Great Guitarists #12: Steve Cropper

Great Guitarists

The Great Guitarists series is back, and we’re restarting with one of my all-time favourite guitar Players, Steve ‘The Colonel’ Cropper.

Even if you don’t recognise the name from the cult classic musical comedy The Blues Brothers, you will have heard Cropper’s songs and guitar playing on countless records, playing alongside some of the greatest soul singers of the 20th century.

Steve Cropper with his favoured guitar, the Fender Telecaster.

Cropper was as a member of Brooker T & the MGs, who also included Al Jackson Jr. on drums, Brooker T himself on organ & piano, and Cropper’s childhood friend Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass (Dunn was also featured in The Blues Brothers). The group had hits with instrumental tracks such as Green Onions and Soul Limbo (the one used as the BBC’s theme music for their Cricket coverage).

Brooker T & The MGs (left to right: Al Jackson Jr, Steve Cropper, Brooker T & Donald Dunn).

The MGs were also the core in-studio ‘house band’ at Stax Records, Memphis, providing the backing (and often creating the arrangements) for virtually all of their recordings from the mid-sixties to the early seventies. All those hits you know by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd and countless others? The MGs, with Steve, are in all of them…

As if that wasn’t enough, Cropper also co-wrote In the Midnight Hour with Wilson Pickett, Knock on Wood with Eddie Floyd and (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, the famous posthumous hit for Otis Redding. Some of these records were also co-produced by Cropper.

After leaving Stax, Cropper went on to play on Ringo Starr’s and John Lennon’s solo records, as well as produce albums for other artists, notably the Blues guitar legend Albert King. Then, in the late seventies, he was recruited into the Blues Brothers, the act for which he might be best recognised.

The Blues Brothers released two albums, two feature films (both of which included soundtrack albums) and embarked on a handful of tours between the late seventies and the early 2000s. Their influence on bringing rhythm & blues to a wider audience cannot be understated, not least by introducing a new generation of moviegoers and listeners to artists such as John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Sam & Dave and many more. Yet even in a band comprising a veritable who’s who of soul musicians, Cropper still stands out.

Cropper (left) with The Blues Brothers Band.

In most of these settings, Cropper is welding a Fender Telecaster or (more recently) Telecaster-like models, such as his Peavy signature model from the late 90s. His playing – and the guitars he played on – provide a full, but not dominating, sound. From simple but effective chord work, to riffs that often doubles up against bass lines, his style of Memphis Soul remains highly imitated. In his lead work, his frequent use of sixths (read more about these here) can be heard to great effect on the intro to Sam & Dave’s hit Soul Man.

Recommend listing

Pick up any classic cut from the Stax label from the mid to late sixties and Cropper is probably on there. Then of course, there is the soundtrack to The Blues Brothers. There are even complications of Cropper’s best-known work available. It doesn’t take much work to find him!

In all cases, listen carefully to his rhythm choice, and note how he leaves space for the singer and other instrumentalists. As for solos, he could certainly play good ones when he needed to but only when they were necessary.

Until next time…

Quiet Quitting isn’t a thing – but fair working should be

Advice & Tips

Recently the term Quiet Quitting has emerged in the public sphere this year. The term refers to the apparently new trend of only working one’s contracted hours, foregoing unofficial overtime, answering emails from home, or living to serve one’s employer. Pieces have provided an overview on the BBC’s website and in newspaper articles often highlighting the anxieties of large corporations as they lose thousands of unpaid hours of labour. This piece by Guardian columnist Tayo Bero provides an informative insight into the practice.

Except it isn’t a new phenomenon at all. Some people have brought this mindset to their jobs for years. This article from Time Magazine (published just a month before the world closed down because of Coronavirus), discusses the work-life balance and comes very close to saying the same points that the Quiet Quitting ‘movement’ are saying now.

