Guitarist, songwriter, producer
The incisive guitar lines of Steve Cropper helped define the contours of soul and funk in the 1960s, when he worked unflaggingly as the house guitarist—and often as composer, arranger, producer, and engineer—for Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. As part of the instrumental quartet Booker T. & the MG’s, Cropper not only wrote material for and backed up some of the most famous names in soul but also helped popularize the minimalist funk style that would later engulf rhythm and blues.
Cropper worked as a solo artist and journeyman session player and producer during the 1970s before joining the Blues Brothers group, which introduced Memphis soul to a new generation of listeners. When Booker T. & the MG’s regrouped in the early 1990s, they found themselves hipper than ever: they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and toured as rock survivor Neil Young’s backup group. By this time, as Walt Hetfield of Guitar Player wrote, Cropper was widely acknowledged to be “the most imitated guitarist of the soul genre.”
Cropper was born in Willow Springs, Missouri, in 1941. His family moved to Memphis when he was still a child, and Cropper began playing guitar in his teens; his primary influences were blues players and such early rock and rollers as Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. While still in high school, Cropper and his friend Donald “Duck” Dunn, who played bass, formed a band called the Mar-Keys. Cropper was just 20 years old when the Mar-Keys’ single, an instrumental called “Last Night,” surged up the charts. The following year, Cropper was hired by Stax to play in the house band.
At a 1962 session backing up rocker Billy Lee Riley, Cropper ended up playing on an instrumental jam composed by keyboardist Booker T. Jones. The result so enthralled Stax head Jim Stewart—who happened to be engineering the session—that Stewart decided to release “Behave Yourself” as a single on his label’s subsidiary Volt. Jones had another little idea for the B-side: a slice of Hammond organ-driven funky blues called “Green Onions.” Mixing the sensual, murky proto-rock of Howlin’Wolf with the ultracool jazz grooves of organists like Jimmy Smith and “Big John” Patton, the song became one of the most enduring instrumental tracks of its time.
Cropper, Jones, drummer Al Jackson, Jr., and bassist Lewis Steinberger, all of whom had been playing with the Mark-Keys, became the first incarnation of Booker T. & the MG’s—“MG” standing for “Memphis Group”—and Stax had a monster hit single on its hands, even if it was originally supposed to be the B-side. The song sold over a million copies, reached the
Born October 21, 1941, in Willow Springs, MO; married and has children.
Recording and performing artist, c. 1957—; producer, session musician, and songwriter, 1962—. Member of Mar-Keys; house guitarist at Stax/Volt label and member of group Booker T. & the MG’s, 1962-71 ; reunited with Booker T. & the MG’s in 1977,1980s, and 1990s, and recorded reunion albums on Asylum, 1977, and Columbia, 1994; founded TMI (Trans Maximus) studio and label, 1971; member of Blues Brothers band, 1978—; appeared in film The Blues Brothers, 1980; toured with Dave Edmunds’s Rock & Roll Revue, 1990; performed with Booker T. & the MG’s at presidential inauguration festivities, 1993.
Awards: Booker T. & the MG’s inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1992.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211.
top of the R&B charts, cruised to the Number Three position on the pop charts, and supported an album of the same name, which reached the Top 40. Other singles, including “Chinese Checkers” and “Mo’ Onions,” followed to less success.
Steinberger was fired in 1964 and was replaced by Dunn, who subsequently anchored the MG’s rhythm section. Cropper and company spent the next few years accompanying soul artists like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and many others, establishing the Stax sound as one of the most influential in all of pop. In fact, the generation of rock musicians in the United States and England who came of age in this period frequently cite Stax and its Detroit competitor Motown as titanic influences. But whereas Motown’s silky, refined artists helped make black music more acceptable to white audiences, the Memphis sound refused to hone its rough edges and was thus arguably more important to the development of both the funk and the rock that followed.
Much of the credit for the Memphis sound goes to Cropper, who not only lent a raw urgency and honest emotionalism to his playing but helped nurse many of the classic Stax recordings from inception to mixdown. “I spent all my time—15 hours a day, on average—in the studio,” Cropper recalled to Hetfield of Guitar Player.”My wife hated it, my kids hated it, and my friends hated it. I would go to bed at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, get an hour or two of sleep, be on the golf course at 6:30 or 7:00, and be in the studio by 10:30 or 11:00. I would work until midnight or after, go to bed, and do it again.”
