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Steve Cropper Q&A: On Working with Otis Redding, His New Album ‘Fire It Up’ (Out Now!) and Beyond
Steve Cropper is a certifiable rock and roll legend.
After cutting his teeth as part of the early-60s R&B band the Mar-Keys, Cropper found stardom as part of the backbone of Booker T. and the M.G.’s, alongside Booker T. Jones, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Al Jackson, who became the STAX Records house band, playing on hits by everyone from Otis Redding to Sam & Dave. He later helped form the Blues Brothers Band with Dunn, John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, and has continued to write hits, with Rod Stewart and countless others, over the years. Along the way, Cropper inspired countless guitar players and songwriters, with his biting, country-influenced, soulful style of playing, and the songs he wrote with STAX’s brightest stars, and so many others.
Rock Cellar spoke to Cropper about his new studio album Fire It Up (out now!), working with Redding, the key ingredient in a hit song, and much more.
Rock Cellar: We were joking before we started about all the heroes of mine that you’ve worked with — and you’re not so bad yourself, of course [laughter] — so where do we even begin?
Steve Cropper: You want to know more about how Albert King got it done? You want to know about Eddie Floyd? Let me tell you about Eddie Floyd! [laughing] Actually, I’ve got a great story that I’ve told many times. Eddie, when I showed up one day, he said, “I got a great idea for a hit.” He always had a great idea for a hit. I said, “What?” He said, “I want to write a song about superstitions.” So, we talked about rabbit’s feet and walking under ladders and opening umbrellas and breaking champagne glasses and putting salt over the shoulder, all that sort of stuff. We went through the whole gamut of everything we could think of. And I said, “Eddie, what do people do for good luck?” And he said, “They knock-knock-knock.” I said, “There’s our song right there. ‘That woman is so hot, so cool, I don’t want to lose her, I want to knock on wood, I want to keep this girl forever.’”
Rock Cellar: There you go.
Steve Cropper: “I don’t want to lose this good thing that I got, because if I do, I’d surely lose a lot.” So that’s how those songs came about. We did a lot of them like that. But let’s talk about my record, man!
Rock Cellar: You bet. For starters, as a New England native, I’ve got to ask, how did you connect with Roger C. Reale, who does the vocals on your new album?
Steve Cropper: Shit, I don’t know. [laughter] I really don’t. That’s a great question, though. He’s always been around. After I heard him, I said, “Where was this guy?” He’s been out there for a long time. He’s been making records for forty some-odd years. You know, he and I have still yet to meet? He is somebody that my co-producer Jon Tiven had in the back of his mind. He said, “I know this guy can pull it off,” and he sent me a couple tracks. I said, “Shit, where’s this guy been? If he sings the rest of them with that kind of passion and interest, this ought to be a mother.”
The thing about Roger, he’s a force. Even our engineer, when we were listening to some of the mixes, said, “I cannot believe he did those vocals on a cell phone.” On an iPhone! That’s what he did ‘em on. Because Roger was in Rhode Island, singing into an iPhone. I’m just glad you know who he is. I know who he is now, but I didn’t know who he was. I had never heard of him before. People say, “How come you never heard of a guy like this?” And I tell them, “Well, real, real simple. I wasn’t in the pop or rock business. I was in the R&B business. Ask me something about an R&B guy and I’ll probably know something. Pop and rock, I really don’t know.”
Rock Cellar: I was reading about the record, and one of the things that stuck out was how it grew out of ideas you’d accumulated over several projects. I interviewed Peter Frampton recently about his new instrumental covers album, and he has a really elaborate system for cataloging his demos. He does them on his iPhone, he puts them into iTunes, then, once a week, he categorizes them and rates them. He’s got a whole process, and then, when he wants to compose, he goes back to all these ideas and he figures out what’s good and what’s bad and so on. You don’t do that.
It sounds to me like you use the Keith Richards method, which is, if you don’t remember it, it’s not good enough.
Steve Cropper: Yeah. It took the producer pulling out some of the older tracks I’d worked on. And if they hit me, then I dug in. That, too, goes for mixing. If it still sounds good through a wall, it’ll probably sound good on the radio. Back in the old days, I would leave the control room with a $400,000 sound system, and I’d go and listen to it through the wall. And one day an engineer asked, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “Listening to the mix.” I told him about me and Ronnie Capone, from many years ago. I’d asked him, “Ronnie, how many people do you know have a $600,000 sound system?” He said, “Nobody.” I said, “Me neither. Let’s get this on a little three-inch speaker. That’s how everybody listens to them on the radio.”
Rock Cellar: Well, that’s why everyone used to go out into the car, in the studio the parking lot, and listen on cassettes, or get radio stations to play acetates, so they could hear what the mixes really sounded like.
Steve Cropper: Exactly! It was either too much of this, not enough of that, what have you. The record was good, but it wasn’t mixed right.
Rock Cellar: So you made this album in lockdown. Talk a little bit about the process of putting this record together. It had to be very different than the old days.
