Steve Cropper has long been known as an acclaimed songwriter, guitarist and record producer. He was a founding member of the classic band Booker T. & the MGs, and he co-wrote their instrumental hits “Green Onions” and “Time Is Tight.” Most notably, Cropper co-wrote several of the greatest R&B/soul hits of the 1960s, including “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding, “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett, and “Knock On Wood” by Eddie Floyd.
Impressively, Cropper has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
Cropper’s songs and his distinctive guitar playing helped create the Memphis soul sound of the ‘60s. As the guitarist for Booker T. & the MGs (which also served as the house band for Stax Records), he played guitar on many hits for Redding, Pickett, Floyd, Sam & Dave (including the hit “Soul Man”), Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and Johnnie Taylor. Cropper’s guitar playing is so identifiable and connected to the soul/blues sound of the ‘60s, that he was later recruited to join the famed Blues Brothers Band, which starred in the hit movies The Blues Brothers (in 1980) and Blues Brothers 2000. Notably, Rolling Stone magazine ranks him 39th on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time.
Cropper’s three biggest hits—“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “In The Midnight Hour” and “Knock On Wood”—are soul standards that remain popular, even 50 years after these songs were written. “[Sittin’ On] The Dock of the Bay” in 1968 was a #1 hit for Redding (following his tragic death from a plane crash), and became a hit again in 1987 when Michael Bolton recorded the song. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” has also been covered by Bob Dylan, Cher, Glen Campbell, Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson and Sammy Hagar.
“Knock On Wood” was not only a #1 R&B hit for Floyd in 1966, but it became a bigger hit for pop/disco artist Amii Stewart, whose high-energy dance version reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1979. “In the Midnight Hour” became soul legend Wilson Pickett’s best known song, and it has been covered by Tina Turner, James Taylor, Roxy Music, Tom Jones, the Jam, the Young Rascals and the Righteous Brothers.
Now based in Nashville, Cropper has remained very active, continuing to tour and record. For the past three decades, he has toured in the U.S. and internationally with the Blues Brothers Band. This summer (in 2018), he will be launching a new tour with veteran rock artist, Dave Mason (formerly of the band, Traffic, and hit solo artist).
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Steve Cropper. He tells how he got started as a guitarist and joined Booker T. & the MGs, and how he co-wrote his classic songs.
DK: In the early days, how did you start playing guitar and decide to become a musician?
Steve Cropper: I picked up the guitar because a lot of my buddies had done that in school. My uncle was a piano player and fiddler, and he had a guitar in the closet, and I used to get it out and thump on it when I was around 8 years old. I wound up with that guitar, and that guitar is now on display at the Musician’s Museum, and noted as the first guitar that I ever played which I think is interesting.
Here’s a video of Otis Redding’s #1 hit “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of
the Bay,” which was co-written by Steve Cropper.
DK: When you were in Memphis, were the Mar-Keys your first group?
Cropper: Yeah, that was a group out of high school, and we formed that group around the 11th grade. It started with another guitar player friend of mine and a drummer. So it was two guitars, drums to start with. And then Donald “Duck” Dunn came around, and he was having a little trouble learning guitar. But he came around with a bass one day and he was automatically in the band (laughs). So there we were…we had two guitarists, a bass and drums and we were on our way.
DK: How did you get started at Stax Records and later join Booker T. & the MGs?
Cropper: Stax Records was run by Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton. A friend of mine at school played saxophone, and Estelle was his mother. She and Jim had a studio, and they formed a label that was originally called Satellite Records. But when they found out that there was already a label called Satelllite, they came up with the name Stax, from their four initials (STewart-AXton).
I basically got my start from [Estelle]. She didn’t really care that much about the studio; she wanted a record shop, and I went to work in her record shop (next to the studio). Our band [eventually became] the Mar-Keys, including Duck Dunn, and we had a hit record called “Last Night.” We would up doing Dick Clark’s show, American Bandstand, and a few other TV dance shows. Then we went on tour with that song, and I realized that the road was not for me (at the time). So I left the Mar-Keys, and I asked Estelle Axton for my job back at the record shop. I knew that the record shop was out in front of the studio, that I’d be close to it.
I started to go back to the studio (for sessions), and one day Estelle went to Jim Stewart (who ran the studio) and said, “You’re going to have to start paying Steve because he spends more time in the studio than he does in the record shop” (laughs). So they worked something out and I started getting a salary from the studio and label. It was just kind of on the job training…I learned how to play guitar on the job. I also learned how to produce, and I had a lot of help—people like (hit producer/engineer) Tom Dowd taught me how to engineer, what what to look for in writing songs.
