Interview of Steve Cropper by Monica Yasher

Posted on 7/28/2010 by Monica Yasher

You can just hear John Belushi going "Steve Cropper" on that "Blues Brothers" CD.  Can't you?  Steve Cropper has been known to be a great performer.  And, he shares with us his love of performing and the fans calling out his name.  He also shares his passion for making a great song in the studio, and the joy of hearing it on the radio.  We find in this interview that he actually did it all at Stax Records, from the smallest of jobs to handling legalities for the label.   

And, of course, there's his songwriting.  Steve shares that he is one of the lucky writers that had nearly all of his songs on an A or B side of a record.  His songwriting credits include great hits such as:  "The Dock of the Bay", "Knock on Wood", and "The Midnight Hour".  He still thinks it's pretty cool to drive down the highway with the radio on and hear one of these songs come up.  We find ourselves meeting up with Steve to talk about his new CD with Felix Cavaliere, "Midnight Flyer".  And, you know what else?  I found out what Steve's nickname is.  He calls himself Crop.  Bet you didn't know that!

Monica: Steve, there are so many things that I wish to talk to you about. Your history, your playing, your songwriting…I love to talk about songwriting.

Steve: He laughs. So do I. I was waiting for you to ask me if I still write. Well absolutely I do. There’s only one difference. I can’t get it out anymore.

M: Why?  No time?

S: Well, I get it out of Felix. It just seems that there doesn’t seem to be a demand for it, though people talk about it. Kind of strange. I don’t know how to turn that all around. I write when there is a project. There is no need to write just to write.

M: Why not?

S: I don’t believe in stockpiling a bunch of stuff. I guess…at Stax. What word would I use. I wouldn’t call it jaded. I just got used to just about everything we wrote was released. As a B side or an album side or something. So there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff just laying around. I’ve been in Nashville 23 years...40 years and I have written a whole lot of songs that nobody has ever heard. This thing that we are doing with Felix. There are a few more songs, than the last one, that I did on this one. I think it’s coming along and I think the songs are worthy. Every time we do one, I think, God I wish I would have had that one 25 years ago. You can’t get the airplay that you used to. It’s tough.

M: Just out of curiosity, I didn’t hear how you and Felix met in order to do this project.

S: What had been happening was that Felix and I were part of a group called Northwest All Stars. That started out as a band that was put together for Ringo. Northwest Airlines Vice President of Communications put this band together to do promotional items for frequent flyers or different functions through the year. During that duration of four years, we did 21 shows for Northwest.

Felix and I were on stage a lot. Somebody said that you two should get together and write something. You are from different parts of the country, but you are sort of in the same genre. That sort of good feel music. Good dance music. That sort of thing. So we said OK. The whole project sort of started...we got together at my house and started to write something. And, we did. And decided to meet again the following week. Boom. Here we go.

As it progressed, we turned them into real songs and real records rather than finished demos. We sort of thought to go for it. We presented some of the stuff to Concord, and they were revising the old Stax Label, and somebody down there said, “Let’s go for this!” So we did it. And, I guess it did well enough chart wise and interest wise that we had to do it again! So we obliged them!

M: Why not, huh?

S: We love doing it. It’s fun. You can’t make a record for just making a record, because it just doesn’t do much. And CD’s don’t sell much. That’s part of the nature of the beast these days. Plus you’re selling a couple of old guys. I don’t think we are dinosaurs yet. We’re not going to get the immediate airplay that you are going to get with these young stars out there. The record company has their work cut out for them to sale this thing. We’ve done what we can do.

M: Well I’m trying to help you out a little bit.

S: There you go. The last one did pretty good.

M: To Felix using the computer technology was a blast to him. He also shared that it was all new to him. Was it new to you as well?

S: I wouldn’t say totally new. No. I’ve been working with engineers and protools and programs. The whole idea for me was to not make it sound computer driven…to make it sound as natural as possible.  The other trick is this, we used a timekeeping loop. We put on real bass and drums. All the music is pure. The technology makes it easier than in the old days. This was fun. You can take a piece of music and make something out of it. You don’t have to call the whole band in again and keep recording.

M: I read a quote that you said something like the basics of a good CD was a good song. The basics of a good song. Knowing you were using the computer, how difficult was it for you to get to the basics of a good song?  Was it challenging through computer use?

S: I think the same basics are still applied. I don’t do anything different than I did fifty years ago. I start with a guitar riff. It’s all about the riff. We get the basic music.

A lot of writers start with poetry and then find a title. I start with a title first.  One that really means something and then I have to come up with a verse. I have to come up with something for that.

Musically I come up with the music. I write down titles, and look to see if I have a title for the feel of that music that fits. With today’s technology, we pass the lyrics around via email and tweak it. And, say here’s an idea and arrive at it that way. We cut it and agree to it or not agree to it. It’s a good effort and a lot of fun. Most of those decisions in the old days were made on the spot because you didn’t have tomorrow. Nowadays you can let it hang it around for a week or two and try different tempos and play with it.

M: Are you under the belief that a good song is under 4 minutes?

S: Ah not necessarily. There are a lot of great songs over 4 minutes. "Sexual Healing" was probably my number one pick. In the 60’s we were forced, because of advertising, to keep songs under 3 minutes. It had to be under 3 minutes. There are many many times that the engineer and I had a song that had 3:01 or 3:02, and we wrote 2:59 and they played it.

The neat thing for me is, when you have a song that is 2 min 30 seconds, and it feels like you have listened to an album it’s so good. You get so much performance...and so much get an intro... and a great performance of a singer, a great hook and a super bridge or great solo. You go that was so cool and ask how long was that and you go about 2:35.  What?   I feel that I have been listening to that for 30 minutes. That’s the difference of a really, really good song and a mediocre song.

M: You have done so much in your life with who you have taken the stage with, with your songwriting, your producing. Do you feel pressure to do constantly well? And, I am going to use the word constantly. Do you feel pressure?

S: No. In the early days I did multiple jobs because there wasn’t anyone around to help. Or there wasn’t any money to hire anyone, if that makes sense. So I swept floors and cleaned the place up. I edited tapes. Made up the session contracts. I made sure lead sheets were made on the songs, and files were made to the government. I did all of it. I had a secretary. But, I was in charge of getting it done.

M: Do you prefer anything over something else?

S: It’s hard to say. The biggest question that I get asked is, "Do you prefer performing live or in the studio?".   It’s a toss up. Nothing can really take the place of being on stage and performing and having people yelling for you and clapping. That’s what you miss in the studio. In your mind you have to create the fact or scenario that there is a crowd watching you on the other side of that microphone.  There are millions of people listening to what you are doing. It isn’t like you are getting away with something. It’s not like you are behind a closed a door. You are going to get caught, and you better make it right this time.

I enjoy both so much. I really enjoy making records. That magic performance of someone and going, "Man that’s it!"  And, then it’s still fun going in and overdubbing it, or tweaking it, or mixing. It. I have fun doing all of that. The biggest fun I have is when I hear something I’ve done recently on the radio. Something that I have recorded or produced in the last year or so. That’s the most fun I have in making music. When I hear something I’ve done 40 years or so ago, it’s great and exciting to have a song on the radio. That’s cool. To really get excited, it would have to be a new song.

Steve has a lot of interesting things to think about in songwriting, such as what makes the difference of a great song and a mediocre song.  The importance of recording with the idea in your head that the crowd is really big, though no one is there.  I thanked Steve for his music and we said goodbye.   It sounded like he had a houseful of family to get back to! 

You might also like to read Felix Cavaliere.
Copyright © 2010 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.

Photographs used by permission of Concord Music Group.

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