The Steve Cropper Interview
The Master Song Craftsman and Rhythm King
By James Calemine
“He could play the guitar like ringin’ a bell…”
Very few musicians stand as an influential songwriter like Steve Cropper. Cropper served as the nucleus of the STAX Records empire. Cropper wrote a hit record at 16. By 19, he started a band that later evolved into one of the greatest bands in southern music history, Booker T & The MGs. Cropper collaborated with luminaries such as The Mar-Keys, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, Sam & Dave, The Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, The Staple Singers, Carla Thomas, Aretha Franklin, James Burton, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Beck and Levon Helm.
Cropper led The Blues Brothers Band across the globe many times. His studio produced numerous chart hits, and he’s well-respected among his peers. Cropper continues making vital music. His latest record Nudge It Up A Notch hits the streets on July 29. A soul album he recorded with Guy Sebastian went triple platinum in Australia, and will come out in the States early in 2009.
In this Swampland/Mystery And Manners interview Cropper discusses his early musical days, friendships, hit records, the fall of STAX, the tragedy of Otis Redding, timeless collaborations, backing Bob Dylan, touring with Neil Young, his latest projects and a few unknown facts about his icandescent musical journey. He’s one of a kind. It was a thrill to conduct this interview. Of course, we could have talked for days regarding his accomplishments and there were many more questions I wanted to ask, but this interview provides a clear insight into one of the world’s finest guitarists…and songwriters.
SC: Hello James…
Hello Mr. Steve…
SC: I was just calling you on your other line…
How’s it going?
SC: Pretty good.
You got a little time?
SC: I can take a little bit (Laughs). Tell me about Swampland…
Well, Swampland is a comprehensive field guide to the South. We cover music, literature, food, film, sports and news that can be weaved into a story about the culture of the country’s southern region. Of course, you play a vital role in southern music…
A few recent interviews of mine have been Charlie Louvin, James Burton, Charlie Musselwhite…Jim Dickinson…
SC: Yeah, I know some of those guys. Where are you?
I’m in Atlanta. You know an old friend of mine, Stanley Booth. He was a neighbor of mine in South Georgia. He made me a bunch of tapes of all your music about 22 years ago. He was around with you and Otis…
SC: Absolutely he was around. I remember him well. I’ve seen him since then of course. He’s a good guy. Good writer too. That’s great…
Well, let’s take a quick journey through your past. You were born in Dora, Missouri…
SC: Dora, (indelible accent) Mizzoura. Actually, if you want to be technical, I was born several miles from there in a little town called Willow Springs. We were living on a farm in Dora and what happened was my dad was over there doing something and he dropped my Mom off. I was about two weeks late of the predictions and he had business over in Willow Springs and he was going to drop my mom off over at my aunt’s and she went into labor while she was there. So, they got a hold of my dad and all that and there I came. When we were able, we went back to the farm, which was in Dora. Kind of like being born down the street…
Did you have a musical family?
SC: No, none whatsoever. I had one uncle by marriage that played piano and a little bit of fiddle. He had a guitar in his closet that he never played. I don’t know if it belonged to his uncle or somebody. He played country fiddle, piano and sang in the church. I used to get that guitar out and just play with it like a rubber band just to feel the vibration. That’s where I got the first taste that I liked guitar. Then I was taken to some shows and I got to see some good players. It inspired me a little bit—it was more country. I didn’t gravitate so much towards country, but it’s what I grew up on. I was ten years old when we moved to Memphis. That’s when I first heard gospel music. Of course, a little rock and roll too—but I heard gospel and it was ‘Wow’ what is this?
Charlie Musselwhite said Memphis radio…
SC:…was happening. I mean it was unbelievable. We didn’t have electricity on the farm. I was too young. My dad was in the Navy so we were stationed in Oakland. After he got out, he took a job in St. Louis for a while—but I was too young to remember any of that. So, at the farm, we didn’t have electricity until about 1948 so I would’ve been about 7 years old, and 8 before we had electricity and had the radio. I studied by coal oil lamps (Laughs). Mom cooked on wood and coal oil…kind of interesting.
You got your first guitar at 14, right?
SC: You got it.