Steve Cropper: I must tell you about this album, there’s a handful of tracks — you’re only allowed so many nowadays because of publishers and record companies — so we had to boil it down. And because Jon has a studio in his house, and he just kept them in there, they were there in his files. He called me and he said, “I know you don’t want to make a solo record, but would you be interested, if I get the right singer, in finishing some of these songs?” I said, “Absolutely.” So we did that. We picked the best of the bunch. Then Roger would do his thing, send it back to Jon, Jon would send us me files, and I would overdub and mix them. And I’m only five minutes from RCA. So even though this was in total lockdown, and I probably was breaking the law by leaving the house, I was only gone maybe 10 minutes or something like that.
Rock Cellar: But when you did the basic tracks, was it originally with a bunch of guys in a room?
Steve Cropper: No. Sometimes we had a real drummer, but sometimes — most of the time, in fact — we didn’t. I just played to a loop. But Jon and I, we got together to write every Tuesday, sort of at the end of the Felix Cavaliere project. Jon had been around, and he heard Felix and I play together with the Northwest All-Stars, and he always said, “You guys need to make a record. Why don’t you guys just get together and write some songs?” And we did.
And then he said, “Man, you need to do a whole album of this stuff.” So, we did that too. So some of these tracks on Fire It Up were tracks that Felix played on, and then he said, “Eh, I don’t want to finish writing the lyrics. I didn’t want to sing that one.” And I’m glad he didn’t now, because they’re pretty good. The first single that came out was “Far Away.” It’s already on the charts in the UK. I saw it’s climbing up the charts, so that’s pretty good.
Rock Cellar: Not bad. I have a million questions about a very long career.
Steve Cropper: Well, go ahead. What’s your first one?
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk a little bit about working with Otis Redding, because he’s one of my favorites, and I know one of yours.
Steve Cropper: Well, you know, the way we ended up working together was strictly a fluke. We were there cutting Johnny Jenkins, a band he was singing with. When they pulled up to the studio, we were outside smoking a cigarette, and this big ol’ tall guy comes out, goes to the truck, and unlocks it with the keys, because he drove the Cadillac. I thought he was Johnny Jenkins’ valet or driver. But he wasn’t. Johnny Jenkins, for some reason, didn’t have a driver’s license at the time. I mean, he had one, but it was taken away from him, so he wasn’t allowed to drive.
And that was a long drive from Lincoln to Memphis. That’s about a six-hour drive. That’s why Otis was driving. I didn’t know that. But he was setting up. He opened the trunk and started pulling out cords and microphones and all that, and I went running down there and I said, “Hang on. Wait a minute. We got mics in the studio. You don’t need to bring in those mics.” He was setting up just same way he always would, like for a gig. I had to tell him, I said, “All we need is Johnny and his guitar. And maybe his amp.” That’s why
Johnny is playing on the first album we cut, These Arms of Mine. (Drummer) Al Jackson came to me during the session. We were listening to some playbacks, and he said, “You know the guy that drove the Cadillac up here? That guy is bugging me to death for you to hear him.” And he said, “I told him you’re the A&R director, yes, but you only hold auditions and stuff on Saturdays, so you probably won’t have time to listen to him.”
Rock Cellar: Unbelievable.
Steve Cropper: Unbelievable. I mean, he literally made the hair on my arms stand up when he sang “These Arms of Mine.” I said, “Woah, woah, woah.” He said, “What, you don’t like it?” I said “Don’t like it? I love it, man. What are you talking about? You sold it right there.” And that’s when I ran up and got Jim Stewart.
Rock Cellar: He was a big guy with a huge presence.
Steve Cropper: Oh, 6’3″. He wasn’t kidding. They called him The Champ, at 6’3″ and two hundred ten-something, with mighty fair skin. He was just bigger than life. I looked at Otis as an older brother. He wasn’t. He and I were the same age. I had no idea. But he was so streetwise. He just knew everything there was to know about being out in the world. He just knew it. I’m not saying he was educated to any great extent, but he was streetwise, much more than the average person was. He just knew how to move around and how to talk to people. We were in New York one time, and I thought, “What a great time this is. I didn’t want this to stop.” Otis was something else.
Rock Cellar: You had a great songwriting partnership, obviously. Otis, you said, had a limited musical range or knowledge, but he sure did a lot with that. How did you approach things differently as a songwriter when working with him?
Steve Cropper: I didn’t, really. I didn’t approach it differently than any other time. “Mr. Pitiful” was my idea. “Love Man” was my idea. “They call me a love man.” We were writing one night at the Holiday Inn down on Third Street, I think, and he’s giving me this sound of what he thought a saxophone should sound like. “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa.” I said, “Do that again. There’s our song right there.” [vocalizing] It was just the saxophone sound. That was his idea of a lip on a reed. You know how some players will do that to blow the spit off, almost. That’s what he remembered. So “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa (Sad Song)” came out of that. And the same thing with “Mr. Pitiful.” The line, “I’ve been singing these sad, sad songs, sad songs is all I know.” Damn.
Rock Cellar: And if I have my history right, you were always working, in your mind at least as a songwriter, from a title. You always thought a strong title was the making of a great song.
