Steve Cropper on the 5 Royales’ lasting impact: ‘Deserved more credit than they ever got’

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Like most artists who receive the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Early Influence Award, Memphis’ 5 Royales may not ring a bell for modern audiences. But Steve Cropper remembers them. In fact, he says everybody in his hometown did.

“I know in Memphis, we knew they were good,” Cropper tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “The 5 Royales deserved more credit than they ever got.”

That’s finally changing, as these mid-century pioneers — known for integrating gospel, blues and jazz with stirring vocal harmonies — will be honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 along with latter-day inductees like Joan Jett, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Green Day and others. The recognition is a credit, too, to a string of 5 Royales songs that became grist for the mill with the likes of James Brown, the Mamas and the Papas, Mick Jagger, Derek and the Dominos and the Shirelles, among others.

Steve Cropper himself compiled an all-star tribute album to the 5 Royales, gathering B.B. King, Brian May, Lucinda Williams, Steve Winwood to pay tribute to one of his key influences on a project titled Dedicated. In fact, Cropper has often credited 5 Royales guitarist Lowman “Pete” Pauling with helping to shape his early career, long before Cropper shot to fame as a guitarist and producer at Memphis’ Stax Records in the 1960s.

Steve Cropper would score a series of hits with Booker T. the MGs, even while working with greats like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas and Johnnie Taylor, while at Stax. Later, he helped launch the Blues Brothers band. Rolling Stone placed Cropper at No. 36 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and Gibson.com has named him one of the Top 10 sessions players of all-time.

Through it all, Cropper says, he didn’t gain a complete appreciation of the 5 Royales — that is, until he did a deep dive into their catalog while constructing Dedicated a few years ago.

“I didn’t know too much about them until we got into this album; I just knew the hits we had done,” Cropper tells us. “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.]”

Years later, the 5 Royales gave Steve Cropper another gift, too.

“How often do you get a chance to work on a project that people want to be a part of?” Cropper adds. “Immediately, when we said it would be a tribute to the 5 Royales, people got excited. We’ve had some interest by some people who said: ‘If you do a second album, can we be a part of that?’ It’s pretty amazing — especially when you’re talking about so many people with their own careers. For them to want to be a part of it? It was a thrill.”

The 5 Royales, originally based out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, saw their song “Dedicated to the One I Love” later covered by the Shirelles, and the Mamas and the Papas. “Tell the Truth” was redone by Ray Charles, as well as Derek and the Dominos. Both James Brown and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger produced cover versions of “Think.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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