Steve Cropper was born on a farm outside Dora, Missouri on October 21, 1941. Nine years later, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he heard sounds and kinds of music he never heard in Missouri. At age ten, he strummed his brother-in-law's Gibson and was hooked. Receiving his first guitar at age fourteen, Cropper soaked up the musical melting pot in Memphis. His influences ranged from The Bill Doggett Band's Billy Butler to Chet Atkins to Jimmy Reed to jazz guitarist Tal Farlow and, of course, Chuck Berry. His hero was Lowman Pauling of Memphis's The Five Royales.
Cropper and guitarist Charlie Freeman formed (as a tip of the hat to Pauling's band) The Royal Spades, who eventually became The Mar-Keys. The Mar-Keys was a play on the marquee outside of Stax (at the time, called Satellite Records). Cropper, ever astute, figured, "People 'round here don't speak French", hence the spelling. The band's inexperienced sax player (who became very good) Charles "Packy" Axton's mother Estelle, and uncle Jim Stewart, owned Satellite, and eventually The Mar-Keys began playing on sessions and had a hit single of their own with 1961's "Last Night". Also in the band were producer/songwriter Don Nix and future legends, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and trumpeter Wayne Jackson .
Besides being impressed with the young guitarist's playing, the, by then, Stax Records president Jim Stewart saw a business sense, professionalism, and maturity in Cropper beyond his years. When American Records founder Chips Moman left Stax, a young Cropper was given the keys to the studio, which he opened everyday, became the company's A & R man, and shared engineering duties with Stewart. A founding member of Booker T. & the MGs, Stax's mighty house band, Cropper, along with Booker T. Jones on organ and piano, bassist Dunn, and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums went on to play on some of the best music ever made. His fiery leads and tight rhythm work with the MGs, and his tasteful work on hundreds of records, most notably his beautiful work with Otis Redding, was unmistakable and would make him a legend.
The MGs, as instrumental artists, worked because they wrote sounds. Music professor and author of the book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story Of Stax Records, Rob Bowman quotes Booker T. Jones as saying, "We were writing sounds too, especially Steve. He's very sound-conscious, and he gets a lot of sounds out of a Telecaster without changing any settings - just by using his fingers, his picks, and his amps". Together, with Jones on a B-3 organ, they could get so many sounds going that they sounded like a big group.
Besides influencing players everywhere and getting better all the time, Cropper co-wrote "Knock On Wood" with Eddie Floyd , "In the Midnight Hour" with Wilson Pickett, and "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of the Bay" with Otis Redding. His partnership with Redding was particularly fruitful. "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of the Bay", alone, has been played over six million times, making it the sixth most played song of all time (and the ASCAP catalog's second most). In 1969, Cropper released his first of three and only solo album for Stax, With a Little Help From My Friends.
However, he became increasingly unhappy at Stax as things began to change and eventually decided to leave. The company had already lost Otis Redding in a plane crash, stars Sam & Dave, through Stax's distribution deal breakup with Atlantic, and an also disgruntled Booker T. Jones. Now, they were losing their most successful producer, and along with partners David Porter and Isaac Hayes, their most important songwriter.
He formed TMI (Trans-Maximus) with Jerry Williams and former Mar-Key Ronnie Stoots. There he lent his guitar and producing skills to Jeff Beck, Tower Of Power , John Prine, and Jose Feleciano . Also during this time, he played on Ringo Starr's 1973 Ringo and the following year's Goodnight Vienna, and John Lennon asked him to play on his Rock 'n' Roll album. By 1975, Cropper had closed shop and moved to Los Angeles, where Booker T. Jones was also living. They called up Al Jackson and Duck Dunn, still at Stax, and decided to reform the MGs. But tragically, Jackson, who Cropper called, "The greatest drummer to ever walk the earth", was murdered in his Memphis home.
In the late seventies, Cropper and Dunn became members of (The Band's drummer) Levon Helm's RCO All Stars, and then they went on to lead The Blues Brothers Band with drummer and Stax alum Willie Hall. Cropper lived in L.A. for the next thirteen years before moving to Nashville.
In 1996, he was named the second greatest guitar player of all time, behind Jimi Hendrix, by Britain's Mojo magazine. The guitarist at number four, The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards said it all and said it best. When asked what he thought of Cropper, he said, "Perfect, man."
He wasn't the most technically perfect player, but he always had the perfect sound. He always knew what to play, and when to play it, and what not to play, and when not to play it. Songwriter Carson Whitsett, who played organ and piano with Jackson, Dunn, and guitarist Bobby Manuel on the 1973 album The MGs, watched Cropper come up with an unbelievably soulful line on the guitar. But, Cropper wasn't satisfied and came up with something better. Wowed, Whitsett, a seasoned musician, said it was great, but again, Cropper dug deeper and deeper again, until he had exactly what he wanted. A lot of musicians who may have committed as much studio time as Cropper has, would have laid something down, said, "That sounds good", and moved on. This is one of the many things that separate him from other players. And it also showed after forty years, Cropper still possessed the same passion and fire that he had as a twenty-year-old and the same dedication and drive that impressed Jim Stewart in 1961. And in all those years, he never once left the listener wanting less.
In the twenty-first century, Cropper, as are Jones and Dunn, is still very active, playing and producing. As clichéd as it may sound, his guitar playing is part of Americana. It should also be noted that in addition to his accomplishments, Cropper is also a part of many charities and lends his names to benefits every year. It seems that he lives his life as soulfully as he plays. As Sam Moore said on Sam & Dave's classic "Soul Man", "Play it, Steve!"