Steve Cropper: I did. And I’m at a desk right now, and I’ve got, damn, I don’t know, I wouldn’t count ‘em, but I’ve got a whole desk full of titles. I probably got a hundred of ‘em, titles, and if I’m writing with somebody — when they put me together with somebody to write — I’ll pull it out and look at it and say, “That will be a good title. That would be a good song.” I still do that today. I like to come up with ideas or phrases and titles that write themselves.
It doesn’t matter what you really put down on paper or put down on a record. The title itself — just the title — will tell a whole story.
Rock Cellar: The artists that you’ve worked with — there’s so many I could ask you about — but are there any artists that you had high hopes for that didn’t get traction the way you thought they should?
Steve Cropper: Boy, that’s a toughie. I don’t think so. I do get asked is there anybody you would have ever like to have produced. And I have to say the one and almighty — not Aretha, because I worked with her — but Tina Turner. I never did a session and I never worked with Tina, though I saw her show about three or four times. Ike and Tina were ahead of us a week when we were out with the Mar-Keys in the early 60s. When we first started, they said, “Man, you guys are in for it. You’re going to die.” We had a dance band. And we played all R&B dance songs. That’s all we did, and we kicked butt. That’s why people loved us. But we used to follow Ike and Tina Turner, which was tough.
Rock Cellar: We didn’t touch on the M.G.’s. Talk a little about Al and Duck (Dunn), especially. That back line, that’s an amazing group of guys.
Steve Cropper: You can’t beat them. Duck copped a lot of very funny, real simple blues bass lines, but made them very dramatic. But he played them because he loved them. He played them for the feeling. And there’s a big difference in just playing a comedy lick as a comedy and playing it as some serious R&B thing. There’s a big difference. But if you listen to his notes, you can copy him, but you can’t copy him the way that he played it. You can only copy the notes.
Maybe we’re all guilty of that. The thing is, as far as the best musician in that band, I know that was Al Jackson, no doubt. But Booker T. is a very fine musician. One of the best in the world. And he’s out there still proving that today, and that’s pretty cool. He could play it all. Booker could play any instrument that you put in his hand. I don’t care if it was a harmonica, a flute, a violin, or what. He could play it. And I didn’t know anybody who could do that.
Usually, in those days in Memphis, especially, people just stuck to the instrument they had, even if they were a pretty well-rounded musician. I know Duck played a little upright. I played a few little things, just for record’s sake only. I played on a lot of records, different instruments, that I didn’t take credit for. I didn’t put my name down for credit because I didn’t want to be known for it. [laughter]
Rock Cellar: Duck had to have benefitted from playing with Al. Because the two of them grew together and were amazing, but you almost couldn’t go wrong playing with Al.
Steve Cropper: Well, I asked Duck one time, “Duck, why are you always putting your back to the audience?” And he said, “Well, I’m always watching the drummer.” I mean, in the early days, when I asked him the question, he had said, “Al.” But later in life I asked, “What are you doing, man? It’s like you’re shunning the audience.” He’s like, “No it’s not. I’m watching the drummer.” I’d learned to do that out the side of the corner of my eye, so people don’t see me looking at the drummer. But I always have my head cocked — you watch me, and I got my head cocked so I can see the drummer and still face the audience. People ask, “How come you and Al were so tight? You worked in a big room. There had to be a Doppler effect.” I say, “I watched his left hand. When it came down, I went down.”
I know musically it wasn’t right, but we were very tight that way.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about why, now, the new record? You told me earlier how it came about, from the tracks from the sessions with Felix. You could’ve made a record at any point over the last fifty years — and I remember your records in the eighties — why now?
Steve Cropper: Well, like I said, Jon Tiven called me and said, “I know you don’t want to make a solo record …” because I was adamant about it. I didn’t. He said, “We got all these old tracks. What if I finished them up and we wrote lyrics to them and all that. Would you play on them if I did that?” I said, “If they’re good, I will.” Most of ‘em that are on there, I remember them now, but at the time, I didn’t remember them. They had to come back to me slowly. Some of those songs are five years old. Some of them were done during the pandemic. But they were all finished during the pandemic.
It’s hard to keep a musician down. He’s got energy. He’s got to put it out somewhere. And maybe break the law.
Rock Cellar: Did it help having forgotten the tracks a bit? Did they feel fresher to you?
Steve Cropper: Yeah. Once I overdubbed on it, then Roger was doing stuff I had never heard before, and I let him inspire me and the track inspire me, sure I did. And a lot of — I would say most of it– I set the groove, and the changes in the groove, and the tempo in the song and all that, by playing to loops and stuff that Jon Tiven set up.
Rock Cellar: I know we’re out of time. So let’s do this again another time. I’ve been chasing you for about five years, so let’s do it again down the road. We’ve got a lot to talk about.
Steve Cropper: Absolutely. So be thinking about some different questions.
Rock Cellar: I’ve already got them.
Steve Cropper: There you go. And I’ll come up with some different answers for you. [Laughter]