SC: No, it was a Sears & Roebuck flat-top round-hole acoustic. It was about the cheapest one they had in there. I think it was $17. I told my dad what I wanted. He didn’t say he didn’t have the money—because he did—but he wanted to make sure I was serious. I mowed lawns, set bowling pins and whatever odd job I could do and save my allowance, which was about fifty cents a week. I saved up my $17 for that guitar. My mom loved to tell this story. She’d say, ‘Well, if it wasn’t for me he wouldn’t be a musician. She said when they brought it out—I waited all afternoon. I knew it was coming on a Saturday, and I waited all day. Finally the truck rounded the corner. She’d tell the whole story of them pulling that guitar off the truck in a cardboard box. Then they said there was a twenty-five cent delivery fee. I said, ‘Hey Mom!’ They wanted that twenty-five cent delivery charge. She said if she hadn’t lent me twenty five cents I would’ve never been a musician (Laughs).
I’m sure it didn’t take you long to figure out the instrument. Would you say very early you possessed an innate, god-given talent for the guitar? Or did you love it so much that it didn’t matter if you had that innate talent because you were going to play it anyway…
SC: I don’t think it mattered. The thing was I had seen a guy that I was older than me in high school—he was a senior and I a freshman—playing one of the school shows. A guy named Ed Bruce turned out to be a pretty famous country star and a TV star and all that sort of stuff. He had an electric guitar and he played a song called “Bo Diddley”—speaking of the late, great Bo Diddley. That was one of the first songs I wanted to learn. I went backstage, and I said, ‘Man, that was fantastic.’ I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember what he said—basically, I asked how did you learn to play like that? Really all he was doing was playing rhythm guitar—but it was just so cool. He said, ‘Well son—if you want to play like that you got to get a guitar and learn how to do it.’ So I did (Laughs). You just got to learn how to do it. So, I had some buddies that played…a great friend of mine, who’s no longer with us anymore—Charlie Freeman. He was already taking guitar lessons from a jazz guitar player. So, I would wait over at Charlie’s house with my guitar after school until he got home from his lessons. I’d be there on the front porch when he and his mom pulled up. He would show me what he learned that day. I’d help him because I’d play rhythm behind him playing. So we started a little band—that’s how it all started…the two of us doing songs. I was in the tenth grade.
What I was going to say earlier, when the guitar came out of the cardboard box, the bridge was not on really tight, but I had to get a book to learn how to tune it—it had the strings on it, so it had the gauge on it but I learned all that. I had a friend of mine that played a little guitar that tuned it up for me. I just started banging on it, learning it and I guess it stuck. But with Charlie, the first song I learned was Bill Dogget’s “Honky Tonk”. That was the song to learn in those days if you wanted to be a rock and roll musician. It’s funny that we all kind of passed it around and learned it in the key of E. Then we found out—by horns and all—we didn’t think too much in terms of keys because we weren’t piano players—we didn’t take piano lessons. When we had horns years later, they informed us, ‘You guys are in the wrong key because it’s in the key of F’ (Laughs), which is a half-step up, but so what. So what we used to do was learn the song in E the way we played it—learning Billy Butler’s licks and all that, then when the horns came in we would modulate to F. That’s the key the record’s in. But we were ready to go…
How far along from that did you and Freeman start up the Royal Spades?
SC: Well, that was originally Charlie and I and a friend of ours named Ted. He thought we were pretty good—he’d come over and hear us play and all of that. He said, ‘I’ve got this friend that’s a disc jockey and he ought to hear you guys play.’ In my opinion we were probably horrible by my standards today—I’m sure we were the worst. Anyway, we went down and they guys name was Keith Sheriff. He was originally from Canada and he was a disc jockey in Memphis and had a great show that all the high school kids and everybody listened to…he played a lot of the teenager records. So, he told our friend to bring us down to his show. I think he came on in the evenings…at 7 o’clock or something. I remember going down there to the station. We went and introduced ourselves. He said, ‘Well I’m in the middle of my show’. He said ‘Why don’t you guys take your guitars and set them up out there—is it just the two of you? We said, ‘Yeah’. So he said set up and that he had a microphone out there. He said, ‘during my show, when I’m playing records I’ll open the mic up and when I point to you and you guys start to play. I had a Gibson and Charlie had a Fender Telecaster.
