‘Will you give me my job back?’: Difficult early choice led to Steve Cropper’s Hall of Fame career

Steve Cropper had a once-in-a-lifetime chance, in 1960, to become a road warrior. Yet, even while riding the crest of attention afforded by a breakout hit called “Last Night” with the Mar-Keys, the former music-shop clerk knew he had a difficult choice to make. He could cash in over the course of a series of concerts, punctuated by endless highway hauls, or go back to his initial dream: Studio work.

What Cropper chose was a return to the friendly confines at Stax Records, and an opportunity to become one of the era’s key musical voices — as a sideman, a composer and producer. “We toured that whole summer in 1960 with the Mar-Keys,” Cropper says, “and a lot of those guys stayed out there. I don’t know what it was. I was drawn to the studio.”

That decision would lead directly to his tenure in Booker T. and the MGs, then his work with legends like Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett — and then on to a career that’s seen Cropper collaborate with the likes of Levon Helm, the Blues Brothers, Tom Petty and Ringo Starr, among countless others.

He’d need a bit of luck, of course. And Cropper had it: Mar-Keys saxophonist Charles “Packy” Axton’s mother was part owner of Stax — a label that grew out of a storefront where he’d worked as a kid in Memphis. “I said, if I come back home, will you give me my job back in the record shop?” Cropper remembers. Estelle Axton said yes, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career was born.

“So I quit the band,” Cropper adds, before stopping short: “I didn’t really quit the band, I quit the road. I loved being around the studio, and I loved being around the music business — and that’s how I first met Booker T.”

Speaking of studio work, Cropper is currently working with Duane Betts, son of Allman Brothers Band legend Dickie Betts. Plans are still in the works for solo summer concert dates, he says, but another UK tour with the Animals is already set for the fall. “The drummer is the original guy who started the group,” Cropper adds.

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