Nick Churchill Talks To Soul Legend Steve Cropper

Written by Nick Churchill
  • font size decrease font size increase font size
  • Print
  • Email

From the first Motown tour in 1965 to Public Enemy in the mid-80s and today's cutting edge hip hop acts, white British audiences have always been very receptive to the music of black America and 1967's Stax-Volt Revue was no different. I was barely nine months old when Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Arthur Conley, The Mar-Keys and, of course, Booker T & the MG's got on a bus and ripped it up, cementing their reputation as the cream of the sixties soul crop.

And how do I know this? Because Steve Cropper is telling me, that's how. Steve Cropper – the guy Sam Moore cries out to when he testifies "Play it, Steve" at the peak of Sam & Dave's landmark hit Soul Man. Steve Cropper is also the guy who completed Otis Redding's demo of (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay and created a lasting legacy for his great friend just days after the plane crash that killed him, the guy who anchored the Blues Brothers Band, who co-wrote Knock on Wood and In the Midnight Hour, guitar player in Booker T & the MG's, Stax house producer and all round Soul legend.

"The UK audiences were always very welcoming, they loved us man. But here's a thing, a lot is made of how the British bands listened to the R&B music of the 50s – Howlin' Wolf, BB King, Bo Diddley and all – but we all were influenced by The Beatles and the English brigade as well. If you listened to the radio at that time you had to be."

It's strange that a white English boy like Brian Jones or Paul McCartney hears that music, assimilates it and it comes up with the Stones or The Beatles; while Steve Cropper hears that music and pours his country heart into it; then Otis Redding picks it up and it's something else again."Well, I always thought that if you take Otis and his voice off those records, most of what I was doing sounds pretty country to me, but Otis couldn't help but make everything he did sound funky."

Steve is coming back to the UK for his third tour with the latest incarnation of The Animals, who with The Beatles spearheaded the so-called British Invasion on 1964. The Animals will open the show and play their hits, before bringing Steve out for the second half and tackling a set of Soul classics, including the inevitable Blues Brothers tribute (Steve was a founding member of the original Blues Brothers Band in 1978).
"I'm looking forward to getting back to the UK because I've missed those audiences. These days though we don't get over there like we used to, at least not since Booker T stopped working and the Blues Brothers thing died down. I understand that though because there's so many tribute bands and all – I joke we've been around long enough now to become our own tribute band."

The impact of Steve and his Stax Revue cohorts on the UK's music scene is not to be underestimated. As Swinging London's glitterati scrabbled for tickets, it's tempting to see it as the capital's Mods bidding farewell to basement sweatbox Soul jams before embracing the Summer of Love and its lysergic shenanigans, but maybe the arrival of Otis et al actually ensured Caucasian British pyschedelia retained a funky edge often missing from that of its American cousin. While in the north of England, many point to the tour passing through Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool as the seed from which Northern Soul was to flourish over the next few years. Hindsight affords us the luxury of contextualisation, but at the time it was just a tour. I wonder if Steve met any of the great and the good.

The impact of Steve and his Stax Revue cohorts on the UK's music scene is not to be underestimated.
"John Steel [The Animals' drummer and sole original member] and I realised we had a lot in common because we both formed bands in high school that went on to become something and through various twists and turns we're still here. We've had this conversation and neither of us can remember meeting back in the sixties, I mean we knew a lot of the same people, same musicians, but we never actually met at the time. I guess we were doing the R&B thing and The Animals were more pop and rock 'n' roll so our paths didn't really cross. We didn't really see The Who or Jimmy Page, or Jeff Beck, or any of those guys."

But Steve did go on to play behind the likes of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young... look it up, it's quite a list." Sometimes I lie there and I have to pinch myself to see if it's all real. You know, don't get to namedropping or thinking about all the people I've met or played behind. I have to get off that subject because it's endless." Is there anyone that you feel you should have worked with? "I get asked that all the time and I have finally got a definitive answer – Tina Turner. I never got to meet or play with Tina. Of course, I did a bit with Aretha, not just in the film and on sessions, but back when we were both very young I backed her at some DJ conventions.

