Something Else! Interview: Steve Cropper, of Booker T. and the MGs

Steve Cropper, a seminal soul figure and guitarist in Booker T. and the MGs, pays tribute to childhood musical heroes the 5 Royales with Dedicated, set for release on August 9.

Cropper, who has often credited 5 Royales guitarist Lowman “Pete” Pauling as a key influence, shot to fame as a guitarist and producer at Memphis’ Stax Records in the 1960s. There, he’d score a handful of hits with the MGs, even while working with greats like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas and Johnnie Taylor, among others. Later, Cropper helped launch the Blues Brothers band. Rolling Stone placed Cropper at No. 36 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and Gibson.com earlier this year named him one of the Top 10 sessions guitarists of all-time.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Steve Cropper delves into mythical Memphis sides like “Soul Man,” “Knock on Wood” and “Dock of the Bay,” among others.]

Dedicated, Cropper’s initial release for 429 Records, shines a new spotlight on the 5 Royales’ interesting 1950s-era melding of gospel, jump blues and doo wop — alongside an all-star cast. It’s long-overdue credit for the Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based band, which has had a largely underappreciated impact on rock music: Their “Dedicated to the One I Love” was also later covered by the Shirelles, and the Mamas and the Papas; “Tell the Truth” was redone by Ray Charles; and both James Brown and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger produced cover versions of “Think.”

Cropper, in the latest SER Sitdown, talks about key influences on his sound — from the 5 Royales to Jimmy Reed — memorable moments from his time with the MGs, and how a last-minute delivery charge almost derailed his legendary music career …

Nick DeRiso: Your now-familiar stabbing style of guitar on Booker T. and the MGs’ great, greasy hit “Green Onions” is a road map for what became the dominant style of soul playing. But where did the song’s name come from?
Steve Cropper: A guy named Reuben Walker was the DJ on WLOK during drive time. I took the song down to him, and told him I wanted him to hear what we’d cut. It didn’t have any title. He listened to it, just the intro and the first part of the verse — and he immediately put it on the air. He ended up playing it four times a row. People were calling wanted to know what that was. Everybody was calling about the song. The phones were lighting up, there and at the record store where I worked at the time, but it didn’t have a name. Lewie Steinberg (the MGs’ original bassist, before longtime member Donald “Duck” Dunn took over) said: ‘Let’s call it “Onions,” ‘cause that was the stinking-est music I’ve ever heard!’ I thought, well, onions are negative: They make people cry; they give you indigestion. But people like green onions; you always have them on salads. There you go.

DeRiso: Is it true that the MGs were originally named after the car, but the company didn’t want to be associated with an R&B group — so you said it stood for Memphis Group instead?
Cropper: That’s what we kind of heard later. The lawyers said they are not going to sign off on it. We thought, what do we do? The original concept was so simple: There were all these bands with car names, like the El Dorados. We had our own band at Stax, the Triumphs. It went on and on. We thought, innocently: The MGs. They shot us down. But we didn’t want to change the letters. Duck, through the years, backed that up by saying it stood for ‘musical geniuses.’ (Laughs.) I don’t lay claim to that. I’ll give that to Dunn.

DeRiso: The 5 Royales were one of those groups that never got its due, despite having been covered by everyone from the Shirelles to Ray Charles, James Brown to Mick Jagger. You’ve always cited Pete Pauling as a key influence, though. What impacted you so much, beyond the obvious showmanship?
Cropper: I didn’t know too much about them until we got into this album; I just knew the hits we had done. We had played all of them as a high school band. It was really fun studying the music, though, getting into it. What we kept funding out, as we were doing the changes, I would start hearing a song from the 1960s. Not meaning to bust anybody, but I could tell where they got their songs. (Laughs.) I know in Memphis, we knew they were good. The 5 Royales deserved more credit than they ever got.

DeRiso: At the same time, I hear a strong influence of Jimmy Reed in your core sound. Did he impact you, as well?
Cropper: Oh, yeah. I thought, at one time, that I might be able to sing. I started out doing some Elvis stuff. Charlie Freeman, a good friend of mine, we started a little thing — right when I was really studying to learn the guitar. It was just two of us. I sang and did the rhythm part. About that time, I got into Jimmy Reed, and I thought: ‘This is something I could really get into.’ I learned after a while, though, that I wasn’t going to be a good enough singer. We had to start looking for singers. (Laughs.)

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Booker T. Jones' new album 'The Road From Memphis' shows how the sound that he helped shape in the 1960s has continued to resonate across the decades.]

DeRiso: The new Dedicated album ended up becoming an all-star affair, with Steve Winwood, Lucinda Williams, Queen’s Brian May, B.B. King and others featured. Was that the original intent?
Cropper: How often do you get a chance to work on a project that people want to be a part of? Immediately, when we said it would be a tribute to the 5 Royales, people got excited. We’ve already had some interest by some people who said: ‘If you do a second album, can we be a part of that?’ It’s pretty amazing — especially when you’re talking about so many people with their own careers. For them to want to be a part of it? It was a thrill.

DeRiso: Does that translate into a big summer tour?
Cropper: My touring schedule was mostly booked before we talked about this album. I’ll be going out with Blues Brothers in July, then doing some Stax stuff with Eddie Floyd at the end of the month. We will do a promotional show in New York on Aug. 14 for the people at the Lincoln Center. But most of the people on the album are already on tour, as well. After the New York show, I will leave for another tour with the Animals. I went out with them a couple of years ago, and they’ve been begging me to go back out. It’s a whole lot of fun.

DeRiso: Speaking of the Blues Brothers, with the original edition, I always got the sense that Belushi and Aykroyd took the music very seriously — despite how much fun they were clearly having on stage. They were clearly real fans.
Cropper: In the early days, a lot of the press reported that John and Dan were making fun of the music. Duck and I read that and said: ‘What? We couldn’t make fun of our music.’ We had to do some interviews and let them know how serious they were. Dan studied hard to learn how to play harmonica. John had been a rock and roll drummer long before he became famous as comedian. It ended up being one the best collections of blues musicians I’ve ever seen. We had to keep this music alive, to educate a younger generation on this music. Soul and blues and jazz, those are the greatest staples that the American people have invented. But there’s more to it than that. Eddie Floyd (now a touring member of the Blues Brothers Band) and (the late Stax drummer) Al Jackson, they told me a long time ago: It is also about entertaining people. You are not going to be interesting to people just standing up there. They can hear that on the radio. You’ve got to get them swinging and swaying with you.

DeRiso: Moving from Missouri to Memphis as a youngster must have been a dramatic change in your musical life. Surrounded by gospel and the earliest blossomings of rock and roll, you got one of those 17-dollar Sears and Roebuck flat-top acoustics. Is it true you mowed lawns to save up for it?
Cropper: You hear those stories over and over again, of parents disciplining their children — saying ‘you keep playing music, and you will be bum.’ My dad never did that. Instead, and I always gave him credit for it, he said: ‘Son, learn how to play, and we’ll buy you a guitar.’ And we did. I waited all morning for them to finally deliver that guitar. They showed up with it in a box, but there was a quarter delivery charge. I had exactly 17 dollars saved! My mom gave me the money, but she always said: ‘If I hadn’t lent you that quarter, you’d never have been a famous.’ (Laughs.)

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • skeletonpete

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for great interview with Steve. Here’s a link to photos and coverage of The Stax Show at Highline Ballroom, NYC on June 26th.

    http://skeletonpete.com/?p=1226

    Enjoy.

    Pete