Steve Cropper is a hero of the Memphis, Tennessee, music scene. As the guitarist of the iconic Stax Records house band, Booker T & the M.G.’s, Cropper leant his six-string to some of the most influential soul acts of all time. His CV boasts the names of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Bill Withers and Johnnie Taylor, to name but a few. As part of the M.G.’s, Cropper leant the unmistakable guitar licks to funky 1962 instrumental ‘Green Onions’.
However, what is arguably Cropper’s stand out moment, in terms of legacy, is Sam & Dave’s 1967 classic, ‘Soul Man’. The Grammy-winning hit even mentions his name: “Play it, Steve”. The line is so iconic it has given its name to Cropper’s 1998 solo album and his website. Widely hailed as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Cropper’s work on ‘Soul Man’ is a clear example of this. Played on either his 1958 Fender Esquire or Telecaster, Cropper’s crisp, signature tone is an unforgettable part of this triumphant classic.
‘Soul Man’ is a classic soul song in the sense that it wasn’t written by either Sam or Dave, a mode of operation widely used throughout the soul community. It was actually written by the mythic Isaac Hayes and ubiquitous American composer David Porter. In 1997, Hayes recalled that he found the inspiration for the song amongst the turmoil of the era-defining Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s. One particular moment Hayes singled out was a television newscast in the aftermath of the notorious 12th Street Riot in Detroit. The riot is so infamous that in 2017, Kathryn Bigelow released a drama detailing its events to mark its 50th anniversary.
Hayes observed that the African-American residents of the area had marked buildings that had not been destroyed during the catastrophic evening with the word “soul”. Hayes then coupled this occurrence with the biblical notion of the soul and the story of the Passover from the Book of Exodus.
Given the inter-racial turmoil of the day, and that the racist laws of Jim Crow were the de facto and de jure ruler of American society, Hayes’ likening of the experience of the African-American community with that of the Israelites was an effective one. Together with Porter, he finalised the idea of “a story about one’s struggle to rise above his present conditions. It’s almost a tune kind of like boasting, ‘I’m a soul man.’ It’s a pride thing.”
What an anthem it would become. Sam & Dave, bolstered by the omnipresent Booker T & the M.G.’s, would turn strife into an upbeat anti-racism anthem. However, there exists another reason why the song is iconic. This comes back to Cropper again. We have already touched on his technical prowess that marks the number out, but it is how he recorded his take that has blown audiences away.
In 2011, he revealed: “The one thing about ‘Soul Man’ is, it was one of the hardest sessions I ever played on. It sounds like a lot of fun, but that little lick I did? I did that with a Zippo lighter. To get that slide lick, I had to sit there and be still. We always stood up and played, especially on the early stuff. The ‘Knock on Woods’ and the ‘Midnight Hours’ were cut live with a whole band. We recorded ‘Soul Man’ on a four-track, but there still weren’t any real overdubs.“
No wonder the guitar tone on ‘Soul Man’ has on so many occasions invited imitations as Cropper practically invented a new way of playing. His off the cuff use of the Zippo lighter in one take not only shows his ability but his unorthodox way of approaching music. Whilst this may be put down to his position as a producer as well as a guitarist, the twangy lick marks the song out as one of the best examples of resourcefulness in music. Without Cropper, the song wouldn’t be the same.
In fact, this sentiment was matched by the late John Belushi for SNL’s The Blues Brothers. In 1978, the dapper comedy duo released a cover version of the original, and it featured Cropper in the backing band. In a testament to his legacy in the song, singer Belushi kept in the famous quip “Play it, Steve” in homage to Memphis’ premier axeman.
Listen to the original ‘Soul Man’, below.