Two classic tones…
SC: Typical. So, he pointed and we started playing. After we were finished, he said, ‘You guys come on in here. You guys are pretty good.’ About that time, the phone rang from the request line. He said, ‘What do you boys call yourselves? I said, ‘What are you talking about? Oh, uh, well, we’ve been playing as the Royal Spades.’ That’s because we played poker. So, anyway, somebody heard us and what we didn’t know the DJ liked what he heard and he hit a button and he put us out on the air. All of a sudden the phone started lighting up with people calling in—‘Who are these guys? They’re pretty good.’ I didn’t know what was going on. We were barely 17. So, he said, ‘Do you guys have a band?’ And we said no. He said, ‘I do these sock hops every Friday night’. We were like--we know. He said if you guys get a drummer and a bass player I’ll put you on my sock hop. So we started looking through school asking around and we could not find a bass player anywhere. So we found this kid in the 9th grade—Charlie and I were already in the 11th. We found this kid that played drums—his name was Terry Johnson. He’d been taking lessons. His daddy had a country band—a three or four piece country band and Terry played drums with his dad’s band. He said why don’t y’all come over to rehearsal one night. We did and we played some country stuff. We started working with Terry and so we called Keith and said we had some stuff worked up and he said, ‘Okay, I’m going to put you on the sock hop.’
We played at the Memphis National Guard Armory—that’s where they used to keep the Memphis bell—the one they made the movie about. We played that sock hop with two guitars and a drummer (Laughs). It went over pretty good. Then Duck Dunn wanted to play guitar and we tried to teach him a little bit, but he was a little slow on it. He didn’t catch the licks as fast as Charlie and I did, so he was a little frustrated and I tried to help him a little bit. Then he didn’t show up for a while. Then he shows up and he’s got a bass. He was the bass player from then on. We had two guitars, bass and drums. We called ourselves The Royal Spades.
In the Memphis backdrop—all this music was happening…Elvis…Rockabilly…The Blues…
SC: Absolutely. Elvis. Jerry Lee. Carl Perkins. Of course, Johnny Cash had already been through there--all these different guys that Sun Records was recording. The next step in how it all transpired was real simple. This kid came up to me in school one day and he says, ‘Hey, I hear you guys got a pretty good band. I’d like to join your band.’ I said, ‘Well we’re not looking for anybody. We’re pretty happy with two guitars, bass and drums—we’re not looking for anybody, but what do you play? I thought he might be a keyboard player. He said, ‘I play saxophone. I said, ‘Oh well, we’re not looking for any horns. So, I was just curious—‘How long have you been playing?’ He said, ‘I’ve been taking lessons for three months. I said, ‘Really (Laughs)’ Then he said his uncle had a recording studio. Actually it was his uncle had some recording equipment in his garage. I said ‘Could you show up at rehearsal? We rehearse every Saturday morning at 10 o’clock at our drummer’s house.’
He shows up. We started playing something…there were some pretty good records out—I think Bill Justus we knew from Dick Clark, and I had written a song he did on the flipside of his third release. So, when I was 16 I had a flipside of a number three record in the nation.
Not many 16 year olds can say that in the last 70 years, or longer…
SC: Yeah, it’s kind of weird. Anyway, Packy turned up at the rehearsal.
The incredible Packy Axton…
SC: He turned out to be a half-decent saxophone player. Charles “Packy” Axton. His mom and Jim Stewart wanted to advance the recording studio. He thought we were terrible, and I’m sure we were. He was a country fiddler and he had a pretty good ear, but he thought we were awful and would never make it. Mrs. Axton mortgaged her house and borrowed the money for him to buy this new property to build a bigger studio. She wanted a record shop. So she put a record shop in the front of the studio. We used to go out there on weekends—usually on Sunday when there wasn’t anything happening and rehearse, play and record our songs. Like I said, Jim never thought we would amount to a hill of beans—I don’t think he wanted us to, but because Mrs. Axton’s son is in the band she kept pushing us. When this opportunity came she wanted to move closer to town anyway because we were out in Brunswick, Tennessee, and she didn’t have many customers out there. They got this opportunity to take a lease on this theatre where STAX was and where the museum is now. So they did whatever they could do or had to do with the bank because Jim worked at the bank—he was able to figure things out. We went over there and started to help build that studio. I remember Packy and I on weekends we were down there knocking bolts in those theatre seats. We helped with the baffles, curtains and all that sort of stuff.
