“Play it, Steve!”: Top 10 songs featuring Steve Cropper's guitar playing

By Sergio Ariza

If Chuck Berry forever defined the sound of rock & roll with his guitar and Chet Atkins did the same for country, then we could say that soul guitar has Steve Cropper's DNA all over it. From his role as main session guitarist, composer and producer at Stax, his sound is a fundamental part of one of the most important labels of all times, with his economic and recognizable style, with country and R&B influences, he is one of the fundamental elements behind great classics by Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, his own group, Booker T & The MG's, besides the fundamental, Otis Redding, of whom Cropper was the discoverer and main composing partner. From Guitars Exchange we want to remember this excellent guitarist on the occasion of his 80th birthday by choosing our 10 favorite songs featuring his guitar. Of course, we could have chosen 10 Otis songs and left it at that, but we have preferred to limit ourselves to only one song per artist, to make this list more representative.   

Booker T. & the M.G.'s - Green Onions (1962)

This was the biggest hit of Booker T. & the M.G.'s career. The de facto Stax/Volt session band, who recorded this instrumental in 1962, sent it to the top of the R&B charts and number three on the Billboard charts. The thing is, the famous riff was composed by organist Booker T. Jones at age 17 but wasn't completed until he was waiting for a session for singer Billy Lee Riley- when he finally got to play it; and Cropper on his Telecaster, Donald 'Duck' Dunn on bass and Al Jackson on drums began to follow. Cropper is the second soloist and gives a lesson in his style where rhythm, licks and solos blend into one. The chemistry between the whole band is still magical almost 60 years after their original recording. The group continued to perform flawlessly for several years, with other classics such as Melting Pot, Soul Limbo and Time Is Tight.


Wilson Pickett - In The Midnight Hour (1965)

Jerry Wexler,
the man behind Atlantic, who had signed volcanic singer Wilson Pickett to his label, was in love with the Stax sound, so he took Pickett to Memphis and put him to work with Steve Cropper. Before the singer arrived Cropper got his hands on a recording of Pickett in his old gospel band, the Falcons, on which Pickett ended up singing something like "And sometimes I call in the midnight hour!". The guitarist liked that and started working on a song centered around it. When Pickett arrived they both locked themselves in a room at the Lorraine Hotel (the place where Martin Luther King would be assassinated three years later) with a bottle of tequila and came out with one of the greatest soul songs of all time. Their collaboration would go beyond this great song, with things like 634-5789 and 99 And a Half (Won't Do), where his Telecaster shines even more, but In The Midnight Hour is one of the songs that define soul as a style and it's impossible not to include it here.


Wendy Rene - Give You What I Got (1965)

One of the treasures to rediscover from the wonderful Stax factory is Wendy Rene, the one-time singer of the Drapels, who released a series of great singles for the label before retiring in December 1967, just in time to fall off the bill at the last minute featuring Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays, a tour that ended in tragedy with the death of the singer and six others after their plane crashed.
Her three best songs are After Laughter (Comes Tears), which Wu-Tang Clan would repackage years later for their Tearz, Bar-B-Q, on which she sounds like Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5 (that's right, four years before the emergence of the brothers from Gary, Indiana) and this Give You What I Got, on which Cropper's guitar caresses her delicate velvet voice. 


Don Covay - Sookie, Sookie (1965)

Covay is another Atlantic artist who Wexler paired with Cropper with magnificent results, and they composed together songs like See-Saw or this Sookie, Sookie that sounds like a direct precedent for Funk, proving that Cropper and the usual suspects, 'Duck' Dunn, Al Jackson, Booker T. Jones, Isaac Hayes and the Memphis Horns, are a direct antecedent of the sound that James Brown would invent.


