Simply stated, guitarist Steve Cropper is one of the most influential artists within the entire realm of modern musical history. One need only glance at his list of credits to confirm that status. It begins with his work at Stax Records during the ‘60s where he was responsible for producing and playing on records by such seminal stars as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the M.G.s, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and Johnny Taylor. An original member of the Blues Brothers Band, he also had a hand in co-writing such enduring classics as “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” “Knock on Wood” and “In the Midnight Hour.” It’s also worth noting that he’s the “Steve” Sam & Dave refer to when they shout “Play it, Steve” prior to his famous riff in “Soul Man.”
While, Cropper’s played on countless recordings since leaving Stax in 1970—including those by John Lennon, Ringo Starr, John Prine, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Tower of Power, and countless more, he’s only been responsible for one actual solo album, With a Little Help From My Friends, released in 1969. There have been others that bear his name, including a pair of efforts with former Rascals keyboardist and vocalist Felix Cavaliere (Nudge It Up A Notch, 2008) and Midnight Flyer (2020), but his new effort, Fire It Up, is the first to give him a solo credit in over 50 years. Still, it’s something of a misnomer considering the fact that co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Tiven, singer Roger C. Reale and drummer Nioshi Jackson share prime credits in a line-up that also includes Cavaliere on keyboards on two songs and an array of all-star drummers that also take part, among them, former Bad Co. member Simon Kirke, Genesis’ Chester Thompson and Late Night drummer Anton Fig.
Consequently, Cropper is quick to eschew the notion that it’s a solo effort entirely, but he does provide another qualification. “It’s the first real energy dance record that I’ve made since the first one,” he suggests. “The intention was to get people to dance, and get them up and excited. And I think everybody’s ready for that after this lockdown. It’s a record you can boogie to.”
Given that idea, it does, in fact, mark a return to his roots, when soul, funk and R&B found young people streaming on to the dance floor and readily getting into a groove. It’s also the first in a long while to find Cropper’s songwriting credits on every track. The aforementioned solo effort, With a Little Help From My Friends, was, after all, an album consisting entirely of covers.
It’s also appropriate that Cropper enlisted Tiven for the project, given that their roots in early rock and R&B clearly coincide. Notably, Tiven was often found at the helm of recordings by Wilson Pickett, Don Covay, Little Milton, Bobby Womack, Alex Chilton, Arthur Alexander, and other artists that shared a similar sensibility. (Read our review here)
“We’ve been friends for a long time,” Cropper notes. “Jon has a studio in his house, and he had access to all these tracks. He was always putting horns on them or whatever we would use on them. I don’t have a studio in my house, but I don’t live very far away. He would call me and say, ‘I want to put this on the album,’ and he’d bring in different drummers at different times and had them play on it. However, Roger’s vocals were all done through an iPhone. It sounds like a $20,000 microphone, but it’s not. So he did his vocals remotely, and he wasn’t in the studio with us at it. In fact, he and I have yet to meet because of the pandemic. His picture had to be super-imposed on the album cover to show the four of us guys being together.”
For a musician known as much for his production skills as for his playing, Cropper is known to be quite gracious when it comes to giving the other players their say in the studio. Indeed, considering the shared songwriting credits and the loose-limbered approach, it’s evident there was a decided democracy in terms of the proceedings.
“I do my best to encourage that with everybody,” Cropper agrees. “Even if an artist is difficult, I’ve tried to bring them around psychologically, and they trust me to do that. I’ve been very lucky through the years. I don’t ever remember walking out on a session. Even going back to Otis Redding, he trusted me with his music. He trusted me enough that he’d bring his ideas to me and I’d help him finish them. And then I produced them in a studio and finish them up on my own. When he got back to the studio, he’d say, ‘Man, you did a great job on it.’ That’s why I wrote so many songs with him.”
Even with all his accomplishments, Cropper claims he never dwells on the past, but there are exceptions. “I look forward,” he insists. “I don’t like looking back. However, when I’m doing a show, I really never not play songs that I’m accustomed to playing and things that I’m noted for. There’s no way I can’t do ‘Midnight Hour’ and ‘Soul Man. It’s expected. And I have a belief that if someone is going to pay to hear you play, you better play something they know, You can’t just force feed them new music that they never heard before. You can’t just leave out the hits and play new stuff. I guess some artists have been able to get away with it, but not me.”
Indeed, Cropper recognizes that his past achievements have given him a high bar to live up to.
“When writing songs, number one, you don’t want to copy yourself,” he reflects. “And the other thing is, it’s hard to beat something that’s been successful. That’s why it’s very hard for a successful songwriter like myself to copy myself. It’s easier for somebody else to do it. And if they get inspired by one of my songs, that’s great. I hope it helps.”
According to legend, Beatles manager Brian Epstein allegedly approached Cropper about producing a Beatles album in the mid ‘60s. Obviously it never came to fruition, but supposedly Epstein did check out Stax as far as security was concerned. “I don’t think they pre-booked a session,” Cropper recalls. “But I thought that I had come up with the ultimate answer. I got them a great place to stay, a house that could be easy to watched over with an iron fence around it, and all the police could protect them and all that kind of stuff. I told Brian, ‘I could be wrong, Brian, but I don’t think in Memphis, you’re gonna get the same response that you’re getting anywhere else on the planet with 30,000 girls out there screaming to get their autographs.’ Then he called me and asked ‘Would you mind coming to New York to do the sessions?’ I agreed, but he came back again and said, ‘You know, they’ve gotten most of this album finished. Why don’t we just wait till the next one?’ Well, that never did happen. The album that was being completed was Revolver. I’m glad I wasn’t involved in that, because I might have had George play a little differently.”
That said, he did eventually have a chance to work with three of the four after they went solo. “Paul is the only one that I haven’t done music with,” Cropper concedes. “He’s said, ‘You and I have to work together.’ We keep saying that, but it’s never happened.”
Notably then, there is one artist in particular that he regrets never having had the chance to work with, Tina Turner. “I don’t know how she feels about it, but I would have bent over backwards. She was at the Record Plant when I lived in L.A. doing the music for the film Thunderdome. I never did go down to meet her though.”
Nevertheless, at age 79, Cropper can sum up his career succinctly.
“I’ve been good at being at the right place at the right time,” he reflects. “I put myself in that position. Whenever the right time comes, I’ll be there for certain.”