By then you had your own sound. Were you listening to many blues records?
SC: Very few blues records other than Jimmy Reed. I love Jimmy Reed. I listened to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and of course Billy Butler with the Bill Dogget’s band. We loved that stuff. I got influenced by some jazz players from Tal Farlow to…you name it. The guy that really influenced me—a guy that played guitar for The Five Royales—was Lowman Pauling. Duck and I got an opportunity to go to a show they played. We were underage, but we figured out how to get in there. And we got to see Lowman and the Five Royales and man that changed my whole life. That was it for the rest of my life. He had this long strap hanging down to his knees—much like when Chuck Berry let’s his strap off and plays down by his knees and dances across the stage. Lowman was doing it, but he had this long strap. And I thought man that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I could not wait to get home and put two belts together and made me a long strap (collective laughter). I played that way forever. There’s a picture of me playing after we had “Last Night” in 1961 at the Royal Peacock Lounge in Atlanta with my guitar between my legs. That’s my logo for the Play It Steve Record (laughs). That was the summer of 61, so I was still 19.
That’s when the MAR-Keys started up.
SC: Well, the story I just told we were on tour with “Last Night”. The Mar-Keys kind of happened before that. Very simply—we came up with the song that Chips Moman’s piano player Jerry Lee “Smootchie” Smith—he went by the name of Smootchie and was a helluva piano player. He’s still alive today and he’s great. He came up with this little riff, and so Packy and I went into the studio with him and we came up with the “Last Night” riff. So, Chips Moman heard it and he thought it was a hit, and he heard Smootchie play it and anyway he put together—with our trumpet player—Wayne Jackson. I just did a session today with Wayne Jackson playing on a T.G. Shepard record today that he’s doing with a whole bunch of people like Engelbert Humperdinck, B.J. Thomas, George Jones, Maurice Gibbs, Delbert McClinton—it’s going to be a helluva record. Anyway, that’s what we were doing this afternoon. But it was Wayne and Gilbert Caples. Floyd Newman and Packy Axton played on “Last Night” and of course Don Nix played on the road. It was the three of them—Wayne, Don Nix and Packy—Chips didn’t want a guitar on it. I don’t know why, they always said I didn’t play on it because there was no guitar, but if you listen to the record, you’ll hear a sustaining whole note—a C note—that’s being sustained during the organ solo and I was the one holding that note down. When it came time for the organ solo, I’d hold that note down. So, I was on the record.
How long was it during all those sessions that Chips Moman left STAX? It wasn’t too long…
SC: No, it wasn’t too long. Chips was a really good writer and a really good guitar player, but he wanted so desperately to be an engineer and a producer. I’m not sure because Jim Stewart really wanted to engineer—he did Green Onions and a bunch of other things. Stewart did about half, and Chips did about half of it. I don’t think they came to an agreement on some things—I don’t know if it was over money or whatever—but Chips just said one day, ‘That’s it. I’m out of here.’ That was okay. That was fine. He started American Records and he did quite well. Chips has one of the greatest ears in the industry. He cut all of B.J. Thomas’ hits…Neil Diamond and Elvis—you name it. So Chips went the op route, and we went the R & B route. That’s kind of the way it is. He had Neil Diamond and we had Otis Redding. He had Joe Tex, and we had Sam and Dave.
You were the nucleus there at STAX…
SC: Yep, young kids that basically were forced on the system because nobody else wanted to work for that cheap (Laughs). When it came time to sweep the floor up or came time to put up tapes or whatever it was, I didn’t mind doing it. I was there to volunteer.
Where was Charlie Freeman at this point?