But not everyone can do this. The term mainly applies to those in what might unkindly be referred to as a ‘dead end’ job, from office workers to hospitality staff. Healthcare professionals don’t have the luxury of being able to clock off once they have reached their contracted hours for the day if patients still require care then and there. The same is true in allied healthcare professions such as therapy, my own area of work. Even in the regular routine of weekly sessions, there are issues, from last minute meetings to safeguarding emergencies that mean your presence and insight is required, and you have a duty of care to ensure the best care possible.

But is that always reflected in the financial compensation therapists receive? That largely depends on the employer. Those at the highest risk of working far beyond what they are paid for are those in the sector who are self-employed. These professionals face the struggle to balance charging fairly for their time against the threat of pricing themselves out of the market for a contracted service.

I have wrestled with this conundrum myself as both a music therapist and as a guitar player for hire. It’s certainly not rare to feel like you should have invoiced for more after the full scale of the work involved becomes clear. Getting this balance right is largely a lesson we learn from experience, but in a society where average wages are falling below the cost of living, it is a balance which many find increasingly difficult to maintain.

By contrast, the practice of Quiet Firing, described in this article, has also been highlighted, where employers distance some of their employees from opportunities to progress in their career. It is highly likely that both practices are being fuelled by the other, creating an unhealthy cycle that no employee would wish to be part of.

Some are even attempting to relabel Quiet Quitting as burnout, or a means of dealing with or avoiding burnout. I even read one which went as far as to suggest that the practice was a coping mechanism by employees which will help them be more productive in the future:

It’s another sign of workers — sometimes not even consciously — looking “for ways to feel less burnt out, more motivated and more engaged.”

Nathalie Baumgartner, quoted In The Washington Post

While burnout is in doubtedly a factor, I think viewing this as the workers trying to be even better workers is one hell of a stretch. Perhaps HR teams across the land are finding ways to exonerate themselves of any unpleasant behaviour by placing all the onus on the employees? The very term Quiet Quitting is misleading, as it implies that not working beyond what you are paid to do is somehow falling short of the standards expected.

Something is clearly wrong with our work culture if we have reached this point. So what do we need to change? Perhaps businesses should have been more mindful to learn lessons from the Covid pandemic, instead of panicking about getting back to Business As Usual.

It’s time we, as a society, ha took a good hard look at the way we work, and perhaps if we continue to slowly stop pandering to big businesses (where possible), they will be forced to change And if a change comes from society, then everyone benefits – even the  self-employed. But first, we have to know our worth, and accept that fairness is worth fighting for.

In praise of The Byrds

Music

A group best known for their cover of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man, but which created a ripple which ran further and deeper through popular music than you might realise. From famous alumni to mechanical innovations for country & western guitar music, here’s a small token of praise for folk rock pioneers, The Byrds.

Originally formed in early 1964 as The Jet Set, a trio of singer-guitar players Jim (later known as Roger) McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby, they soon augmented their line-up with Chris Hillman (bass/mandolin/vocals) and Michael Clarke (drums, and apparently hired on the strength of his excellent Brian Jones style haircut). They set out to meld the influence of British Invasion bands, most notably The Beatles, with traditional folk music in what was a unique new sound at the time.

In particular, the Fab Four was the inspiration behind McGuinn playing the Rickenbacker 360 12-string guitars that played a large part in the sound of their early records. A lot of the ‘jangly’ guitar music you hear in later bands – particularly the indie acts of the 80s and Britpop bands of the 90s – owe as much of a debt to The Byrds as they do to The Beatles.

They played ‘electric folk’ before Dylan (sort of)

Their first single was a cover of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man, which they recorded before Dylan’s original acoustic version was released as part of his album Bringing It All Back Home in March 1965. Interestingly, although this album marked the first time Dylan used a backing band and electrified instrumentation (on side one), his original version of Mr Tambourine Man is in his (at the time) traditional style of solo guitar and harmonica to accompany his vocals (as part of the all-acoustic side two). The Byrds’ version was finally released a month later, reaching number one on both the British and US charts.

