Talking To...Steve Cropper

From the first Motown tour in 1965 to Public Enemy in the mid-80s and today's cutting edge hip hop acts, white British audiences have always been very receptive to the music of black America and 1967's Stax-Volt Revue was no different. I was barely nine months old when Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Arthur Conley, The Mar-Keys and, of course, Booker T & the MG's got on a bus and ripped it up, cementing their reputation as the cream of the sixties soul crop.

And how do I know this? Because Steve Cropper is telling me, that's how. Steve Cropper - the guy Sam Moore cries out to when he testifies "Play it, Steve" at the peak of Sam & Dave's landmark hit Soul Man. Steve Cropper is also the guy who completed Otis Redding's demo of (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay and created a lasting legacy for his great friend just days after the plane crash that killed him, the guy who anchored the Blues Brothers Band, who co-wrote Knock on Wood and In the Midnight Hour, guitar player in Booker T & the MG's, Stax house producer and all round Soul legend.

"The UK audiences were always very welcoming, they loved us man. But here's a thing, a lot is made of how the British bands listened to the R&B music of the 50s - Howlin' Wolf, BB King, Bo Diddley and all - but we all were influenced by The Beatles and the English brigade as well. If you listened to the radio at that time you had to be."

It's strange that a white English boy like Brian Jones or Paul McCartney hears that music, assimilates it and it comes up with the Stones or The Beatles; while Steve Cropper hears that music and pours his country heart into it; then Otis Redding picks it up and it's something else again.

"Well, I always thought that if you take Otis and his voice off those records, most of what I was doing sounds pretty country to me, but Otis couldn't help but make everything he did sound funky."

Steve is coming back to the UK for his third tour with the latest incarnation of The Animals, who with The Beatles spearheaded the so-called British Invasion on 1964. The Animals will open the show and play their hits, before bringing Steve out for the second half and tackling a set of Soul classics, including the inevitable Blues Brothers tribute (Steve was a founding member of the original Blues Brothers Band in 1978).

"I'm looking forward to getting back to the UK because I've missed those audiences. These days though we don't get over there like we used to, at least not since Booker T stopped working and the Blues Brothers thing died down. I understand that though because there's so many tribute bands and all - I joke we've been around long enough now to become our own tribute band!"

The impact of Steve and his Stax Revue cohorts on the UK's music scene is not to be underestimated. As Swinging London's glitterati scrabbled for tickets, it's tempting to see it as the capital's Mods bidding farewell to basement sweatbox Soul jams before embracing the Summer of Love and its lysergic shenanigans, but maybe the arrival of Otis et al actually ensured Caucasian British pyschedelia retained a funky edge often missing from that of its American cousin.

While in the north of England, many point to the tour passing through Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool as the seed from which Northern Soul was to flourish over the next few years.

Hindsight affords us the luxury of contextualisation, but at the time it was just a tour. I wonder if Steve met any of the great and the good.

"John Steel [The Animals' drummer and sole original member] and I realised we had a lot in common because we both formed bands in high school that went on to become something and through various twists and turns we're still here. We've had this conversation and neither of us can remember meeting back in the sixties, I mean we knew a lot of the same people, same musicians, but we never actually met at the time. I guess we were doing the R&B thing and The Animals were more pop and rock 'n' roll so our paths didn't really cross. We didn't really see The Who or Jimmy Page, or Jeff Beck, or any of those guys."

But Steve did go on to play behind the likes of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young… look it up, it's quite a list.

"Sometimes I lie there and I have to pinch myself to see if it's all real. You know, don't get to namedropping or thinking about all the people I've met or played behind. I have to get off that subject because it's endless!"

Is there anyone that you feel you should have worked with?

"I get asked that all the time and I have finally got a definitive answer - Tina Turner. I never got to meet or play with Tina. Of course, I did a bit with Aretha, not just in the film and on sessions, but back when we were both very young I backed her at some DJ conventions.

"I saw Ike and Tina Turner a few times and I met Ike and played with Ike, but I would love to have played with Tina. Still, my friend Tony Joe White played with her and he tells me she's well - he wrote that hit Steamy Windows, that's a pretty good song."



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