SC: Charlie elected while we had the band…Charlie had been moonlighting a little bit playing with this guy named Macy Skipper. Basie was from a little town in Arkansas and Sam Creason (The Dixie Flyers) a very famous drummer who’s no longer with us anymore either. Charlie was in that band so he started playing with them from time to time. Macy Skipper—I think I got that right—and maybe Charlie Hines, but it seems they got an offer to go tour and do some stuff in Canada. Charlie elected to do that. All of a sudden that leaves us short of a guitar player, and my old buddy—we started the band together. By then we already had horns so we had a good singer and a keyboard player, bass, drums and so for a while we did it that way—we continued on and Charlie was still out there somewhere when we did “Last Night” so he was still out there somewhere when we did “Last Night” so he wasn’t in on that.
When did you first meet Otis Redding?
SC: I first met him when he first came up with Johnnie Jenkins and the Pine Toppers from Macon, Georgia. They had a little bit of a hit called “Love Twist”, which made some noise. Atlantic and their manager—he might have known Phil Walden but I don’t think Phil actually booked Johnnie Jenkins—maybe he did—but anyway through Atlantic and Jerry Wexler and they all thought since we were so well known for hit instrumentals that they’d bring Johnnie there and give him another hit instrumental. Otis was his singer—we didn’t know that at the time. I thought Otis was his driver because he’d drive up in front of the studio, get out of the car, go to the trunk and started getting amps and microphones and all that. I walked over and said, ‘Hey you don’t need to bring in microphones and all that. We’re a recording studio—we’ve got our own mics. He was bringing the stuff in like they were setting up for a gig. He just looked at me kind of dumbfounded. We all set up. Then we had the band there for the session.
During the session Al Jackson came to me, and he said, ‘You know that guy drove the car that came in with Johnnie? I said ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘Man that guy’s bugging me to death.’ I didn’t see this going on. He said, ‘Every time we take a break and y’all go into the control room to listen, this guy comes over and he’s driving me nuts to hear him sing. I keep saying I don’t have anything to do with that—Steve Cropper is the guy to talk to. We’re busy right now, but I’ll ask Steve.’ So he mentions it, and I said, ‘Well, if we have time after the session I’ll listen to him.’
So, after the session, Al came to me and said, ‘You told me you’d listen to this guy. You got time?’ I forgot about it, and I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ Everybody’s breaking up their equipment and leaving so we can pick up the next day. I said, ‘Bring him down to the piano.’ I said, ‘What do you do?’ Otis said, ‘I sing a little bit.’ I said, ‘Do you play piano?’ He said, ‘I play a little gut-tar, but I don’t play piano.’ He said, ‘Give me some of those church chords’—he meant those triplets—dut-dut-dut. I started playing in the key of B Flat. Otis started singing “These Arms of Mine”.
I went ‘Holy Moly’. The hair on my arm stood up about four inches. I looked around at everybody and said, ‘Somebody get Jim Stewart in here right now (Laughs)! I said, ‘Jim, listen to this guy.’ Jim said, ‘We got to put that down’. Duck said I came out—all these guys had night gigs so they had to go home and leave the session at a certain time. They probably went onstage around 8 o’clock or something. Anyway, we get Duck on bass, Al Jackson on drums, Johnnie Jenkins on guitar and I played piano—we recorded “These Arms of Mine”. The next day ay 11 o’clock, instead of cutting Johnnie Jenkins—we cut the flipside of “These Arms of Mine”. I think it was “Hey Baby”, a Little Richard kind of thing.
You’ve worked with Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, Aretha Franklin, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, but Otis was really the big one.
SC: Yeah, we were so successful with Otis that Atlantic decided…it was Jerry Wexler that asked me if I’d heard of Sam & Dave, and they had them come in. Wexler asked, ‘Have you heard of these guys from Florida?’ I said no. He brought them in and it was an instant click. They’d been out there for a while. They’d been trying to get a hit record without any luck. Wilson Pickett didn’t have any real luck. He sang with the Falcons on “I Found a Love” that was a pretty big record but they couldn’t get any real rock and roll going on it. So Wexler brought him down and we sat in a hotel room all night long and wound up with “In the Midnight Hour”, “Don’t Fight It” and “I’m Not Tired”. All three of those songs went up the charts at different times, but we cut all three of those songs the next day, and all three were hits.
