NEW YORK (Reuters) - Guitarist Steve Cropper loves to tell how he auditioned Otis Redding, but there is nothing but pain when he recalls the day the soul-music giant died in a plane crash 40 years ago this year.
For Cropper, the day the music died was not Feb 3, 1959 -- when Buddy Holly’s plane crashed in Iowa.
Rather, it was Dec 10, 1967, when the plane carrying Redding and members of his backing band the Bar-Kays, went down in a Wisconsin lake.
“When we heard about it, we were between planes in Indianapolis. We were sitting on an icy runway trying to get off the ground,” Cropper told Reuters in a recent interview.
“It was icy that morning, the whole of middle America was iced in. And (Stax Records songwriter) David Porter called home to tell his wife he had been delayed and she said she just heard on the radio that Otis Redding had died.
“We had missed the first connection and were waiting for another flight and David came back and I swear to God he was as white as that piece of paper right there,” he said of Porter, who is black.
“Unbelievable. And on the plane, in ‘Life’ magazine or ‘Look,’ there was a whole article about Otis Redding. We didn’t know how to react, there we were on a plane. It’s something I’ll never get over,” Cropper said.
For the 65-year-old musician, songwriter and record producer, it was a painful punctuation in a career that began when he worked odd jobs to buy his first guitar, and shifted into high gear in the 1960s when he wrote and played on some of the most important tunes of the rock era. In later years, he starred in “The Blues Brothers” and toured with Neil Young.
“I’M GONNA WAIT ‘TIL THE MIDNIGHT HOUR”
Cropper’s most recent accolade came earlier this month when his band, Booker T. & the MG’s, received a lifetime achievement Grammy. The house band at Stax Records is already enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, thanks to its work with the likes of Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Isaac Hayes during soul music’s golden years of the late ‘60s.
The crisp intro to Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” is the epitome of Cropper’s economical guitar style. And the instrumental hits that Booker T. and the MG’s had on their own -- such as “Green Onions” and “Time is Tight” -- also showcase his cool prowess.
In 1996, Britain’s Mojo magazine ranked him No. 2 (behind Jimi Hendrix) on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
Cropper also wrote many Stax songs, including “Knock on Wood” and “In the Midnight Hour.” After Redding died, a grief-stricken Cropper finished “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” -- for which he and Redding won a Grammy.
When Stax fell apart in the 1970s, and soul got overtaken by funk and disco and hip-hop, Missouri-born Cropper took his guitar to Nashville. He has been in demand as a producer, arranger and performer with everyone from Elton John and Ringo Starr to Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang.
Now, as Memphis celebrates 50 years of soul music, the beefy, pony-tailed Cropper is making the rounds, talking about the Mississippi river city that spawned Satellite Records, which became Stax, and Royal Studio, home of Hi Records, in 1957.
The city also houses Sun Records, where Elvis Presley made his early recordings and Beale Street, where bars, barbecue joints and music clubs have attracted blues and country musicians from Tennessee, Arkansas and the nearby Mississippi Delta for years.
But after two Grammys, dozens of hit recordings and songs, Cropper’s thoughts always return to Redding, “The Big O.”
“THAT’S WHEN MY LOVE COMES TUMBLIN’ DOWN”
“Otis? Oh my God. Otis was unique. If you took a fruit jar and you put Sam Cooke in there with Little Richard, and shook it up, you’d come out with Otis Redding.
“The actual physical memory runs through my mind all the time,” he recalls of the first time he met Redding, who was singing in the Johnnie Jenkins band that came to record.
“We were standing outside the record shop, outside the studio and this car pulls up with Georgia plates. And this big tall guy gets out the driver’s seat, takes the keys and walks around the back of the car, opens the trunk and starts getting out amps and microphones.
“I thought he was a roadie. I thought he was Johnny Jenkins’ driver or valet. But he was actually the singer in the band and we didn’t know that.”
Redding pestered MG’s drummer Al Jackson for an audition and Jackson asked Cropper to listen.
“So he comes down and I say: ‘Play something, whatever you want to do. And he said ‘I don’t play piano, I play a little gut-tar. That’s what he said. So I played piano and he went: ‘These arms of mine...’ And hairs and goose bumps stood up on my arms.”
Cropper fetched Stax Records co-founder Jim Stewart. “Jim heard him and said: ‘We’ve got to cut this right now.’”
“We cut it, ‘These Arms of Mine’ and the next morning ... we cut a B-side called ‘Hey Baby,’” said Cropper. “That was Otis Redding, That was his first record and he had 17 hits in a row.”
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