So that’s what I did, and I know my limitations, but I think I’m a pretty good session player. I know what to play on records. I’ve played on many hits and I’m very proud of that. It’s all in knowing what to play in the studio, what producers look for. You can overplay or you can underplay. And I got lucky by just being a producer, knowing what to play, and that sort of worked. Also, I used to work with the artists that Stax had signed and we were going to do sessions on. The night before a session, I would always got in a hotel room, and they would have pieces of songs unfinished, and I’d finish them. Then I would present them, and they’d say, “Oh, we’re gonna cut that one, that’s a good one.” And some of them turned out to be classics (laughs). So I got lucky…I know that. I will take credit for being lucky (laughs). I was at the right place at the right time as well.
Here’s a video of Amii Stewart’s #1 hit “Knock On Wood,” which was
co-written by Steve Cropper.
DK: With your songwriting, the first big hit you co-wrote was the instrumental, “Green Onions,” with Booker T. & the MGs. How did you guys come up with that song?
Cropper: “Green Onions” was originally intended to be the flipside of another song. About two weeks prior to us recording it, we recorded a blues song that Jim Stewart thought had some merit. I think it was called “Behave Yourself.” He said, “Do you guys have anything else that you can record to put on the B side?” I remembered that Booker had played me this riff on the organ a couple weeks prior to that, that he thought might be a good riff for a vocal song. And I looked at Booker and said, “Do you remember that riff you played me?” He said, “Well I think I do…why don’t we go down to the organ and I’ll play it.” He played the “Green Onions” riff and I said, “That’s it!” And Jim Stewart said, “Hey that’s pretty good…let’s put that down.” So I think three takes later, we had “Green Onions.” Nobody knew that it was going to be a hit—nobody knew it was going to be a #1 hit and that it would last over 50 years, which is crazy. Booker is still out there playing it. He once said to me and Duck, “You know, I’ll never get tired of playing that song.”
DK: In 1965, you co-wrote the classic hit “in The Midnight Hour” with Wilson Pickett.
Cropper: Well, that came out of some gospel stuff…I thought the idea did. “Midnight Hour” was one of three songs we cut in a week, and it was the one that hit. Jerry Wexler (producer & exec at Atlantic Records) pushed for “Midnight Hour.” He had me just do backbeats…he had loved the beat of a dance hit called “The Jerk.” Then they took it back to New York, where they had an eight-track studio. At the time, we had cut everything in mono at Stax. Then they overdubbed it. They flew in drummer Al Jackson and had him overdub a backbeat and make it more solid, and they put a couple of other things on it and mixed it there, and it became a big hit record.
DK: Soon after, you had another big hit, “Knock On Wood,” with Eddie Floyd.
Cropper: Eddie and I did an interview together not too long ago, and I told my story. Then he said, “Well you’ve been telling that, but remember that the lyrics came from “lightning and thunder” and there was a big storm coming over. And he’s right about that. We wrote it at the Lorraine Motel (a historic building in Memphis where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated), and when I got to the room and he opened the door, he said, “I got a great idea for a hit.” I said, “Great, what is it?” He said, “I want to write a song about superstitions.” Then we literally went through the gamut of superstitions, from black cats to walkin’ under ladders (laughs), umbrellas…all those things you think of. And it kind of exhausted us to the extent that we ran out of ideas. I was sittin’ there and said, “Eddie, what do people do for good luck?” Then he said they [knock on wood], and he hit on this chair he was sitting in. And I said, “There’s our hit” (laughs). So that’s how we wrote it. I think this song [turned out to be about] a girlfriend, and knockin’ on wood for good luck. He didn’t want to lose this good thing that he’s got, this great girl.
Here’s a video of Wilson Pickett and Bruce Springsteen performing the hit
“In The Midnight Hour,” which was co-written by Steve Cropper.
DK: Years later in 1979, “Knock On Wood” became a #1 pop hit when Amii Stewart recorded it. What did you think when Amii Stewart made it such a big hit?
Cropper: When I heard Amii’s version I thought, “Man, I love the treatment that they did on the front with the drums and all that. And of course, she was a great singer, and they did a great promotion job on that record. I thought it was wonderful, and Eddie did too. It’s funny…a lot of people picked it up and thought it was the first version of that song. And I understand that, but of course Eddie and I were going, “Whoa…wait a minute. We had a #1 (R&B) record with that song!” (laughs). But Amii did make it a worldwide hit and we only went #1 on the R&B chart.