This release was still a good two months prior to Dylan’s infamous appearance with a ‘rock’ band and playing electric guitars at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965. Dylan was friendly with the group and had got up on stage to jam with them at the start of year, undoubtedly helping their reputation beyond the folk scene before they’d released any records. It seems clear to me that both acts were part of a change to folk music that was happening at the time, and it’s fair to say they had a degree of influence on each other. The Byrds certainly covered a lot of Dylan songs on their debut album (also named Mr Tambourine Man, released in June 1965).

They went beyond folk rock

By the end of 1965, The Byrds had already begun to include more psychedelic influence in their songs. Most notably, Eight Miles High features guitar playing by McGuinn which was intended to emulate the playing of John Coltrane’s Impressions album, particularly the opening track India, in which Coltrane was seeking to recreate the raga lines of Indian performers such as Ravi Shankar.

Within less than two years of their formation, their line-up had started to change. As well as the raga-styled influences, The Byrds sound incorporated jazz, psychedelia and an increasing amount of country & western influences. By the end of their time together as a band (circa 1973), The Byrds’ sound was more representative of early country rock than their original folk sound.

Impressive alumni

Many members of he Byrds went on to form well known groups. David Crosby was dismissed from the band in 1967, for a variety of reasons (clashing egos with is bandmates seemingly chief amongst them). The following year, he formed the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash with Graham Nash (from the British pop group The Hollies) and Steven Still (from Canadian band Buffalo Springfield). By their second album, they had been joined by Stills’ former bandmate Neil Young, prompting a name change/extension to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Although their time together has been intermittent and varied, their earl albums produced highly popular hits, and their vocal harmonies have been highly influential on countless performers ever since.

Later members of the Byrds included Gram Parsons, another pioneer of country rock and Americana (and also notorious for the theft f his corpse and it’s unusual cremation after his untimely death in 1973). Members of The Byrds also went on (with Parsons) to form another influential country rock band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. Roger McGuinn continued as a solo performer, including collaborations with Dylan in the seventies, and has reformed The Byrds in various guises, largely for reunion tours) across the decades.

Two former members created a brand new guitar system

Clarence White, a highly respected bluegrass player and session guitarist, joined The Byrds in 1968. Also joining him was Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram), who ad previously performed with White in the country rock group Nashville West. Sometime between these two groups, White and Parsons discussed ways to simulate the sound of a pedal steel (which uses pedals to alter the pitches of some strings, similar to a harp) on the guitar. Parsons set out devising a system that would enable White to achieve what he was looking for.

Original patent design for the Parsons/White String Bender.

Parsons’ design involved adding a pulley system onto the strap button closest to the guitar’s neck, meaning that when the guitar is pulled downwards (away from the head of the player), a the pressure on the strap moved a lever which, in turn, raised one or more strings on the bridge of the guitar. As unwieldy as that sounds, the result was exactly what White was looking for, and Parsons later went into business selling these devises as retro-fits, usually onto Telecasters, like White’s original model. The design was originally licenced to Fender in the early seventies, and though they didn’t do anything with it originally they have since released their own special model of B-bender Telecaster guitars in recent decades. The B-bender guitar has become a poplar tool in country and country rock music, with guitarists such as Brad Paisley using them to amazing effect.

Here’s Parsons discussing his invention as part of a documentary on The Byrds:

I’d heard of the B-bender before, but it was only when reading an article about The Byrds a few months ago that I learned it was one of their drummers who invented it to help his bandmate out! It certainly demonstrates the lasting legacy of the band on modern country music.

This is in no way a definitive history of the band. There are numerous biographies out there that those interested in learning more about this group should seek out (an in all likelihood, probably already have). This brief overview (much like my previous article on The Animals) merely serves to show how some performers – of whom most people might only recognise less than a handful of songs – can influence the musicians you know and music you hear i ways you might not expect, and often without you realising it.

Can you think of any other bands that might have had a similar far-reaching effect as inventing a new kind of country guitar, or bringing Jimi Hendrix to wider recognition (see: The Animals)? Please let me know, as it may well end up in a future article! Since I have covered an A and a B band, perhaps new suggestions could follow on in this (unintentional) alphabetic format? Get in touch!