 1950, Joan and Alf moved to a more practical life in Long Beach, California, where he became a real-estate appraiser for a bank. Upon retirement, they moved back to snowy climes in the town of Whitefish, Montana—near the Canadian border and more great skiing. Alf continued to love jazz and some hillbilly country, becoming a fan of Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell. He played the guitar until nearly the end of his life. Sometimes it would sit unused for a while, but then, says Joan, “All of a sudden, something would come on the radio or TV or something and he’d go upstairs. He’d play quite often by himself up there. He would rush up there to get it. I used to love when he did that. The guitar was a big part of his life—all of his life.”

Alf’s widow, Joan, whom he met while working as a ski instructor in Quebec.
The two later ran a small hotel where he often jammed with guests.

Steve Cropper, the reigning king of tasty Memphis R&B guitar for more than five decades, chronicles his ascent to musical immortality and his new tribute to childhood guitar hero Lowman Pauling of the “5” Royales.

Listen to Cropper's "Dedicated to the One I Love," from Dedicated:
Shaking Steve Cropper’s hand is more than an honor. It’s a bit of a revelation. His hands are massive, less like a guitarist’s than those of a dockworker from a time when “the Memphis sound” was chiefly Mississippi River boat traffic. Even in the photo displayed at the top of his website (, his left mitt swallows up the first four or five frets on the neck of his signature Peavey solidbody.

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 magazine MOJO named 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

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.

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

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.

A brief history of the peculiar behind-the-scenes war over guitar designs.

One day in 2003, music attorney Ron Bienstock was doing some routine background research for a guitar-making client when he came across something he found troubling: Fender Musical Instrument Corp. (FMIC) had applied to the US government for a trademark on the body shapes of three of its most famous and successful guitars: the Stratocaster, the Telecaster, and the Precision bass.
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