DK: Your most famous song is “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” with Otis Redding. Can you talk about how you and Otis wrote that song?
Cropper: Well, that was his idea. Otis started the song when he was staying at (concert promoter) Bill Graham’s boathouse in Sausalito (CA). He’s talking about how he watches the ships roll in and he watches them roll away again. And I questioned him about the first verse lyric. He said, “You don’t like it?” I said, “No, I love it, but have you ever thought, when a ship rolls that it’s gonna take on water and sink?” (laughs). Well he wasn’t talkin’ about ships; he was talkin’ about about ferries. And they roll up a big wave when they come in to park and let cars and people off. All ferries do that. That’s what he was writing about.
It didn’t hit me until years later when I was in Tiburon (CA), overlooking the bay there, looking out over the water. I was out there to write with (blues artist) Robert Cray. It was a Sunday, and I went down to get something to eat. So I’m eating a cheeseburger and watching NFL football, and I see this ferry coming over. And I’m goin’, “That’s what Otis was talking about!” It took me that long to figure it out (laughs). Because he said ships.
When I wrote with Otis, I always wrote about Otis. And he picked up on that. I don’t know who came up with the line “I left my home in Georgia”… one of us did, but we did it together. And I remember writing the changes to the bridge and we came up with that.
For the ending, we couldn’t think of anything, and Otis just started whistling (laughs). Now when I do it live, and people think that I did the whistling, I say, “No, it was Otis that did the whistling.”
DK: I read that Otis was just 26 years old when he died in the plane crash, shortly after recording “Dock Of The Bay” with you. You were both very young at the time.
Cropper: We were the same age.
Here’s a video of Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn performing
their Booker T. & the MGs hit, “Green Onions.”
DK: So if Otis didn’t die in the crash, he could had a great career for many for years to come?
Cropper: Absolutely…without question (spoken with a sense of sadness).
DK: You’re known for being part of the Blues Brothers Band which was featured in two, big movies. How did you connect with this band?
Cropper: The nucleus of the band had originally done two records and two world tours with Levon Helm (of The Band). This was after The Band had split up and they were all going to do individual careers. Levon knew Duck Dunn, and he wanted to start cutting a record up at his place in Woodstock (NY). Duck called me and said, “Levon Helm called me last night, and he wants me to fly up to Woodstock; he wants me to play on some stuff up there.” Then three days later, Duck called me from Woodstock and said, “Levon wants to know if you can come up too.” We wound up cutting a record at his cabin at Woodstock. Then we went on tour and he wanted to do another album, so we cut a second one.
Around that time, (actor) John Belushi had seen us perform at the Palladium. He’d made a comment to somebody, “If I ever put a band together, I want that band.” And John, way before he was on Saturday Night Live, was an accomplished drummer and singer, and (actor) Dan Ackroyd was definitely a good guitar player. They loved the blues.
A little later, I got this call from John Belushi. He said, “This is John Belushi. I’m calling from New York and I’m putting a band together.” John was putting a band together to play nine dates at the Universal Amphitheatre (in Los Angeles), opening for Steve Martin.
At the Amphitheatre, they recorded four of the shows live, and from those shows they put an album together called Briefcase Full of Blues, which went triple platinum. The album did so well, that it helped Danny Ackroyd convince Universal to make the movie, The Blues Brothers. So Danny got to write a script and get it done. And who knew it would be one of the biggest movies of all time (laughs).
DK: You’ve played and toured with the Blues Brothers Band for 30 years. What’s that been like?
Cropper: We’ve been playing together for 30 solid years. That’s a long time to do anything (laughs). 30 years ago, my wife and I got married a couple days before we left to go on tour (for the first time). So she spent the first two weeks of us being married on the road with the Blues Brothers on a bus through Italy (laughs). After a two-week tour, we went on our honeymoon. We have now been married for 30 years.
DK: Currently, you’re about to go on tour with Dave Mason. Can you talk about this new tour and how you hooked up with Dave?
Cropper: Dave and I have known each other for a long time; we met when I lived in L.A. I have total respect for him and all the stuff he’s done. Several months ago, I went to his show when he played The Winery here (in Nashville). And I didn’t really know until I went to the show, how many hits he’s written. Somebody said, “You guys got to get together and go on the road.” And we both went for it and said, “Hey that’s a great idea.” We’ve decided to start this tour in July with the two of us and his band. Three weeks ago, we did a show in North Carolina and had a blast, and we know we’ll have a good time and it’s going to be great.