Chances are likely you’ve heard Steve Cropper’s guitar playing. As the house guitarist for Stax Records, not to mention also being the label’s A&R man, a producer, a prolific songwriter and arranger, and also an engineer – his talents were on virtually every recording made at Stax during the 1960’s. He also is a founding member of both Booker T and the MGs and the Blues Brothers Band.
Steve was born near Dora, Missouri in October, 1941. The family moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1950 and the nine year old who’d listened to country music all his young life now soaked up the R&B, soul, Gospel and early Rock and Roll that filled the radio waves in Memphis. He tried out an in-law’s guitar at the age of ten and got his very own guitar through mail order four years later.
He met and started playing with Charlie Freeman, another guitarist, and together they formed a band they named “The Royal Spades.” After numerous personal changes, the band was renamed “The Mar-Keys,” and they recorded an instrumental single, “Last Night,” which made cracked the Top Ten on both the Pop and R&B charts in the summer of 1961. Young Steve had made such an impression on Stax’s co-owner Jim Stewart that Stewart gave Cropper the keys to the studio when the guitarist left the Mar-Keys during their first tour. Steve became Stax’s A&R man and engineer.
In the late summer of 1962, Cropper was hired, along with drummer Al Jackson, bassist Lewie Steinberg and keyboard player Booker T. Jones, to back up a rockabilly singer. When the session ended early, the four musicians hung around and began jamming and Jim Stewart, who happened to be in the control room, turned on the machines and taped the session. The quartet liked the results so much that they wrote and recorded a second song, “Green Onions.” Later, Donald “Duck” Dunn would take over the bass dutire for the band. Booker T and the MGs, born out of these sessions, served as Stax Studio’s house band for close to ten years. “Green Onions” went on to reach Number 3 on the Pop Charts and Number 1 on Billboard’s R&B Charts.
Stax was home of many R&B and Soul artists and Steve’s guitar was soon being heard on records by Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Albert King, the Staple Singers and Otis Redding. He wrote or co-wrote many of Stax’s biggest hits such as “Knock on Wood,” “In the Midnight Hour” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” He also recorded his own solo album, “With a Little Help From My Friends” for Stax in 1969.
Steve started up his own studio in the early seventies and throughout that decade worked with many artists from all walks of music – John Lennon, Ringo Starr, John Prine, Hose Feliciano, Jeff Beck, Tower of Power, Poco and John Mellencamp (when he was still being called “John Cougar”).
In the late seventies he and Donald “Duck” Dunn became members of Levon Helm’s RCO All-Stars and then joined with Saturday Night Live comedians John Belushi and Dan Acyrod to form the Blues Brothers Band.
Booker T and the MGs were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. That same year they played Madison Square Garden for Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary concert, backing up a who’s who of musicians such as Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, Chrissie Hynde, Eric Clapton and Neil Young. Young enjoyed it so much that he had the MGs tour with him during the summer of 1993.
Cropper, Dunn and Booker T. also served as the backing band for Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2004.
Steve has been named one of the best guitarists by numerous magazines – coming it a Number 2 (behind Jimi Hendrix) in Britain’s Mojo Magazine. In addition to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. Steve is still very active on the music scene as both guitarist and producer and will always be considered by much of the world to be the epitome of the soul guitarist. When asked about Cropper, Keith Richards simply said, “Perfect, man.”