Wilson Pickett reminds me…did you ever cross paths with Duane Allman?
SC: I did not, unfortunately. Duane died before I really knew who he was, but Gregg I’ve seen many times. I’ve done shows with Dickey Betts, and we’ve hung out.
The STAX compilation they released last year proves a formidable collection. Many of those songs you played on.
SC: Yeah, it was at least a couple of artists a week. We’d cut for two days—mainly in those days we didn’t have to worry about projects so much. We didn’t worry about cutting ten or fifteen sides—we just worried about cutting two or three singles. You’d cut two of your best songs and then you’d cut a couple of back-ups. You might cut four songs. Usually it was three song sessions. Out of that you would pick which one would be the single, and then you’d have two to pick from as the flipside.
Things happened at STAX at a pretty fast rate. At what point did Otis want the MGs as his full-time band?
SC: We did a STAX/Volt tour in 1967 in the month of April and May, and that was prior to the Monterey Pop Festival. So they had Frank Fenter and Phil Walden through Atlantic-Europe set up this tour. I was under the impression—I think this is true—I don’t really know for sure that Otis had been over there just for a little bit and he had a major following in England. So we realized he was so much bigger in Europe than he was the States because we were never able to get him off the R & B charts—it just hung in that region and that’s about where it was. We could never really break Otis into pop. He was R & B. Of course, after his death everyone knew who he was and then of course “Dock of The Bay” came out. Then it’s all over with, and it’s too bad that didn’t happen when he was around.
So, we decided to take the band over there because we could do this package. So there you had Booker T & The MGs, The Mar-Keys…we’ve got “Green Onions”, “Last Night” and all these other hits. There we are backing Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Arthur Conley and we had a pretty good tour going. The feeling was—it was so successful—we get back to the States and Otis was like ‘I don’t think I can work with my band again. I’ve got to have you guys.’ We were saying ‘Otis you can’t have us—we’ve got too many artists we’ve got to provide music for and we’ve got to get back to the studio. We’ve been gone now for four weeks and its nuts because everyone is waiting.’ Of course, the other thing was everybody came back with a totally different attitude. We all left equally as guys that wanted to play and we go over to England and the fans all make us superstars. We came back with this attitude that we’re greater than thou. Then all of this bickering started—‘I’m this and you’re that…I don’t want to produce staff anymore…I want my name on the record’…and it just went into havoc. I have always said when people ask me what was the reason STAX went under. What was the demise? Well a lot of it was business and all that, but it started they day we broke up the production pool.
That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. The day we broke up that team that all worked together for the same purpose. The day we broke that up was the day we started going down hill. We still had a lot of success. Right after that I think I was nominated as producer of the year because my name was on seven records on the charts. That’s a lot. It was a neat thing to get, but still it changed. Then we split up as a band—as a backing band because we all had these responsibilities to these other artists. Also, the timing was so bad because Atlantic decided they were going to sell and make all this money from this corporation in New York and they didn’t want us to be part of that finance—they didn’t want to split any of that money. They cut us out of the deal. There we were making all these hits for Atlantic Records—if it hadn’t been for us they wouldn’t have got the deal in the first place. They can take that to their grave—most of them are gone anyway except for one or two that’s still left. But that’s exactly what happened. There was always bitterness about it. Jerry Wexler—God bless him—I love him to death. And Jim Stewart—he was a mentor to us and it was heartbreaking when they didn’t include us in the deal. They reneged on Sam & Dave…they said they owned all the master tapes and we didn’t. They left us high and drive. We had to start all over from scratch. So, they owned all the past masters on everybody and all of a sudden we’re sitting with nothing.
So then we made a deal with Paramount—we weren’t going to do it and then Jim Stewart said we really need to and we had to work a lot harder. We signed with Paramount. The industry was changing and all of a sudden instead of making hit singles, like we had been doing for eight or nine years—they stuck us right in the thick of things and they wanted us to make all of these albums. So Booker had to make all of these albums, Isaac and David had to make albums…and Al, Duck and myself had to make albums. So, instead of working on two or three songs for an artist—I was working on ten to twelve songs for an artist. It was a work load that was totally uncomfortable. I think a lot of music suffered. We still had good songs—a lot of great songs came out of that. There was a lot done. Like I said, we had a lot of chart records, but in the long run I think it started downhill.
