‘He did it the one time only’: How an ad lib changed everything for Steve Cropper

You hear it, roughly 1:15 into a No. 2 pop song from 1967, something that might never happen again.

Sam Moore, in the midst of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” offers an encouraging ad lib to Steve Cropper, who was nearby creating the song’s distinctive guitar sound with a lighter. “Play it, Steve!” would become an iconic element of that Atlantic Records smash and then a catch phrase that followed Cropper around from then on. He’d hear it repeated by the Blues Brothers, use the phrase as a 1998 album title and, eventually, appropriate “Play it, Steve” as the title for his web site, too.

“It was the third take of the song, and he just did it,” Cropper says of Moore’s exclamation, in a talk with Steve Gill. “And he did it the one time only, and that just happened to be the take. Maybe if the first take was a take, it wouldn’t have had it in there. But this time it did, so there we go.”

Fast forward almost five decades, and an off-the-cuff aside like that is increasingly rare. Performers aren’t prone to working through their parts of songs at the same time and, even if they were, something like that would probably be digitally edited out — making for, perhaps, a more perfectly executed version. Still, some sense of being in the moment is lost.

Cropper isn’t crazy about parts of the electronic revolution, but that hasn’t taken away any of his passion for studio work. He is just as engaged through that process today as he was back when the standard was reel-to-reel technology. “For me, going in the studio to record a session is like going to church,” adds Cropper, who’s set for an overseas tour beginning in October. “You leave everything outside, and you in there for the moment to do what you came to do. It’s just a safe haven to be in.”

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