Tribute records are a tricky things; star-studded tribute projects even more so. It takes a strong unifying voice, some central character beyond the featured composer, to save them from sounding like choppy compilations.
Steve Cropper, on today’s 429 Records release Dedicated, is that voice.
Co-founder of Booker T and the MGs, and a key sessions player and producer on a host of seminal soul records for Stax and Atlantic, Cropper had long credited North Carolina’s 5 Royales and their leader Lowman “Pete” Pauling with helping to shape his own sound and on-stage persona. So, the passion for this homage was there. But, more particularly, Cropper learned after a lifetime around big stars just when to assert himself.
That starts with the opening “Thirty Second Lover,” featuring a swooning bourbon tabernacle choir that just wailing away behind one Steve Winwood. Cropper doesn’t recede, instead playing with this boisterous, stinging wit. His riffs sound like gospel shouts, let loose as uncontrollable emotions well up.
B.B. King and Shemekia Copeland, daughter of the late blues legend Johnny Copeland, pour of dollop of good blues gravy over the call-and-response “Baby, Don’t Do It.” But check out Cropper, hitting a signature soaring high note, again and again, even as King sings with a familiar sorrow: “If you leave me, pretty baby, I’ll have bread without no meat.”
Delbert McClinton, putting away his harp, adds a growling vocal to the doo wop-inspired “Right Around the Corner.” John Popper, of Blues Traveler, accelerates through a fleet reading of “My Sugar Sugar.” Yet there is a consistency of tone that only a professional like Cropper could so readily achieve.
Nearly as important: More familiar cuts, like “Dedicated to the One I Love,” a late-period hit for the Mamas and Papas, get scuffed up by the likes of Lucinda Williams. (That song also features this lip-smacking group of swaying background vocalists that includes Keb Mo and Leroy Parnell. They return for “Say It,” with Bettye LaVette — who once reportedly dated Pauling’s brother — and “The Slummer The Slum,” with Buddy Miller.) Williams closes things out later on, with a stripped-down, howling rendition of “When I Get Like This,” sounding totally bereft as Cropper reaches to soul-deep depths.
Make no mistake. This is Steve Cropper‘s show, as evidenced by sharp instrumental turns on “Help Me Somebody” and “Think,” a Pauling composition that first sparked this young Memphis guitarist’s interest in the 5 Royales. Cropper also intertwines with a cross-generational intrigue alongside Queen’s Brian May on “I Do,” in what may be the album’s best-played cut.