The guitar of soul

By Sergio Ariza

If soul music could only have one guitar, that would be the Telecaster of Steve Cropper, who plays on songs like Soul Man, (Sitting on) The dock of the bay, In the midnight hour, Knock on Wood and Green Onions; making our protagonist the guitarist with the most soul in history.  

Steve Cropper was born on 21 October 1941 in Dora, Missouri. His parents moved to Memphis when the young Steve was only nine years old and there he found the musical paradise of which he had always dreamed. Like all city boys he fell under the spell of the king, Elvis Presley, who had emerged from Sun studios. But his big influence did not come from rockabilly but ‘R&B’ with the guitarist Lowman Pauling, of the 5 Royales, a man who learned one of the most important lessons: that less is more. Also that elegance will always be associated with his style.

At 14 Copper got his first guitar but it was not until he was 19 that he got the instrument that he will always be associated with, the Fender Esquire. With that guitar he formed his first group, the Mar-Keys, with whom he would record his debut song at Stax, the well-known instrumental Last night in 1961. Once inside the company he became one of the session musicians of reference. There he met the organist Booker T. Jones and the drummer Al Jackson with whom, together with bassist Lewie Steinberg, he would form Booker T. & The MG's.


It all started off as a fluke, because the four of them happened to be waiting in the studio for a session when they started to 'jam'. The president of Stax liked it and seeing its potential as a single he asked them for another song to put on the B side. Cropper remembered an organ riff from Booker T, and the four of them started to play Green Onions, which became one of the most famous instrumentals in history, with Jones and Cropper playing solos over the excellent rhythmic section of Jackson and Steinberg. In 1964 the latter was replaced by Donald 'Duck' Dunn. Together they would become the studio’s main session band and they would give the record company their most recognizable sound. By that time Cropper was already employing a couple of Telecaster models.

In contrast to the sophistication of Motown, Stax had what was more like a raw and undomesticated sound, more like a group of musicians who met and recorded almost without overdubs, hoping for the magic to materialize in the studio. And that happened quite frequently with the organ of Booker T. smoking away and the Tele of Cropper adding the final touches to accompany the flower and the cream of 60s soul music: people like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Carla Thomas.

The most important meeting of Cropper’s life came in 1962 when Johnny Jenkins’ band came to the studio to do an audition. Cropper saw ‘a giant man’ climb down from the driver’s seat and start to unload equipment. He thought that it was a roadie, but once in the studio he realized that it was the band’s singer and, after a short while, that singer approached them to ask for his own audition. Steve sat at the piano and asked the singer what he wanted to play; he offered a chord progression and started. When the singer - Otis Redding - began to sing These arms of mine, Cropper noted that the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up, as he had never heard anything as exciting before in his life. He went running to the office of Jim Stewart, the head of Stax, and told him to come quickly and listen to this guy. It was 12 October 1962 and soul had found its definitive voice.

For the remainder of his career, Cropper would colour Redding’s songs with his guitar, and together they wrote some of their best known songs like Mr. Pitiful, Any Ole Way, Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song) and (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay. Cropper’s best moments can also be found in Redding’s work, such as his arpeggios and colours on I’ve been loving you too long, his 'bluesy' solo for Rock me baby ("play the blues, Steve!"), his beautiful intro for Ole Man Trouble and, of course, The dock of the bay.

Cropper had one of his Teles in an open-E tuning because it best adapted to the style of the singer. But he also had another ‘normal tuning’ for other songs at Stax, as his career went well beyond Otis, as he was one of the key figures in the company.  

When in 1965, Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Records’ strongman, arrived in Memphis to seek some of their magic with his protegé Wilson Pickett, it was to Cropper that he turned in order to give Pickett a song that would launch him on his way to stardom. Wexler locked both artists in a room at the hotel Lorraine with a bottle of José Cuervo and told them to “find it”. When they emerged they had written In the midnight hour. They recorded it the following day and the song came to define Pickett’s career, making him into a star. Wexler gave Cropper the task of writing more songs and, with Eddie Floyd, he delivered 99 and a half (won’t do) and 634-5789 to him in 1966. Of course his guitar was also part of that glorious sound, like the well-remembered riff of the fist one. That same year, during a storm, Cropper and Floyd composed another great classic of soul, Knock on wood for Otis Redding, but it ended up as a song that boosted the career of Floyd himself.

Stax came to represent the southern sound of soul, and the genre climbed up the charts and created great interest in the ‘white market’: if Motown sought to be Hitsville, USA, then Stax was Soulsville, USA. Steve Cropper was one of the company’s main composers and was behind a large number of recordings, not only of the big hits but also of less well-known tracks - but no less memorable - like Bar B Q and Give you what I got by Wendy Rene and the funky Sookie, Sookie by Don Covay.