Indeed, as Cropper testified in a Rolling Stone interview, the classic Sam and Dave single “Soul Man”—though credited on the label to Isaac Hayes and David Porter—bore the imprint of Cropper’s style before it had lyrics. Cropper’s description of the song’s evolution evokes the spontaneous, loose, creative environment at Stax: “Well, when it first started Ike [Hayes] just had some changes on the piano and then it built into that [song]. I worked with him a while and came up with a guitar line; he worked with Duck a while and came up with a bass line. David and Isaac put words to it, AI put the drum beat to it. The horns were worked up on the session. Sam and Dave were taught the song as soon as they got into the session.”
Cropper had similar collaborations with Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. “Otis did more to change my sound than anybody,” Cropper told Hetfield of Guitar Player.”He made me think and play a lot simpler, so that different notes would really count dramatically.” Cropper co-wrote Redding’s monster hit “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” Pickett, a New York sensation in need of a national hit, came to Memphis “with [Atlantic Records executive and soul music visionary] Jerry Wexler. It was kind of an experience for everybody really to work with somebody like [Wexler].” Wexler picked up the story in his memoir Rhythm and the Blues: “Instead of trying to provide material, I urged [Pickett]—with local genius Steve Cropper—to create his own. I put the two of them in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniels and the simple exhortation—“Write! ‘—which they did.” The result was “The Midnight Hour,” which was one of Pickett’s greatest hits.
As the 1960s progressed, Booker T. & the MG’s scored several more hits, notably “Hip Hug-Her,” “Soul Limbo,” and versions of movie themes, including “Hang ‘Em High” and The Graduate’s “Mrs. Robinson.” The MG’s backed Redding at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, one of the most important such festivals of the decade. Yet the group showed signs of creative fatigue by 1970, when they released McLemore Avenue, an album featuring instrumental versions of all the songs on Abbey Road, the unofficial swan song of British pop revolutionaries the Beatles.
Jones quit the group soon thereafter, and in 1971 Cropper left Stax to found his own label and studio, TMI, in Memphis. He worked as session guitarist and songwriter and acted as producer for a number of disparate artists, including the California funk collective Tower of Power, rockers Poco, folk singer-songwriter John Prine and guitar wizard Jeff Beck. Cropper also released a solo album that featured guest appearances from the MG’s and a plethora of other talented players, among them Leon Russell and Buddy Miles.
Later in the 1970s Cropper collaborated with a number of high-profile artists in Los Angeles. Sadly, original MG’s drummer Jacks on was murdered in 1975, but the surviving members reunited with various drummers; with Stax skinsman Willie Hall they recorded Universal Language in 1977, and nine years later they shared a stage for a couple of songs at the Memphis Music Festival.
When comedians John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd developed the personae of the Blues Brothers and performed a mixture of Memphis soul and Chicago blues, they assembled a large band that included Cropper and Dunn. First appearing on television’s Saturday Night Live, the popular sketch led first to an album, Briefcase Full of Blues, then to a movie—in which Cropper and Dunn played themselves—and later a tour and more records. The Blues Brothers version of “Soul Man” allowed Belushi to echo the vocal cue that preceded Cropper’s guitar break on the original recording: “Play it, Steve.”
Though Belushi died in 1982, Cropper collaborated with Ackroyd on several other Blues Brothers projects in the ensuing years. In his interview with Hetfield, the guitarist characterized the Blues Brothers’ repopularization of the Stax sound as “the greatest thing there ever was.” Another MG’s reunion was scheduled for Atlantic’s 1988 40th Anniversary celebration at New York’s Madison Square Garden, but Booker T. was too ill and Late Night keyboardist Paul Shaffer, who had helped Belushi and Ackroyd assemble the Blues Brothers band, stepped in.
By 1990, despite periodic reunions, Cropper had become sufficiently obscure to warrant a “what happened to” query in Guitar Player. Cropper reported at the time that he was “having fun getting out there and seeing the world” on tour with other Blues Brothers alumni.
In 1990 Cropper joined British rockers Dave Edmunds and Graham Parker and 1950s rock singer Dion, among others, in a touring “Rock & Roll Revue.” Parker expressed to Musician writer Scott Isler his hope that young audiences would appreciate the music bypassed by so-called “classic-rock” radio. “If there is something classic it’s Steve Cropper’s guitar style,” Parker insisted. Indeed, Isler reported, everyone on the tour “is in awe of Steve Cropper.” Cropper, who initially resisted going on the tour, recalled, “I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m your guy. I’m not really a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player.’” Once on the road, however, he felt grateful to the tour organizers “for talking me into it, ‘cause I was really trying to slip out of it.” Cropper also did some writing with younger bluesman Robert Cray, who described Cropper to Guitar Player’s Hetfield as “a great working partner” who “has these great titles, great potential stories. He leaves you with that, and it just opens you up.”