Eddie Floyd - Knock On Wood (1966)

Eddie Floyd was hired at Stax as a songwriter and soon after joining he began collaborating with Cropper. Together they wrote several songs for Pickett and this Knock On Wood which was intended for Otis Redding, but Jerry Wexler heard the demo with Floyd's voice and convinced Jim Stewart, the president of Stax, to release it on his own. The song was a huge hit and solidified Floyd's career as a solo artist.
Unsurprisingly, the guitar playing is Cropper's Telecaster.


William Bell - Share What You Got (But Keep What You Need) (1966)

Bell is another of the great names that populated the Stax ranks. While his best known song is still You Don't Miss Your Water, also recorded by his good friend Otis Redding, Bell's career is full of other great songs like Everybody Loves a Winner, Eloise (Hang on in There), Private Number - or this Share What You Got (But Keep What You Need) in which Cropper shines again with his own light on the six strings, accompanying the singer to perfection.


Otis Redding - (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay (1967)

The relationship between Otis Redding and Steve Cropper is one of the most important between a singer and a guitarist in the history of music, on a par with that of Elvis and
Scotty Moore. They met in 1962 when Otis went as a driver of another band to Stax Studios; once there he begged for an audition but no one paid much attention. Finally Cropper told him ‘okay, sing something’. As the Georgia giant began to caress the first words of These Arms Of Mine, the guitarist knew he was on to something special and called the band back into the studio to record it right there. Since then their relationship was very special and Cropper's guitar - a special Telecaster tuned in open E because it was the one that best suited the singer's style - is the perfect companion of Otis' voice on milestones like I've Been Loving You Too Long, Respect, Mr. Pitiful and Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song).

But, undoubtedly, his most special collaboration was the latter. Otis had just triumphed in front of the white hippie youth of the Monterey Festival, so he composed a song inspired by them. In November, thrilled with the first draft he showed it to Cropper in the studio and said, "I think this is my first number one". Between the two of them they completed music and lyrics, recording the final take on December 7 with Cropper adding the memorable notes that seem to caress Redding's words. Not everyone in the company was happy with this change of direction, but the duo were convinced they had made their best song. Two days later Otis was back on the road, this time with the Bar-Keys. The next day they caught a plane to Wisconsin and an accident extinguished the voice of the king of soul forever.


Sam & Dave - Soul Man (1967)

A few months earlier, during the summer of love in '67, Cropper had featured on the recording of one of the emblems of soul. Isaac Hayes had written a song with lyrics that were an anthem of African-American pride but he felt there was something missing. So he talked to Cropper to see if he could come up with something as an intro. Cropper heard Soul Man, which was the name of the song, and felt totally inspired - he grabbed his Telecaster and looked for a zippo that was lying around to use as a slide, and the 'lick' that came out is the epitome of his style, austere and, at the same time, tremendously expressive. Hayes liked it so much that he decided to use it again in the middle of the song. When they recorded it Sam Moore, the lead singer, couldn't help his excitement - shouting a "Play it Steve!" that went down in history. When more than a decade later the Blues Brothers recorded their version, John Belushi didn't forget to pay homage to the guitarist who was part of his band either.


Albert King - Born Under A Bad Sign (1967)

Albert King had not had any luck until he signed with Stax in the mid 60's. Despite being one of the best blues guitarists in the world, he had spent several years without any success in the charts, playing in dive bars accompanied by Lucy, his legendary '59 Gibson Flying V. One day that famous guitar was lost and by the time this legendary song was recorded he was already using the ‘second Lucy’, another Flying V, this time a '66. The song was composed by Booker T. Jones, who also contributed the music, and William Bell, who added the lyrics, which fit like a glove to King's style - and life. Cropper plays the riff over which King's voice and guitar fly, proving that he knew when to step back to let a colleague shine.


Johnnie Taylor - Who's Making Love (1968)

Although things were never the same in Memphis and at Stax after the death of Otis and the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968, the great songs kept coming like this wonderful Who's Making Love by Johnnie Taylor in which the singer is accompanied by all of Booker T. & the M.G.'s plus Isaac Hayes on piano, with Cropper again mixing those funky rhythms with several wonderful licks.


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