After the success with Pickett, Wexler decided to do something similar with Sam & Dave, a promising duo who had been signed by Atlantic. The pair were taken to Memphis and loaned to Stax, in order to get the maximum potential out of them. This was achieved when they were assigned to the composing pair who substituted Cropper as the supplier of hits, Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Together with Hayes and Porter, Stax added its definitive weapon, the band that gave them their definitive sound, the MG's, with the Memphis Horns. Then came You Don't Know Like I Know, Hold On, I'm Comin' and the hair-raising ballad When Something is Wrong with My Baby. However the song that was going to become the emblem of the genre was recorded in the summer of ’67. Hayes had composed the lyrics as an anthem of Afro-American pride, but he believed it lacked something. So he spoke with Cropper to see if an intro occurred to him, Cropper listened to the song grabbed his Telecaster and looked for a zippo lighter and he used as a slide, the 'lick' which he played was 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 midddle of the song. When they recorded it Sam Moore could not hide his emotion, shouting "Play it Steve!", which remained there for history. When over a decade later the Blues Brothers recorded their version, John Belushi did not forget to pay homage.

As if that was not enough, from March 1966 to June 1967 the MG's provided a base for their dancable soul to rebirth the legendary Albert King, and together they recorded the best singles of his career, Oh pretty woman, The Hunter and the inescapable Born under a bad sign. Stax and soul were at the top of the mountain and that same summer their most sparkling star, Otis Redding, opened it all up to a new public, the hippies of San Francisco, thanks to his excellent performance at the Monterrey Festival. Accompanied by the MG's, who also played on their own, Otis dazzled the ‘peace and love’ generation. Influenced by the experience he wrote a song in which he changed his style and gave a hint of the possible marvels to come. In November, excited by the ‘first draft’ he showed it to Cropper in the studio and said to him, "I believe that this is my first number one ". They then both finished off the lyrics and music and recorded the final cut on 7 December, with Cropper adding the memorable notes that seemed to caress Redding’s lyrics. Not everybody in the company were happy with this change of direction, but Redding and Cropper were convinced that they had made their best record. Two days later Otis returned to the road, this time with the Bar-Keys. The following day they caught a plane to Wisconsin and an accident finished with the king of soul’s voice forever.

The outstanding period for Stax started to fall apart. The task of finishing the song and putting together an album for the market fell to Cropper. He added the sound of the seagulls at the start, as Otis had sung on the first take, and (Sitting on) The dock of the bay became Redding’s first career number one; the first posthumous number one record. Tragically in February 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated at hotel Lorraine in Memphis, the same place in which Cropper had composed In the midnight hour and Knock on wood, and the pan boiled over on the climate of racial tension that had always been simmering.

Booker T & The MG's, one of the first interracial groups in history, were being relegated little by little, despite the successes of songs like Time is High and Melting pot, and at the end of 1970 the guitarist left the company that had brought him fame. He spent the rest of the 70s producing records for people like Poco, Jeff Beck and Tower Of Power, besides playing and composing for people like John Lennon and Rod Stewart (listen to his incredible solo on Stone Cold Sober).
  In 1978 he received a call from the comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to form the Blues Brothers Band, which served to show a new generation the music that he had perfected at Stax. Two years later he appeard in the film that converted the Blues Brothers into global stars.  


At the start of the 90s Booker T. & The MG's were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1992 they were invited by Bob Dylan to act as a support act for his 30th anniversary concert that brought together Lou Reed, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, George Harrison and Neil Young at Madison Square Garden. That worked out so well that Neil Young signed them up as a band for his 1993 tour (in those years he had already left his Telecaster for a Peavey Signature). In 1996 Mojo magazine named Copper the second best guitarist in history, only behind Hendrix.

But all these honours do not really mean much. Cropper has always considered himself to be a team player, one of the best accompaniers in history, someone that has clear that it doesn’t matter how great you play if that doesn’t help the song; in his own words, “it is not about what you play, it is what you don’t play that counts”. He has always said that what is interesting about his style was that he heard the singer and it was this that transported and inspired him. It is clear that when that singer was Otis Redding, the magic sprang forth in a natural way. If Scotty and Elvis defined the sound of rockabilly, and Paco de Lucía and Camarón flamenco; it was Steve Cropper and Otis Redding that made soul music their own, for which reason they are, by right, their most remembered guitar and voice.