Cropper was born on a farm near Willow Springs, Missouri. At age nine his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he got his first exposure to Black gospel music; it changed the course of his life. At 14 he got his first guitar and taught himself to play by listening to recordings by Tal Farlow, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Chet Atkins, and Lowman Pauling (the Five Royales).
At 18, he and guitarist Charlie Freeman formed the Royal Spades in 1958. The band eventually morphed into the Mar-Keys, who got a bit of session work at Satellite, but really hit their stride when the label evolved into Stax. They delivered their first single, the million-selling number three hit "Last Night" in 1961 and followed it with the four-track EP Do the Pop-Eye in early 1962. That same year, Cropper and Mar-Keys alternates, 17-year-old organist Booker T. Jones, drummer Al Jackson, Jr., and bassist Lewis Steinberg, formed a second, leaner house band, Booker T the MG's. (Donald Duck Dunn replaced Steinberg in 1965). They issued the classic, groundbreaking single "Green Onions" and their debut album of the same title later that year. In addition to playing, arranging, and producing with the Mar-Keys and the MG's, Cropper was given the job of A&R man at Stax by label boss Jim Stewart.
Between 1965 and 1969, Cropper produced and played on more than 100 singles and more than two-dozen albums by artists ranging from Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Sam Dave to Eddie Floyd, Mavis Staples, and Don Covay. Though he's amassed numerous songwriting and arranging credits since 1959, Cropper came into his own as a writer with Stax, co-composing dozens of hits from 1962 on. In 1965 alone he co-wrote "Just One More Day" with Redding and "In the Midnight Hour" with Pickett, "Chicken Scratch" with Rufus Thomas, "See Saw" with Covay, and "Comfort Me" for Carla Thomas. At the end of 1967, he and Redding completed "(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay." It remained unreleased until after the singer's death and became the first posthumous single to reach number one on the U.S. pop charts. In 1969, Cropper engineered and played on Johnnie Taylor's seminal Raw Blues, cut the collaborative Jammed Together with Albert King and Pops Staples, William Bell's Bound to Happen, and Delaney Bonnie's Home. That year he also released his debut solo set, With a Little Help from My Friends. It included his own instrumental versions of tunes he'd written, played on, and produced, among others.
Cropper left Stax in 1970. With Jerry Williams and former Mar-Key Ronnie Stoots, he co-founded TMI Studios but continued to play on, arrange, and engineer sides for his former label. At TMI, Cropper branched out. He became a sought-after session guitarist and producer. In addition to working on records by Eddie Floyd and other soul artists, Cropper began playing on recordings by Ringo Starr, John Prine, Buddy Miles, and Ramsey Lewis, to name just a few. As a producer he worked with Jose Feliciano, Mitch Ryder, Poco, Dreams (the jazz-rock supergroup that included the Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, and John Abercrombie), the Jeff Beck Group, Roy Head, and many others.
In 1975 Cropper, along with the rest of Booker T the MG's, relocated to Los Angeles. The guitarist began producing records by Ned Doheny, Tower of Power, and Robben Ford while continuing to work with Floyd. Tragedy stuck when MG's drummer Jackson was found murdered in his home. That same year, Cropper played a boatload of guitar on John Lennon's Phil Spector-produced Rock 'n' Roll. In 1977, Cropper joined Levon Helm the RCO All-Stars, with whom he cut a pair of acclaimed albums and toured the world.
In 1978, Cropper joined a cast of all-star musicians to back John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the Blues Brothers in a Saturday Night Live skit. It went over so well that it spawned the studio album Briefcase Full of Blues, and two years later the Hollywood comedy and soundtrack for The Blues Brothers as well as the live-in-studio follow-up Made in America. Even amid that flurry of activity, Cropper worked steadily on records by Rod Stewart, Leon Russell, and Kenny Rankin, and on the sessions for Big Star's 3rd. In 1980, he produced and played on John Cougar Mellencamp's Top 40 hit, Nothin' Matters and What If It Did.
In 1981, Cropper released his second LP, Playin' My Thang, for MCA. It featured a large cast of players including Dunn, Blues Brothers' drummer Willie Hall, keyboardist David Paich, a full horn section, and more. He followed it a year later with Night After Night, whose cast included first-call session players and vocalists including Jeff Skunk Baxter, David Hood, Barry Beckett, Bonnie Bramlett, and Burton Cummings. After Belushi's death in 1982, the Blues Brothers continued to tour with a rotating cast of singers and players. They re-formed in 1988 for a world tour and Cropper left L.A. for Nashville. In Music City, the guitarist did studio work for many country artists including Mickey Gilley, Dolly Parton, Janie Fricke, and Jimmy Buffett, but continued his work in blues and pop, playing sessions by Rod Stewart, B.B. King, and Etta James. In 1989, Cropper played on the track "The Only One" during the sessions for Roy Orbison's final studio album Mystery Girl.
In 1990, the Blues Brothers issued Montreux Live!, and Booker T the MG's released their reunion album McLemore Avenue. In 1992, after working in an all-star cast for James' Jerry Wexler-produced The Right Time, Cropper went to work on Wynonna Judd's solo debut, Tell Me Why. He also worked with blueswoman Angela Strehli and guitarist Joe Louis Walker. In 1997, Cropper appeared on Paul Simon's Songs from the Capeman, and in 1998 joined the cast of the film Blues Brothers 2000, then reunited the band for a tour. He also lent his guitar to Ringo Starr's Vertical Man, Buddy Guy's Heavy Love, Johnny Lang's Wander This World, and the soundtrack for John Carpenter's Vampires.
Cropper spent the first few years of the 21st century playing on soundtracks and contributing to anthologies. In 2001 he played on John Kay's Heretics Privateers and appeared with a stellar cast of axe slingers including Peter Green, Gary Moore, and Billy Gibbons on John Mayall's Along for the Ride. In 2003, Cropper assembled the band, produced, mixed, and played on Shemekia Copeland's globally acclaimed The Soul Truth. Two years later, he and a large host of session luminaries including Reggie Young, Spooner Oldham, Al Kooper, and Dan Penn joined Frank Black's studio band for Honeycomb and reprised their roles on the Pixies' frontman's Fast Man Raider Man the following year. In 2008 he helmed the sessions for Guy Sebastian's The Memphis Album.
For the Copeland project, Cropper enlisted old friend and former Young Rascals' lead vocalist and songwriter Felix Cavaliere as a collaborator. In 2008 they assembled their own studio band and, produced by Jon Tiven, recorded Nudge It Up a Notch for the revamped Stax label. In 2010, Cropper was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He and Cavaliere issued the follow-up Midnight Flyer that year, co-producing it with Tom Hambridge.
In 2011, Cropper released his heartfelt Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales -- and especially their influential guitarist Lowman Pete Pauling -- on 429 Records. His large, star-studded cast included instrumentalists Spooner Oldham, Steve Jordan, and Willie Jones, as well as vocalists Copeland, B.B. King, Keb Mo, Delbert McClinton, Bettye Lavette, and Lucinda Williams. Co-produced with Tiven and with horn charts from Neal Sugarman, it was mixed by Brian May.
In 2012 Cropper joined Jerry Lee Lewis for Third Man Live 04-17-2011, and two years later he played on the Ed Palermo Big Band's Electric Butter. The guitarist worked with Tiven and Stephen Kalinich on Each Soul Has a Voice in 2014, and in 2017 released The Last Shade of Blue Before Black with the Blues Brothers Band and guests including Dr. John, Eddie Floyd, Paul Shaffer, and Joe Louis Walker. In 2018, Cropper returned to work with Copeland as a guitarist on the Will Kimbrough-produced America's Child.
In April 2021, Cropper returned with his own Fire It Up for Provogue. Co-produced with Tiven, the Grammy-nominated set featured the pair in a core quartet with Roger C. Reale on vocals and Nioshi Jackson on drums. Cavaliere provided guest keyboards on two cuts, while a host of guest drummers were also hired on and included Chester Thompson, Omar Hakim, and Anton Fig. ~ Cub Koda & Thom Jurek, Rovi
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