Steve Cropper - the Stax family and other Animals

Steve Cropper is talking about the most exciting thing that’s happened in his fifty-plus years as a guitarist. Working with Otis Redding – “the greatest” - would be a contender. But, says Cropper, forget awards and gold records, both of which he has aplenty: turning on the radio and hearing a record he wrote, produced or played on still produces a buzz like no other.

Back in the 1960s Cropper was writing, producing and playing on records, many of them hits, every day. Some people might call that work. For Cropper, the only time he felt he was working was when he had a deadline to meet and finished albums to deliver. The rest of the time, helping to create the catalogue that made Stax Records in Memphis one of the most successful labels of the era and made the Stax sound as instantly recognisable as its Detroit equivalent, the Motown sound, was a lot of fun.

“People talk about Stax being a production line,” says Cropper down the line from his home in Nashville between Texas dates honouring Lynyrd Skynyrd and a New York gig with Eric Clapton. “I don’t remember it that way, although I see what they mean. We’d go into the studio and latterly it might be any one of seventeen artists we’d be working with that day. There was no favouritism. We cut whatever songs we had at the time or if the artist had written something, we’d record that. It wasn’t like, that’s a good song, let’s give that to Otis. We’d get in there, start playing, get the best take and hope we had a hit.”

Sometimes artists knew they had a hit before the recording – or even the writing – was complete. Cropper, whose very personal, concise guitar style developed, he says, in tandem with the Stax sound, remembers well one particular phone call he took from Otis Redding, urging him to get to the studio. Redding had just flown into Memphis airport and said he a hit on his hands. Cropper met him at Stax, listened to Redding’s idea and thought, he wasn’t kidding. It was (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.

“The funny thing was,” says Cropper, “there was this line that I just didn’t get: Watchin’ the ships roll in and then I watch them roll away again. I said to Otis, don’t you think that if a ship rolls, it’s gonna take on water and sink? And he said, no, that’s what I want to sing. You didn’t argue with Otis but it was only later that I discovered that by ships, he meant ferries – they rolled in and rolled out. It didn’t matter. We all know what happened with that song – and after we’d finished writing and recording it, we went on and wrote another two songs that night.”

Cropper loved playing with Redding because, “even in the studio, he sang every song as if it was the last time he was ever going to sing” and as one fourth of Booker T and the MGs, Cropper was part of the Stax house band, not just on many Stax recordings but on the Stax Revue that included Redding and toured the UK in 1967, a source even now of much pride and amusement for Cropper.

“People keep coming up to me when I’m over there and saying, I saw you with Otis, and I think, you couldn’t have done, you’re too young,” he says. “But they’ll say, I was twelve, my dad took me. And I’ve come to the conclusion that our audiences on that tour must have been entirely comprised of twelve year olds and their dads. The thing with that tour, though, was that you got to hear the singers with the guys who played on the records and that made it unique at the time.”

The Animals, with whom Cropper plays a Celtic Connections date next week, weren’t among the people Cropper actually met on the 1967 tour, although he was aware of them through their American hits including, of course, House of the Rising Sun.

“They contacted me a few years ago and asked if I fancied doing a few gigs and it turns out that John Steel, the drummer, and I have quite a lot in common,” says Cropper, whose main touring gig these days is the Blues Brothers band that he appeared with in the film. “We’re almost the same age, John’s a few months older, and we both started out playing in bands in high school and had some success quite early. I don’t play on everything with them. I kind of come out after a while and do Steve Cropper then stay on till the end. I really enjoy these tours and the way John and I see it is, as long as they can get us up onto the stage, we’ll be there.”

From The Herald, January 23, 2013.

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