By Steve Newton
On the phone from his home in Nashville, Steve Cropper sounds happy and full of life. He talks a lot and ends most of his sentences with a chuckle, as you might expect from a guy who’s spent the last 60-or-so years of his life doing exactly what he loves the most: playing guitar.
But Cropper’s musical career hasn’t been all fun and games. It’s been touched by headline-making tragedy again and again. Legendary vocalist Otis Redding died in a plane crash in 1967 just days after he and Cropper, both 26, had recorded one of the world’s best songs, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay”, which Cropper cowrote. Then in ’75 Cropper’s longtime bandmate in the famed instrumental combo Booker T and the MGs, drummer Al Jackson Jr., was shot to death in his Memphis home at the age of 39. Seven years later John Belushi–who Cropper had gotten to know well while making the first Blues Brothers album and its subsequence hit movie–died of a drug overdose at just 33.
“We thought the world had come to an end when Belushi passed away,” recalls Cropper. “But the thing about that was, we knew it was gonna happen, we just didn’t know when. I mean he was a driving force to put himself in the ground. And you couldn’t hang with him. I mean here’s a guy that didn’t just hang out and get high and then pass out and go to bed, like a lotta guys do. He’d stay up for two, three days before he’d do that. He just did not want to go to bed. So he waited until he literally collapsed.
“But we kept him alive for the Blues Brothers tour,” he adds, “and longer than that. We kept him away from cigarettes and drugs and all that. He was starting to lose weight and lookin’ real good. And the way to prove that is, go watch the movie Continental Divide, and look how much he’s lost and how much better he looks. In the Blues Brothers movie he was so stuffed full of whatever that he could barely breathe.”
Since the Blues Brothers days, Cropper’s career has seen him backing up the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Eric Clapton, and being named by Britain’s Mojo magazine as “the greatest living guitar player”. Most recently he started performing with another longtime session player, English guitarist Dave Mason, who was a cofounder of Traffic before having some solo hits (“Only You Know and I Know”, “We Just Disagree”) in the seventies. (Mason and Cropper play Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre tonight, September 25)
“We go way back,” says Cropper, who met Mason through a mutual friend over 30 years ago, although they never played together until last year. “Somebody that either works for me or with me or something ran into some of his people and said ‘Man, you represent Dave Mason, I represent Steve Cropper, it would be nice to get them together.”
Not surprisingly, the collaboration has resulted in a setlist that’s packed with golden oldies.
“We do ‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay”, ‘Midnight Hour’, lotta Stax stuff,” notes Cropper. “And I do other things that I didn’t write that I actually played on. With [vocalist] Gretchen Rhodes we do a couple of Sam & Dave songs, which works out pretty good. At the end we do ‘Soul Man’, so it’s a lotta fun.”
While there will be no shortage of primo guitar licks at the Mason/Cropper gig, one thing the latter picker won’t promise is much in the way of vocals. “I do some, but Dave is really a singer. I’m not. I never was a singer. My band that I started in high school looked at me after a show one day and said ‘Steve, we’re gonna have to hire a singer.’ ”