In the early 1990s the MG’s reassembled at the Mont-reaux Jazz Festival and at the Lone Star Roadhouse in New York. In 1991 a boxed set of Stax singles spanning nearly ten years and featuring not only the group’s greatest hits but best-known performances by Pickett, Redding, Eddie Floyd, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and many others, won a Grammy Award. At a March 1992 Lone Star show, Shaffer’s drummer, Anton Fig, filled in for Jackson. Rolling Stone’s Steve Futterman observed, “It was obvious that whatever bond united Jones, Cropper and Dunn in the Sixties still coursed through their veins and that Fig had received a transfusion.” The show Futterman reviewed took place one day after the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “One day we got a phone call saying, ‘You guys are definitely going into the Hall of Fame.’ We said, ‘ What?!’ We had been nominated once or twice before and didn’t get in, so we figured that we wouldn’t get in again,” Cropper told Hetfield. “At that point things changed.”
The revitalized Booker T. & the MG’s played at U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural ball and were the “house band” at the all-star tribute to trailblazing rock songwriter Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden. The group went on tour with Neil Young—with drummer Jim Keltner attempting to fill Al Jackson’s shoes—and soon found themselves with a new record deal, this time with Columbia. The result was the 1994 album That’s the Way It Should Be. Versatile sidemen Steve Jordan and James Gadson handled drum duties, and the group tackled such varied material as Irish rock group U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and the soul nugget “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” as well as several originals.
“I wouldn’t refer to [That’s the Way It Should Be] as a comeback until we have a hit,” Cropper said in an interview with Billboard’s Carlo Wolff. “I’d like to follow in the footsteps of [R&B and rock diva] Tina Turner. Wouldn’t that be nice? A 30-year overnight success.” A quote from the guitarist in a Columbia press release read, “The biggest challenge was to sound like Booker T. & the MG’s. It might seem easy but how do you sound like you sounded thirty years ago and still have it fresh, up to date and technically together? I’d lay a rhythm pattern and Booker would put a melody on top of the pattern and then Duck would come in and put an incredible bass on it. Somehow we did it. We believed in it and it happened.”
Whatever might happen with the MG’s reunion, Cropper had already left an indelible mark on popular music. Long before the profusion of flamboyant, ultra-fast lead guitarists, Cropper had provided an example of economical, generous grooving that would stand the test of time. “I can’t play guitar if I’m not playing it from the heart,” he insisted to Hetfield. The musician elaborated on his philosophy: “The main idea is not what you play; it’s what you don’t play. The less you play, the more it means.”
With Booker T. & the MG’s; on Stax/Volt, except where noted
Green Onions (includes title track and “Behave Yourself”), 1962.
“Boot-Leg,” 1965. “My Sweet Potato,” 1966.
Hip Hug-Her (includes title track), 1967.
Back To Back, 1967.
Doin’Our Thing, 1968.
Soul Limbo, 1968.
Up Tight (soundtrack; includes “Time is Tight”), 1969.
The Booker T. Set, 1969.
McLemore Avenue, 1970.
Booker T. & the MG’s Greatest Hits, 1970.
Melting Pot, 1971.
Union Extended (U.K.. only), 1976.
Universal Language, Asylum, 1977.
That’s the Way It Should Be, Columbia, 1994.
With a Little Help From My Friends, TMI, 1970.
With the Blues Brothers; on Atlantic
Briefcase Full of Blues (includes “Soul Man”), 1978.
The Blues Brothers (soundtrack), 1980.
Made in America, 1980.
With other artists
The Complete Stax/volt Singles, Vol. I: 1959-1968, Atlantic, 1991.
The Complete Stax/volt Singles, Vol. 2: 1968-1971, Stax, 1993.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.
Wexler, Jerry, and David Ritz, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Knopf, 1993.
Billboard, February 26, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, June 17, 1994.
Guitar Player, July 1990; December 1993.
Musician, August 1990.
Rolling Stone, August 24, 1968; March 5, 1992.
Vibe, June/July 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Columbia publicity materials, 1994.