Friday, April 29, 2011


R&B attracted a wider audience and influence and, ironically, it was young white kids in the 1940s and 1950s who, hearing R&B records, determined that they too would become musicians. Guitarist Steve Cropper once noted that, when he was growing up in the American South during the 1950s and he went to see visiting bands, the white members of the audience were required to watch the show from the gallery because segregration was still a fact of life. In later years he recognized that he could only get close to where the real action was by being a musician on the bandstand: there was no segregation among musicians themselves. That enthusiasm triggered the likes of Cropper and many others to become musicians in the first place (Hugh Gregory: The Real Rhythm and Blues, London 1998, p. 7).
»It was basically black music but some whites like Cropper, Stewart and Dunn helped perpetuate the music,« reflects Booker. »They were outcasts for that in a certain way. I think they were either ostracized or admired. (...) Cropper is an innovator, Cropper was the first of his kind,« continues Booker. »I had not heard a rhythm guitar player play what Steve Cropper played. It's quite a phenomenon to be the first. There was nobody like Steve in the South that I knew of - black or white« (Vron Ware, Les Back: Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture, Chicago 2001, p. 246 f.)
When I came to Memphis and finally had my own radio, I used to listen to WDIA and at midnight they would play gospel music. That really turned me around. I mean I grew up in the church and heard a lot of a cappella music and stuff but I had never really heard black gospel and it just blew me away (Steve Cropper, quoted in Rob Bowman: Soulsville U.S.A. The Story of Stax Records, New York 1997, p. 21).

There are few persons around who haven't heard his music, yet few of them do know him: Steve Cropper. They probably didn't recognize him when he appeared with bushy beard and long hair in Blues Brothers. Steve (from Dora, Missouri) was session musician at Stax Records in Memphis and member of several instru- mental outfits: The Mar-Keys, Booker T & The MGs, The Bar-Kays. It has, hyperbolically, been said that Steve and his guitar are heard on 99% of all songs recorded at Stax during the 1960s, and it is but a small exaggeration.
The first hit which goes with his name was »Last Night«, in the summer of 1961, an instrumental of The Mar-Keys that still is known to almost everybody in our days. A short while after, in 1962, came the unforgettable »Green Onions« with Booker T & The MGs. (There is a nice recording of that song with Steve Cropper and Donald »Duck« Dunn from 2008, with superb sound!)

As a member of Booker T & The MGs (see the photo on the left) he already appeared on this blog. In the following years, during the 60s, Steve played on recordings of William Bell, Rufus Thomas, Albert King, Mable John, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd (»Knock On Wood«), Wilson Pickett (»In The Midnight Hour«), Otis Redding and Carla Thomas ... well, that list names more or less every hit singer whose name stands for the »Memphis Sound« of Stax ...

Steve was closely involved in the career of Otis Redding. He not only played at most of the latter's sessions, but also produced a number of Otis's songs (»Love Man«, »The Happy Song«). Together with Otis he was on the bandstand at the Monterey Pop Festival (June 17, 1967), and he played during the recording of Otis's and Carla's LP »King & Queen«. Eventually, he co-wrote with Otis's the mega-hit »Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay« and received a Grammy Award for that in March 1969. After the turn of the 70s he moved away from Stax when he founded his own label »Trans-Maximus (TMI)« in Memphis (the distribution deal was made, little later, with mighty Columbia). And this label was, for some years at least, a success story (cf. BILLBOARD magazine's Memphis Special, June 03, 1972).

Volt LP # 6006 (1969)
In fact, Steve Cropper during his time at Stax published only one album under his own very name. He entitled it aptly, for a seasoned session musician, »With A Little Help From My Friends«, taking on the Beatles-tune that is also present, in an instrumental version, on the album. The LP, on Stax's sub-label Volt (VOS-6006), hit the market in June 1969. It contains, little surprisingly, only instrumentals, among them some compositions of Cropper, but mainly cover versions of known songs (»In The Midnight Hour«, »Funky Broadway« etc.). Steve Cropper was involved in the production of all these songs when they were recorded by their respective singers for the first time.

The general opinion concerning Steve Cropper's art of guitar playing is unanimous, in that everybody considers him, with good reason, a genius of sorts. Yet he is generally not seen as a guitar virtuoso. On the contrary, he is famous for his reluctant, sparingly intrusive, almost spartanic way of guitar playing: Quite obviously he was trying, successfully, to reach maximum effect with few but immediately striking licks or subtle but crucial variations in rhythm. This approach made him the perfect session musician: His play never dominates, does not distract from the singer and never ever buries the vocal lead. This »spartanic« approach nevertheless succeeds in providing just the right dose of musical grounding for almost every song, making it, by adding seemingly little, truly rich. You can hear that on most Stax recordings of the epoch. Steve Cropper himself was (and is, I guess) fully conscious of his approach and described it in his words as follows:
»A lot of guitar players play more like piano players. They play the whole picture all the way. Then they'd throw in a riff here and there. Lowman [Pauling] mainly just noodled rhythm and then, when there was a hole, man he'd just come out loud and just give you this big slingshot. I think that really influenced me. I think that's probably what developed my style in doing sessions: listening for holes in the singer so the licks I play are as important to the melody as the melody is to the licks I play, where one flows into the other rather than me sitting there trying to play guitar and stepping all over the singer« (quoted in Bowman, Soulsville U.S.A., p. 22).

Steve's »spartanic« approach also succeeded when he played with instrumental outfits, not the least because Booker T.'s hammond organ was, in character, often near to a singing voice, with Steve's guitar providing the necessary counter-points. What is more, Booker T.'s songs were in many cases rather »spartan« in themselves, and this played just in the hand of Steve's guitar-picking fingers. Unfortunately, it does not always work out so fine on Steve's 1969 LP. The reason for this is that here his guitar takes the melody lead, in lack of a singing voice. And in this case Steve's play proves to be ... well, too spartanic for my taste. Of course, all songs sound very professional, played by truly gifted musicians, but they are lacking ... how I'm gonna say this? ... the fire. This strikes me the more, the more dominant the singing voice is in the original song that we find covered here, e.g. in »Funky Broadway«. In other songs, faster ones and those more based on the orchestration, you are likely to notice it less, e.g. in »I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water«. Whatever. Maybe I'm wrong, or unjust. In any case, the album contains some pretty good songs. Listen here:

Steve Cropper: »Funky Broadway« / »I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water« from the Volt LP # 6006 (1969):

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