Somewhere among the halls of the Stax Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee, Steve Cropper is furiously writing down lyrics. No one can tell if it’s late-night or early morning, Saturday or Sunday, dinner time or breakfast. The only thing known is that Otis Redding is ready to record, and Cropper decides that a brand new single from an upstart British rock band would be perfect to turn into a high energy R&B number.
“If you ever listened to the record, you can hardly understand the lyrics, right?” Cropper explained to Rolling Stone. “I set down to a record player and copied down what I thought the lyrics were and I handed Otis a piece of paper, and before we got through with the cut, he threw the paper on the floor and that was it.”
The song was ‘Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones, not that Redding even pronounces it that way. “You notice on ‘Satisfaction’ that Otis said ‘fashion’ not ‘faction,’” Cropper said in 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music. “I love it. That’s what made him so unique. He’d just barrel right through that stuff, unaware of anything. He just didn’t know the song. He hadn’t heard it, as far as I know.”
That’s the way things were going that weekend. Cropper, as co-producer, bandleader, and guitarist for the Otis Redding session that would birth Otis Blue, perhaps the single greatest R&B/Soul record of all time, was simply trying to keep up with Redding’s indefatigable energy. Redding and the Stax house band, which included Booker T and the M.G.’s along with piano player and future soul star Isaac Hayes, had a 24-hour window to record, part of which was interrupted so that all involved could play gigs around Memphis on Saturday night.
This was right in Redding’s wheelhouse. A former truck driver who had to endlessly nag Cropper to give him a shot at recording only to blow the guitarists mind with a rendition of ‘These Arms of Mine’, Redding was a workhorse who rarely did second takes. Much is made of The Beatles’ one-day session for Please, Please Me, but even they eventually branched out to more in-depth sessions. Redding, for the entirety of his tragically brief recording career, churned out classic recordings with the rabid efficiency of a man possessed.
But someone had to wrangle this restless character. Stax founder Jim Stewart was in the control room along with legendary engineer Tom Dowd, but somebody had to direct the recordings. Redding was emphatic about his direction, but he preferred to simply rev it up, get it done, and get on with the next song. Someone had to produce arrangements, teach the band the music, and even choose some of the songs that Redding would take on, including ‘Satisfaction’. That responsibility ultimately fell to Cropper.
Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Otis Redding
Luckily, Cropper was well equipped to handle these kinds of situations. Through years of instrumental work with the M.G.’s and the Stax house band the Mar-Keys, he needed few words to communicate the chord changes or horn stabs that were spread throughout the record. As a session player and producer for fellow Stax stars Sam & Dave, Cropper knew how to harness raw performative power. As a top-notch guitarist who later joined The Blues Brothers, Cropper could tap into pure soul through perfectly placed lead lines, like the ones in ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ and ‘Change Gonna Come’.
Tumbling into the studio early in the morning on a hot July 9 day, Cropper organised the Stax house band around co-bandleader Booker T’s piano to go over the songs for the day. Still reeling from his murder just a few months before, it was decided that three Sam Cooke songs, ‘Wonderful World’, ‘Shake’, and ‘Change Gonna Come’, would be recorded, along with The Temptation’s ‘My Girl’, B.B. King’s ‘Rock Me Baby’, William Bell’s ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, The Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’, and Solomon Burke’s ‘Down in the Valley’. The rest would come from Redding, with the band having already burned through a version of ‘Ole Man Trouble’ to start the day. Redding had already had a major hit with ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’, but the singer wanted to re-record the song to take advantage of the studio’s new stereo mixing capabilities.
But there was one more song that Redding brought in that day, one that Cropper hadn’t heard before. It wasn’t a part of Redding’s stage act, so none of the band were familiar with it either. That didn’t stop them from doing an ad-hoc arrangement that day, fleshing out some horn lines following Redding’s lively vocal. ‘Respect’ came out so good that Redding insisted it be the album’s single, despite the fact that ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long‘ had been released just five months earlier. Although it didn’t reach as high on the pop charts as ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’, ‘Respect’ was popular enough to find its way to a wider audience including some of his fellow singers, including belting soul singer by the name of Aretha Franklin.
By the time the session officially closed, it was 2pm the following Sunday afternoon. Exhausted and sleep-deprived, Cropper dutifully shipped the tapes off to be pressed into vinyl and continued on with his day to day responsibilities, which included live shows with the M.G.’s and studio work with artists like Wilson Pickett and Carla Thomas.
Little did he know that Otis Blue would wind up revolutionising popular music, greatly increasing not only Redding’s profile, but improving Stax’s commercial fortunes and landing Cropper with fame that he would later take beyond Stax after Redding’s death in 1967. But for Cropper, it was just another day at the office, one the world can still hear and feel over 50 years later.