A hard lesson…a warning for all aspiring artists…
SC: When you break up that team—one guy doesn’t win a basketball game or football game. I don’t care if he makes the last 3-pointer in overtime—how did he get there? It took a whole bunch of other guys playing together to get him to that shot. Otherwise, they would have lost. That’s what I’m saying—that guy may get all of the glory, but takes teamwork. I’ve always preached that. I’ve had more people say, ‘Do you think that STAX wave could ever be duplicated?’ Probably not. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but those conditions are gone. It will never happen like that again.
Was “Dock of The Bay” one of those last great sessions?
SC: Well, a lot of people like to think it was, but “Dock of The Bay” was cut during the last recording sessions of Otis, but it wasn’t the last great session. We’d had that thing in the can for a couple of weeks. We talked about what we were going to do with it. Otis and I both felt it could use some background. I was producing the Staple Singers and I wanted to get them to come and sing on it, and Otis thought that was a great idea, but we didn’t have time to do that, and I ended up putting ocean waves on it and seagulls.
I don’t know even if it’s important. I know what the last stuff that was cut. Most of it was done by Ronnie Capone, me and Otis. We cut a song called “Champagne and Wine”, we cut another one called “Direct Me”, and another one called “Ton of Joy”. I think we did another version of that with the band as well. There was a lot of recording going on. The last time I saw Otis, he popped his head in the control room and I was setting up to do guitar overdubs on some stuff we cut and also “Dock of The Bay”. Otis said, ‘I’ll see you on Monday.’ I said, ‘We got a gig tomorrow night.’ That was Friday afternoon he was leaving on a plane to fly up to Nashville to do a show. That’s the last time I ever saw him. He had three shows—Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights—one show at a college in Indianapolis. I believe we did a show with the Isley Brothers and Jimi Hendrix was playing that show.
I remember we were sitting on the runway at 7 o’clock the next morning—all iced in and we couldn’t fly out and we had to wait. Duck and I looked at each other and said if we could get a hold of—I think his name was Dick—Otis’ pilot, he could get us out of here.' Little did we know, they were already going down…
It’s sad. And we missed the flight. We got into Indianapolis, but we’d already missed our connection to Memphis so we had to wait for the next one. David Porter was singing with us in those days when we did colleges—we didn’t have enough instrumentals to do a whole show so we carried David to sing. So David said ‘I’m going to go call my wife and let her know we’ll all be on the next flight and when we’ll get in.’ So he comes back white as a sheet, like he’d just seen 900 ghosts. We asked him what was wrong. Was he sick? He said, ‘My wife just heard on the radio that Otis’ plane went down and he died.’ That’s how we found out--Sunday, about mid-day.
An end of an era…Let’s skip ahead a bit. You’ve got a new record coming out.
SC: Yeah, it’s coming out July 29.
It’s called Nudge It Up A Notch…
SC: That’s right.
Oh, recently I got an email requesting I ask you about touring Australia with Guy Sebastian. Last year a soul tribute album went triple platinum in Australia, but it won’t be out in the States until early 2009.
SC: It’s a great record. Guy has been in town since about a week ago to write and we’ve written a couple of things. I’ve had him writing with Blue Miller, David McClowskey and Joanna Cotton. I don’t know who else he might write with because I’m leaving for Paris tomorrow with The Blues Brothers. I’ll be gone for a couple of weeks. Guy has to be back on July 9, so he can only stay a few more days.
Nudge It Up A Notch has a different sound…it’s not what people might expect. But your playing sounds unmistakable. Felix Cavaliere is on it…
SC: It’s interesting. We started most of the writing at Jon Tiven’s studio in Nashville. Some of the things we finished were at my studio and some of it we finished in Felix’s studio. We mixed it at a place called the Sound Kitchen with David Z. I think we made a pretty decent record. We didn’t start this to make a record—we started it just to write some songs and have some fun to see where it would take us. We just kept going…we were having so much fun. All of a sudden, we’re looking at each other and we’ve got 8 or 9 tracks. We felt like we should just keep going and turn it into something. Then we got it and we said are we going to finish this or what? So, Felix took it home and started working on a lot of the vocals. Some of the ones he wasn’t comfortable with…but somebody—Concord or Tiven—why don’t we turn these into instrumentals? So in the final hour that’s kind of what I did—I went in for some overdubs and made them instrumentals and put two or three on there. Originally, like a year or so ago—before we really thought about shopping it, we thought we’ll just put it on the Internet and if people want to download it—great, we’ll do it that way.
