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- Posted on Aug 14th 2011 12:00PM by James Sullivan
Those sessions Cropper remembers well. His recollections of other, less illustrious recordings: not so much.
"I'm a Top 40 record guy," says the guitarist, 69. "I remember the hits and don't remember the flops. Something in my brain blocks them out. Now and then, someone will play an album cut, and I'll go, 'Dang, that's me!'"
That's Cropper all over the new album 'Dedicated,' an all-star tribute to the "5" Royales, an underappreciated R&B group from the 1950s whose late guitarist, Lowman Pauling, has been a lifelong inspiration to Cropper. Pauling died in 1973 at age 47; reportedly, he was working as a custodian in a Brooklyn synagogue when he collapsed of an epileptic seizure.
"I'm deeply saddened I didn't get the chance to meet him," says Cropper. "I've talked about him my whole life."
He did see his hero perform, however. As a teenager growing up in Memphis, Tenn. Cropper played in a band with bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn called the Royal Spades. The name, Cropper says, was inspired by the "5" Royales and the fact that a royal spade flush is the highest possible poker hand. (Today, they don't bring up the original band name much, given the negative connotation of the slang term "spade." "It's too hard to explain," says Cropper.)
The band, which eventually became the Mar-Keys, the first house band at Stax Records, played several "5" Royales songs, including 'Think' (later covered by James Brown) and 'Dedicated to the One I Love,' which became a huge hit for the Mamas and the Papas. When Pauling's group came to Memphis to play the Beverly Ballroom, Cropper and Dunn, who were underage at the time, snuck in.
The band and the waiters were black; the crowd was all white. Memphis was still segregated well into the 1960s. Even at Stax, where Cropper and Dunn became core members of Booker T. and the MGs and played with drummer Al Jackson, arranger Willie Mitchell and many others, "when the day was over," says Cropper, "we'd get in our cars and go separate ways."
Still, the Stax crew was "like family," he says. He hung out at Booker T. Jones's house. Eddie Floyd and Otis Redding hung out at Cropper's. "Nobody was checking my driveway to see who was visiting," he says. "It was never a problem."
The music brought people together, and it inspired the next generation of rock and soul stars. 'Dedicated' features guest appearances by Steve Winwood ('Thirty Second Lover'), Queen's Brian May ('I Do') and Sharon Jones and Lucinda Williams on two songs apiece. Bettye LaVette, who once dated Lowman Pauling's brother, appears on two songs as well.
Cropper performs songs from the new album 'Sunday in New York' as part of Lincoln Center's Out of Doors series. He'll soon hit the road with the Animals, one of several ongoing associations (including the MGs and the Blues Brothers) that keep the guitarist busy.
When he does have time off at home in Nashville, Tenn. he puts his guitar in the corner and takes a break. "I'm not one of those guys who plays every day," Cropper says. "I do other things -- I go fishing, I golf. I'm one of those guys who likes to piddle around in the garage and fix stuff."
One thing that needs no repair is his style of playing, which remains unmistakable after 50 years in the business. Hey -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it.