"I saw Ike and Tina Turner a few times and I met Ike and played with Ike, but I would love to have played with Tina. Still, my friend Tony Joe White played with her and he tells me she's well – he wrote that hit Steamy Windows, that's a pretty good song." For many British Soul fans though there's one name that stands out above them all. Otis Redding was never allowed to sully his reputation by making a dodgy disco album in the mid-70s, or turning out a lightweight hotel lounge cabaret act for rich tourists, or succumb to drink or drugs. Otis Redding remains frozen in time, his sweat drenched brow atop tight shut eyes, a mic in one hand, the other extended towards the audiences as he implores it to Try a Little Tenderness, or confesses I've Been Loving You Too Long, or offers These Arms of Mine.

It's a question Steve Cropper has fielded a thousand times before and he's gracious enough to do so again for my benefit. What if Otis had been spared? "I used to get to wondering what might have been had Otis lived. What I do know is that he would have been king of something. If Aretha is the Queen of Soul, then Otis had to be King. Where that left James Brown or Little Richard I don't know, perhaps they're the architects, but Otis would have been King.

"He was a country boy from Georgia and I was a country boy from Missouri, growing up on the farm, in the outdoors. Otis and I were like brothers. I mean, really that close. The funny thing is I didn't find out for years that he and I were the same age – he just always seemed older to me. He had this streetwise thing, didn't matter if we were hanging out in New York or hanging out in Memphis, he just seemed to be older than me. "His sons, Dexter and Otis III, are still working and Dexter sounds a lot like Otis did, so I reckon Otis would have gotten old but he still would have been singing, that voice would not have diminished with age. It happens that way sometimes, I was working with Roy Orbison right up until not long before he passed away and he still sounded as good if not better than ever."

The songs Steve co-wrote, played on and produced are like public property now, part of our human DNA – and he's still working."People come up to me and ask if I'm still writing, of course I'm still writing, I've always been writing – not sure people get to hear them though. "I guess it gets harder to get airplay when you're older, even the Stones and those guys have to live on their concerts. Guys like Jimmy Buffet, James Taylor, even Neil Young, they're still playing and writing great songs but they struggle to get airplay.

It comes down to age rather than the quality of the songs, but if you like an artist and you pick up an album and you get to looking at the songwriting credits you might come across a Steve Cropper from time to time." We hear the influence of those songs all the time, but I wonder what makes them the songs they are and renders most of the countless covers as nothing more than pale imitations.

"Well, you got to have the energy, that real live energy. Even if it's recorded in the studio, you have to have that energy of everything being played live. When we used to record, like with Otis or whoever, we'd have the horns played live and all the instruments, vocals, everything, that's where the performance comes from and you just don't have that performance these days.

"Oh, everything might be all beautifully played and perfectly recorded and separated out, but it's fragmented, you know. It doesn't have that power. "Then I ask the kids who listen to the garage bands why they like it and they say they have to hear the imperfections to know it's real. They like it a bit out of tune then they know it's a real band, but in my day we had to be real and be good and be in tune." Real good and in tune... sounds like a pretty good summary of the genius of Steve Cropper.

Nick Churchill

Coloured Photos of Steve Cropper, used by kind permission of Alan White.

The Animals and Friends with Steve Cropper Tour

22: Rock City, Nottingham
23: University of East Anglia, Norwich
24: The New Morning, Paris, France.
25: The Stables, Milton Keynes
26: The Assembly Rooms, Islington, London.
27: The Great British Rock and Blues Festival, Skegness.
28: O2 Academy Glasgow.
29: Hall for Cornwall, Truro.
30: Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne.
31: The Robin 2, Bilston.
1: The Picture Dome, Holmfirth.
3: The Grand, Clitheroe (live recording).
5: The Cheese & Grain, Frome.
6: The Cavern, Liverpool.
7: The Astor Theatre, Deal.
8: Town Hall, Ripley.
9: Alnwick Playhouse and Arts Centre.
10: Gala Theatre, Durham.
11: The Box, Crewe.
12: Cardiff Globe.
13: Civic Theatre, Doncaster.
14: Corn Exchange, Kings Lynn.
15: Theatre Royal, Winchester.
16: Cranleigh Arts Centre.
17: Platform Theatre, Morecambe.
18-19: Bilbao, Spain.

Read 5185 times Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 15:18
Rate this item
(0 votes)
Nick Churchill

Nick Churchill

About Us

ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..


What We Do

ZANI is an independent online magazine for readers interested in contemporary culture, covering Music, Film & TV, Sport, Art amongst other cultural topics. Relevant to modern times ZANI is a dynamic website and a flagship for creative movement and thinking wherever our readers live in the world.