‘We were at the piano, banging it out’: Steve Cropper’s big break didn’t come from Stax Records

Steve Cropper’s Hall of Fame resume has at its foundation his work with Stax/Volt Records. Over the decades, he’s become synonymous with the label’s sound as a sideman, composer and producer.

But Cropper’s first published song, a squalling instrumental called “Flea Circus” written when he was still a teen, didn’t emerge from the familiar environs of 926 East McLemore Avenue. Instead, it was actually a few miles down the road at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, the home of legends like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and, of course, Elvis Presley — who would later return the favor, and record at Stax.

The story begins at the Memphis home of a school-age friend named B.B. Cunningham. “I went to B.B., and I said, I need to get a copyright on a song, and I want you to write the music for it,” Cropper says. “We were sitting at the piano, banging it out, and his dad came home and heard this. He said: ‘Hey, what’s that?'” The younger Cunningham explained that they were working on “Flea Circus,” and his father said: “‘That’s pretty catchy.’ He goes back in the bedroom, and he comes out with a wire recorder.”

Once the song was saved for posterity, “he took it down to Sun Records and played it for a guy named Bill Justis [a staff arranger, who’d previously his own No. 2 1957 hit with ‘Raunchy‘], and Sam Phillips signed my first publishing contract when I was barely 16 years old.”

“Flea Circus” would serve as a b-side to Justis’ third single, but by then Justis was shifting to studio work — while Cropper would soon become firmly ensconced at Stax.

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