Entertainment, On A High Note

Putting a Name With a Sound: Steve Cropper’s decades of musical contributions fittingly honored at the Smithsonian Institution

More often than not, the people who become history-makers are remembered for doing something spectacular, shocking, or otherwise over the top. It’s far less often that history recognizes people who have marked their life’s work by being subtle and tasteful, simply being a dedicated team member and quietly doing only what’s needed. That could, in fact, be the reason why there are so many who know and love the work of guitarist, songwriter and producer Steve Cropper but couldn’t tell you his name.

Cropper, a longtime Nashville resident who forged his reputation in the ’60s as part of the house band at the now-legendary Stax Records’ Memphis studio, co-wrote and produced dozens of hits and played on many more. None, however, are more widely known than the late Otis Redding’s oft-covered 1968 single “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” a song that was cited in 1999 as the sixth-most-performed song of the 20th century.

Steve Cropper onstage at the Smithsonian's Hall of Music, performing a short set after making a historic donation of musical equipment. PHOTO BY RICHARD STRAUSS

Steve Cropper onstage at the Smithsonian’s Hall of Music, performing a short set after making a historic donation of musical equipment. PHOTO BY RICHARD STRAUSS

Just as it’s impossible to imagine the song now without Redding’s soulful, bittersweet vocal, it’s equally impossible to imagine it without the electric guitar lines that shadow and underscore his vocal performance on the hit—tragically, Redding’s final one, recorded just before a December 1967 plane crash in Wisconsin took his life. Now, the guitar and amp used by Steve Cropper on that timeless track have become part of an important permanent collection of historic artifacts in Washington, D.C.

On Thursday (Dec. 1), Cropper was honored at the Smithsonian Institution, where the noted musician and songwriter donated three classic Fender guitars and a vintage Fender amplifier connected to his many memorable contributions from inside the Stax studio and beyond. The event was held at the new Hall of Music in the National Museum of American History and hosted by Dr. John Hasse, the facility’s curator of American music.

After meeting Cropper about two years ago, says Hasse, he “made him aware of what the Smithsonian does in music, and that we consider him an important element in the story of American music.  Steve visited us twice and I visited him in Nashville, and we bonded pretty quickly. When Steve agreed to donate four historic instruments,” says Hasse, “we were elated.  Because of his many contributions to American music, I believe Steve deserves to be ‘in’ the National Museum of American History, the flagship of the Smithsonian’s work in music.”

The crowd of approximately 250 who gathered for the event included such distinguished guests as BMI Vice President, Writer/Publisher Relations Charlie Feldman and Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee’s 9th district (that is, Cropper’s old stomping grounds, Memphis). Cohen, who has known Cropper and some of his Stax contemporaries since he was in his twenties, says, “He’s done so much, and I think it’s an honor for Tennessee to have Steve as one of our native sons, and to have his instruments and his work officially enshrined in the collection at the Smithsonian. They’re instruments that have produced some of the great songs—standards of the rock ‘n’ roll era, Memphis music.” Added Cohen, “It’s America’s music: “Soul Man,” and “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” and “Knock on Wood.” Steve’s still kickin’, he’s doing it, he’s active, and he’s one of the greatest guitar players on the face of the earth.”

Steve Cropper prepares to officially sign off on his Smithsonian donation of equipment used in his long, distinguished career as Dr. John Hasse, curator of American music, looks on. PHOTO BY RICHARD STRAUSS

Steve Cropper prepares to officially sign off on his Smithsonian donation of equipment used in his long, distinguished career as Dr. John Hasse, curator of American music, looks on. PHOTO BY RICHARD STRAUSS

Feldman was on hand not only to help celebrate Cropper’s memorable day in D.C., but also to represent BMI, the performing rights association with which Cropper is affiliated. BMI partnered financially with the Songwriters Hall of Fame (to which Cropper is an inducted member) and the Smithsonian to make the day something extra special for all involved. “BMI is involved with the Smithsonian in several initiatives, and we wanted to amplify what a great gift to American music Steve is, so we chose to help the Smithsonian by making this into more than just a very quick transaction,” notes Feldman.

