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…

Great Guitarists #11: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Great Guitarists

In this installment, a singer and guitar player who took the blues, folk and gospel and created what could arguably be considered the forerunner to rock’n’roll…

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Born in 1915, Tharpe (born Rosetta Nubin) started playing guitar and singing in church at the young age of just four years old. Touring with an evangelical church troupe from the age of six, she settled in Chicago. Her stage name comes from her first marriage to preacher Thomas Tharpe at the age of 19; she carried on using the name Tharpe professionally after their divorce in 1984 , up until her death from a stroke in 1973 (during which time she remarried twice).

Tharpe is perhaps best remembered as a singer, with a loud clear singing style. But something about her singing, combined with her foot stomping and blues-tinged guitar picking – not to mention some cool lead lines – stirred the interest in many young listeners who would go on to be the next generation of musicians. Little Richard and Johnny Cash both called Tharpe their favourite singer, she is cited as a crucial influence to artists such as Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes, Meatloaf and Karen Carpenter. Tharpe’s appearance on a British TV special about the Blues and Gospel Caravan, a European tour of US musicians that also included Muddy Waters, Otis Span and Sonny Terry, amongst many others, brought her to the attention of British audiences, including future guitar superstars like Eric Clapton.

“Tharpe’s guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing that was a precursor of rock and roll”

Biography.com (‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe’, 2015)

Tharpe’s guitar playing is said to have directly influenced the vocals/guitar style of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley – and if the first rock’n’rollers such as Berry, Presley and Richard call Tharpe an influence, she must the foundation of all that followed…

Tharpe’s career was curtailed by a stroke in 1970, and she died just three years later. Nowadays, her influence is often unfairly overlooked, and sometimes forgotten entirely. However, Tharpe played a crucial role in the history of American music of the 20th century, not to mention the birth of rock’n’roll. Furthermore, in this brilliant article by Erin White, Tharpe is hailed as a Queer Icon too, largely due to speculation over her affair with singer Marie Knight.

Here she is on a TV show in the mid-sixties, singing a gospel song with a gospel choir, but playing a slightly overdriven Gibson Les Paul Custom (although we know these as a Gibson SG nowadays) with it’s three humbuckers. She also pops in a blues-based solo in the middle!

When I think of three humbucker guitars, I recall Neil Young’s ‘Black Beauty’ Les Paul, or the rock band KISS. As for the SG guitar shape, Angus Young of AC/DC and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath are the first two players who spring to most people’s minds – not a lady in her fifties singing a combination of blues and gospel. It must be remembered that for many, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first black woman they’d ever seen playing an electric guitar, and she could play! But what else should we expect from the Tharpe – one of a small handful who can truly claim to be the start, or inspiration, of rock’n’roll?

Recommended listening

Tharpe’s 1944 single Strange Things Happening Every Day, is considered one of the first rock’n’roll singles, and is the first ever Gospel record to make it onto Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (now called their R&B chart). One her most acclaimed studio albums is Gospel Train (Mercury, 1956). This record marks the stylistic change, backed by New York session musicians, and is considered highly influential on later rock’n’roll artists.

With a career that took place from the 30’s to the early 70’s, it is sometimes best to seek out compilation albums in order to have all of Tharpe’s most well-known releases in one place. To that end, I would recommend Bring Back Those Happy Days: Greatest Hits and Selected Recordings (Jasmine, 2018), or the 4-CD set The Original Soul Sister (Proper, 2002).

As with each installment in the Great Guitarists series, I have only touched upon the surface of these influential players. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them, as well as recommendations on who should be featured (I have another four or five lined up already – I wonder if anyone can guess who is coming next?). Until next time…

Great Guitarists #10: Mary Osborne

Great Guitarists

In this, the tenth installment of my Great Guitarists series, I’m a little ashamed to say we have only looked at male guitar players so far. So, to round off my first ‘dectet’ of influential guitar players (and keeping in a jazz theme, like the previous installments), let me introduce to you Mary Osborne…

Picture Credit: Gretsch, 1959

Osborne was born into a musical family in North Dakota, 1921. Both her parents were musicians and her father’s barbershop was a known gathering place for local players. Already playing live by the time she was a teenager, Osborne was influenced by the playing of early jazz pioneers Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang. However, it was Charlie Christian who first captivated her, and mentored her for a while, fine tuning her great sense of swing.

Osborne’s career ranged from trios (her own, and the Winifred McDonnell Trio near the start of her professional career), as well as some work as a sideman (or sidewoman) for the likes of Buddy Rogers, Joe Venuti (whose act included vocalists Kay Starr and The Andrews Sisters), amog many others. In the first of two spells in New York, she was the guitarist in Minton’s house band, where bebop was invented during the jams the legends of jazz had there. Her career continued throughout her life, and she was still performing live up until her death in 1992, at the age of seventy.

Osborne (R), with Billie Holiday (L), 1958. Picture Credit: Nancy Miller Elliot

Equipment

Osborne purchased the same model of Gibson archtop that Charlie Christian played – the ES-150, an early version of the classic archtop ‘jazz boxes’ we know and love today. It came with a large spruce body and a single-coil pickup near the neck, itself containing a large magnet that helped deliver good definition and attack. She later played other guitars by Gibson, as well as models by Gretsch, such as the White Falcon. In the 1970’s, Osborne founded her own guitar company, Osborne Sound Laboratories, formed from the ashes of the Mosrite Guitar Company (whom her husband had worked for at the end of the 1960’s). Osborne Sound Laboratories made amplifiers personally tested by Mary herself, as well as a selection if interesting instruments (including funky looking solid bodies such as in the picture below). Sadly, they couldn’t penetrate the market due to the dominance of the big manufactures, such as Fender (despite their well-known quality issues in this decade) and the company folded in 1980.

Osborne Sound Laboratories guitars from the 1970’s. Picture Credit: VintageGuitar.com

Recommended listening

Osborne’s 1959 LP A Girl And Her Guitar (Warwick) stands testament to her talents in a golden era for jazz guitar. Her later record Now And Then (Stash, 1981) shows a player who survived longer than most of her contemporaries, and continued to play beautifully.

Also, check out The Mighty Two (1963, Roulette), an LP by the two legendary drummers Louis Bellson and Gene Krupa. Although this was conceived as an instructional album for budding drummers, several tracks feature six musicians accompanying both drummers through nine of the songs on the record. As well as featuring Osborne on guitar, you can hear Milt Hinton (bass), Joe Wilder and Joe Newman (trumpet), Phil Woods (alto sax), Dick Hymen (piano) and Tyree Glenn (trombone) – something of a who’s who in sidemen for the time. The ensemble playing is tight, and the entire LP is a unique artefact of jazz history.