When Billy Idol met Steve Cropper: ‘A long-haired chap came up to me’

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Billy Idol must have had some trepidation, meeting Steve Cropper after taking a Stax-era remake to the Top 10 in 1986. And not just because of Cropper’s justifiable legend. It seems Idol always thought “To be a Lover” was a reggae song by George Faith.

Originally performed, of course, as “I Forgot to be Your Lover” in 1969 by William Bell, the song was co-written by Cropper’s long-time MGs bandmate Booker T. Jones and featured Cropper himself on guitar. Revised with a new title, “To be a Lover” found its way onto Idol’s latest album when he decided to evoke some long-ago musical memories after a difficult breakup.

To that point, however, Idol knew nothing about Bell’s Bound to Happen album, only that Faith had done his own subsequent take — the liner notes even gave him songwriting credit, Idol says — alongside producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, who gave a reggae markover to the old R&B track.

Idol had already set about shifting the song toward a more soulful rockabilly feel before he ever found out its origins on Stax Records. Thankfully, that situation had been righted before Idol had a chance encounter with Cropper himself.

“After the ‘To be a Lover’ single came out,” Idol says in his forthcoming bio Dancing With Myself, “we played it at a party thrown by Dan Aykroyd’s brother Peter. At the party, a long-haired chap came up to me to tell me how much he enjoyed what we’d done with the song. It was legendary Stax Records guitarist Steve Cropper, who had played on the original version. He was a hero to all of us, so his liking our version was a great boost.”

The No. 6 finish for Idol’s “To be a Lover” was, to that point, his second-highest ever on the Billboard charts. A cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Mony Mony,” also from 1986’s Whiplash Smile, finally got him to the No. 1 spot, the following year. Dancing With Myself is due October 7, 2014 via Simon and Schuster’s Touchstone imprint.

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