The Blues Brothers made him famous when John Belushi shouted “play it, Steve” in the middle of “Soul Man.”
In his 60-year career, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steve Cropper has carved a place in rock 'n' soul music history as a guitarist, songwriter and member of Booker T & the M.G.s.
Before he took the stage Saturday at the eighth annual Lowertown Guitar Festival at Como Park Pavilion in St. Paul, he told some stories about his career in a Q&A session with festival sponsors.
“This is a true story,” Cropper, 77, said just about every time, implying that maybe some stories are embellished by people.
He spun tales about recording “Dock of the Bay” with Otis Redding and writing “Knock on Wood” and “Ninety Nine and a Half (Won't Do)” (after seeing a billboard for Coca Cola) with Eddie Floyd.
Cropper told the story how Booker T & M.G.s’ breakthrough hit “Green Onions” came about. The group, which was the house band at Stax Studio in Memphis, was scheduled to back a singer who, it turned out, was having a sore throat. So the musicians were just jamming in the studio. Jim Stewart, co-owner of Stax, happened to have tape running and recorded the session.
He liked the instrumental jam and made a copy. Cropper played it for a local radio DJ friend to get feedback and, unbeknownst to Cropper, the DJ then played it on the air, and listeners clamored to buy copies.
Wanting to quickly press the single, Stewart asked the band what the tune was called. Bassist Lewie Steinberg said, “Let’s call it ‘Onions' because it’s the stankingest music I’ve heard.”
Cropper said onions make people cry. So he suggested “Green Onions.”
The guitarist’s best story may have been about the Blues Brothers.
Remember the scene in “The Blues Brothers” movie where the band is playing behind chicken wire in a club? It was inspired by real life experiences of Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn. The reason for chicken wire in bars was not so much to protect the musicians as to protect their equipment, which was property of the club owners.
Then Cropper added a piece of trivia: "Who was off screen throwing bottles at the chicken wire? Sissy Spacek and Willie Nelson. Why? Because they were in the soundstage next door making ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’”
After the Q&A, Cropper delivered about 30 minutes of his "hits" backed by an all-star Twin Cities band, with Jay Bee handling most of the lead vocals. The star attraction told abbreviated backstories about some of the tunes, but mostly he played his tasty and famous guitar licks to the delight of a standing-room-only crowd.