60s stars shine again
Apr 8 2005
By Alan Nichol, The Evening Chronicle
In a couple of weeks from now that grand old dame of popular music Newcastle City Hall gets ready to receive two pivotal acts from her prime.
They are acts which defined the 50s and 60s: the former will be represented by the “Georgia Peach”, the pre-Presley pianist with that unforgettable pompadour Little Richard (more on him in a week or two), while the latter is soul music supergroup Booker T & the MGs.
The MGs sprang from the STAX record label, which epitomised Memphis soul. Royal Spades guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn would graduate from the band via the Mar-Keys to the MGs.
The original MGs (Memphis Group) line-up was Cropper, Booker T Jones (originally a sax player now on the organ), Lee Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson (drums). Dunn, however, was soon to replace Steinberg on bass.
The Mar-Keys’ debut hit was Last Night (1961) but Cropper quit during the band’s first tour and was promptly handed the keys to the STAX studio on the basis of his recording work for several other labels like Duke, Hi and Sun.
By 1962 the four-man session team of Cropper, Jones, Jackson and Dunn were Booker T & the MGs.
For the next nine years this band would work with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Picket and many more, as well as churning out hits of their own like Green Onions, Chinese Checkers, Time Is Tight and Soul Limbo, the latter used by the BBC’s Test Match Special for years.
Cropper’s writing credits include Midnight Hour, Knock On Wood, Dock of the Bay (with Otis) and 634-5789.
So great was Steve Cropper’s contribution to the sound of this era that, even 30 years later, he was voted runner-up to Jimi Hendrix in Mojo magazine’s list of top 100 guitarists.
I managed to pose a few questions to the still extremely busy Cropper:
Is it true that your first record, Last Night, actually had no guitar on it?
“It is true there is no guitar on Last Night. Chips Moman, who engineered the song, thought I wasn’t good enough. He was a guitar player too and did give me my first session at STAX, Prince Conley’s song I’m Going Home. There’s always been some controversy about my being on that record. I helped put the song together. Packy Axton and I wrote the horn lines the day before the session and the drum intro was my idea. The truth is, I played a single whole note on the organ during Smoochie’s solo!”
When you left STAX to work with the likes of John Prine, did you feel liberated doing something new?
“The reason I left STAX is exactly that. We were not allowed to do outside sessions or projects and I thought it was time. I think Booker left for the same reason. John Prine and I have been good friends ever since but he didn’t want to make another Memphis record.”
How did the MGs view the initial impact of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the US?
“At first we were shocked, like everybody else, but we knew they were good musicians. We didn’t know until later how much they were listening to what we were doing and getting to meet them during the 1967 tour was a blast.”
Was Otis Redding, or any of the other great singers you worked with, ever considered as a permanent vocalist for the MGs?
“In the early days we used a few different singers because we didn’t have enough songs to carry a whole show. We never really wanted a permanent singer. After the STAX-Volt tour in 1967, Otis tried everything he could to get us to be his back-up band but we were too busy in the studio, so we suggested the Bar-Kays because they grew up watching the MGs in the studio and they were good entertainers. What a devastating loss Otis’s death was.”
What advice would you give to aspiring young musicians starting out in the business ?
“Follow your dreams. You can’t make it if you don’t try.”