After the 11:00 a.m. donation ceremony came the Q&A session in which Cropper related details of hit songs featuring his performances on the 1951-52 Fender Telecaster, 1961 Fender Esquire and 1975 Fender Telecaster that will become part of the Smithsonian’s American Stories exhibit next year, according to Dr. Hasse.

The ’75 Telecaster, a “factory reject” once owned by The Band’s Levon Helm, was doctored up well enough to become Cropper’s pet guitar for a time, appearing on Helm’s first two solo albums as well as on The Blues Brothers’ double platinum-selling “Briefcase Full of Blues” album and appearing along with Cropper in memorable scenes from the first Blues Brothers movie, such as the segment in a pawn shop where the owner (Ray Charles) performs a rousing version of “Shake a Tail Feather” with the Blues Brothers band.

The whole Blues Brothers project was, in essence, a tribute to the music Cropper and his fellow Memphis musicians produced for Stax Records and its associated labels, so it’s especially fitting that he was included in the movie and its soundtrack, which spawned the hit remake of Sam & Dave’s 1967 No. 1 Stax single “Soul Man.”

Feldman recalled a moment during Cropper’s five-song, full-band performance at the Hall of Music when the guitarist played a brief game of “Name That Tune” with the audience, using “Soul Man” as the subject. “Steve said, ‘I’ll bet everyone in the room will be able to know what song we’re about to play by me playing two notes.’ And he played dur-durrrr, and the way he played it, you knew it was ‘Soul Man’ . . . because of his feeling and the tone of his guitar, and what he played. And everybody just laughed and applauded, because we all knew what it was.”

This 1961 Fender Esquire and late-'50s-vintage Fender Harvard amplifier were used on, among many other Stax studio recordings, Otis Redding's immortal "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay." PHOTO BY RICHARD STRAUSS

This 1961 Fender Esquire and late-’50s-vintage Fender Harvard amplifier were used on, among many other Stax studio recordings, Otis Redding’s immortal “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” PHOTO BY RICHARD STRAUSS

That little moment of musical levity also tells a serious tale of the gift Steve Cropper possesses—that is, the ability to support a song and a performance with the perfect choice of notes and phrases, making it instantly memorable while maintaining a proper place in the song’s overall musical context. Cropper has loaned the gift of such signature Southern soul licks to an almost uncountable list of recordings, always with the same workmanlike goal, though some songs have simply risen above others for reasons that can be hard to determine.

As “Soul Man” peaked on the charts in November of ’67, Cropper prepared to add guitar embellishments to “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” cut late that month at Stax by Otis Redding. The lyric and melody speak for themselves, yet a close listen to the interaction between Redding’s vocal and Cropper’s sympathetic guitar work reveals his skills as a musician/producer and his deep creative connection with Redding.

BMI’s Feldman, tapping out a calculation as he spoke, brought perspective to the amazing success of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” which has been logged as having 11 million plays on radio in its various versions, Otis Redding’s being chief among them. Feldman’s equation, starting with the two-and-a-half-minute song and its total airplay number, yielded an astonishing result.

The Cropper and Redding collaboration, if its 11 million airings were to take place back to back in linear time, would play for 52 years— only 49 of which have even transpired since the master tape was delivered to Atlantic Records on Dec. 15, 1967, five days after the accident that claimed Redding’s life. It pained Cropper, even after nearly five decades, to relate the story of hearing Redding say “I’ll see you Monday” before leaving the studio for a few weekend concert dates. “Well . . . Monday never came,” an emotionally affected Cropper recalled to the audience in a choked voice.

While history can’t erase that significant loss, it will remember the substantial gains of the music that lives on, undiminished by time. After an appropriate moment of silence, raise up a hurrah for one of Tennessee’s own, whose name alongside a trio of guitars at the Smithsonian will ensure that the Stax story—an inspiring chronicle of creativity, craftsmanship and mutual respect that rendered the matter of race irrelevant—will never be left untold.

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