When Concord decided they were going to activate the STAX label, John Tiven knew one of those guys there and I was not familiar with anybody, but I knew what was going on with STAX and the museum and all that. They wanted to re-activate the old STAX label. I thought, ‘How interesting is that?’ They asked me what I thought, and I said, ‘It’s kind of like Hurry up and wait. Let’s wait and see. If they can pull it off I think it’s a great thing if it can happen. If they do it with the same passion we did it with, it might be successful.’ There are so many young ears out there; they’re not going to know what the STAX label is…if you’re just going to make another record label, you’re just going to be in competition with everybody else. If you try and keep it rooted music that is the way we made music years ago…not this polished merchandizing crap.
Before I let you go, I’m going to throw out a few names…
SC: Okay. Go…
SC: A good friend. I think the peak of our relationship probably came during his birthday celebration. On his 50th Birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden—I think Duck and I played on 27 different songs. There was more in the show, but we played on 27 different songs (Laughs). It went by like a rocket. We were just tossing chord changes and go on to the next song. What came out of it was pretty good. We’ve always been fans with Bob. We never really worked with him. He came to us. We were playing in Europe and he came backstage, and he said, ‘Hey, they’re going to celebrate my 50th birthday and I’d like the MGs to be my back-up band.' We said give us a call and he did. We decided to do it and we had a lot of fun. That really got us.
SC: It’s funny. The first time we met Neil was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and we did Bob’s “All Along the Watchtower”. They called and asked for permission to release that as maybe a single for airplay and we said fine. Duck and I were on tour in Australia with the Blues Brothers when we got the call from Booker and he said, ‘I talked to Neil’s manager Elliot Roberts and he said this is what Neil is offering and here’s when he wants to go out on the road. He wants us to go out to his ranch and rehearse for two weeks.’ That was in January or February of 1993. We started the tour that summer. Duck and Booker later did a record with Neil (Are You Passionate?), but I was on tour with the Blues Brothers.
SC: A great friend. What can I say? I used to see Keith more often when Belushi was still alive because he would hang around in New York and he came to the club. They had a blues bar in New York and we used to go down and Keith was there. He’s always said nice things about me. He’d be a close friend if he was around more. I just don’t see him much these days.
SC: I first met James Burton on Shin-Dig in 1965. I’ve got a picture of two skinny guys out back at ABC Studios where they filmed that and I found out he was from Shreveport, which made him a southern boy. I knew he played great. Then we lost contact for a few years and then all of a sudden he shows up as Elvis Presley’s guitar player. James was playing with Ronnie Tutt—we were pretty close friends. Tutt’s fantastic. I have a lot of respect for James Burton. To me, he’s family—he’s like a brother.
What did you think of The Black Crowes’ version of “Hard To Handle”?
SC: They threw it off time by half a beat, but that’s okay. We did a show with The Black Crowes in Norway at a festival. I always thought they were good—they had a lot of passion and a lot of energy. They did a good job. Anytime I hear a remake of a STAX song and it does well, I’m a happy camper. Most people don’t know that Duck Dunn’s son—Jeff—was the Crowes’ sound guy for a tour. They not only had a passion for the sound, but they had someone who grew up with the sound on the road with them—that can never hurt.
Well, I only have about another thousand questions to ask, but I know you’re pressed for time…duty calls…
SC: If you have any more questions just call me. I leave for Paris tomorrow and I won’t be back until July 15—we’re playing France, Italy and Spain with the original Blues Brothers band that’s been playing for 20 years. They’re killing me (Laughs).
Well, Godspeed out there Steve. You’re a hero to a lot of folks…
SC: Thank ya man.
We’ll cross paths again…
SC: Okay James. Have a good one. I appreciate it bud…