Legendary Stax Records guitarist Steve Cropper is joining North East icons the Animals for a very special show this week. Daniel Thomson talks to him.
BETWEEN sweeping floors and changing lightbulbs, Steve Cropper managed to have a hand in virtually every song released by Stax Records from 1961 to 1970.
The rhythm guitarist did a bit of everything in his time at the legendary record label from comparatively menial jobs, to acting as producer, engineer, A&R man, and songwriting partner to the likes of Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, and dozens more on all-time classics such as (Sittin on) The Dock of the Bay, Knock On Wood, and In The Midnight Hour.
He was also a founding member of Stax Records’ house band Booker T and the MGs and helped form the Blues Brothers Band with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in 1977.
But the man known as ‘The Colonel’ is quite humble about his illustrious career, which included being named ‘the greatest living guitarist’ by one music magazine.
“I feel pretty overrated,” he says with a laugh. “I think that was more about my overall contribution to music than my talent.
“Another magazine had me a bit further back in the top 30 or 40 of all-time, but put me next to Bo Diddley, which in some ways was the most flattering thing of all because he was a real hero of mine.”
Steve picked up his instrument of choice when he was 14 and didn’t have to wait long for his first opportunity.
“I got my first record cut when I was 16,” he recalls. “I’d been writing since I was 14 or 15 and it just so happened a friend of mine’s dad worked for the record producer Sam Phillips. I got him to listen to one of my songs and that’s how I cut my first record. I got a cheque in the mail and went through the roof. I knew then what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Born in Missouri, but raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Steve’s idol as a teenager was Lowman Pauling of The Five Royales, who inspired him to form The Royal Spades, which eventually became The Mar-Keys.
The band, whose sax player was the nephew of Stax Records owner Jim Stewart, soon impressed the music mogul and Steve found himself given the keys to the studio – literally.
The young guitarist, who had impressed the owner with his keen business sense, opened the building every day and became responsible for finding the right songs for artists, listening to new material, handling copyright forms, booking studio space, sweeping floors, changing lightbulbs, and, best of all, co-writing and performing records.
“It was a lot of fun,” Steve recalls. “And none of it was planned.
“I was the only guitarist so I ended up playing on every record by default and I was the only guy who wanted to listen to new material coming in off the street so I became the designated A&R man.
“But I really would do a bit of everything from literally sweeping floors, changing lightbulbs and working in the record shop to working with the artists in the studio.
“The songwriting came about because I wasn’t really accepted as a lyric writer, but I was accepted as an instrumental writer, so I came up with the idea of going up to Jim’s No.1 artist at the time and co-writing a song with her. The song was a hit and surprisingly enough I got to co-write pretty much everything after that.”
During this period, Steve’s incredible list of songwriting credits included (Sittin On) The Dock of the Bay with Otis Redding, Knock on Wood with Eddie Floyd and In The Midnight Hour with Wilson Pickett.
“Whenever I hear (Sittin On) The Dock of the Bay I think of Otis. It’s pretty phenomenal to have co-written a song like that, which will last forever, but my favourite song to play will always be Green Onions.
Steve adds: “It was just really fun. I enjoyed getting a feel for each artist and spinning ideas off each other. That’s how we wrote all those hits during that time. Another artist I enjoyed writing with was Rufus Thomas. He would just say ‘Steve, get your guitar, I’ve got an idea.’
“You couldn’t work like that any more. We used to write all night and cut records all day.
“It was very ad lib and there was no egos. We relied on each other and we were a real great team of musicians.”
The team, which also included the late Isaac Hayes, Booker T. Jones, David Porter, Al Jackson and Duck Dunn, penned hit after hit during the 60s when they were the main rival of Detroit’s Motown Records.
But when Otis Redding died in a plane crash in 1967 and a disgruntled Booker T. Jones left the label, Stax Records’ days were numbered.
Steve also left in 1970 and went onto work with a number of other renowned musicians, including Ringo Starr, before becoming a founding member of the Blues Brothers band in 1977.
This led to a number of albums and movie soundtracks before the band reunited in 1988 for a series of tours.
Now the original Blues Brothers have circled the globe dozens of times.
Steve has just completed the latest tour and is now busy rehearsing for a series of shows with North East legends The Animals.
The first ever collaboration between the two will be coming to Newcastle’s Carling Academy on Wednesday and Steve says it’s shaping up to be something very special.
“I enjoy having new experiences,” he says. “I’ve never played with these guys before, but I know their most famous songs of course.
“The rehearsals have been going well, but the real test will be playing live. I think it’s going to be a whole lot of fun.”
You get the impression that most things are in this easy-going legend’s incredible life.
The Animals with Steve Cropper will be Newcastle’s Carling Academy on Wednesday August 27. Tickets: £19.50. Tel: (0191) 260-2020.