‘This is something I could really get into’: Steve Cropper on the often-forgotten influence of bluesman Jimmy Reed

As a youngster, long before he became known as one of the cornerstones of the Stax sound, Steve Cropper was listening to the likes of Lowman “Pete” Pauling and the 5 Royales and, of course, to Elvis Presley. Anyone who has followed Cropper’s career — up through a 2011 tribute album to the 5 Royales, simply titled Dedicated — has likely heard the stories.

What’s been far less talked is the impact that bluesman Jimmy Reed had on a career that saw Cropper serve as a key collaborator with the likes of Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Felix Cavaliere, Sam and Dave and very nearly countless others, all while notching hits of his own as a member of Booker T. and the MGs and then the Blues Brothers Band.

“Oh, yeah,” Cropper tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! interview. “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.]”

As for Pauling, the influence there was more in terms of style and approach. In fact, coming at the music from such a young age, Cropper says he didn’t know all that much about the 5 Royales until he began preparing for the sessions surrounding Dedicated.

“I just knew the hits we had done,” Cropper says, adding that he wasn’t the only one. “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 finding 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.”

Cropper is set to join the Animals for a UK tour later this year. He’s also done some recent studio work with Duane Betts, son of the Allman Brothers Band’s Dickie Betts.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso