Dave Mason and Steve Cropper Talk About Their Rock & Soul Revue Tour

click to enlarge Steve Cropper - Light by Dawn Studios
Light by Dawn Studios
Steve Cropper
Dave Mason was all of 19 years old, by his telling, when he put pen to paper and wrote “Feelin’ Alright,” which wound up on the self-titled 1968 debut from Traffic, the band he co-founded with Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. The song from the British rock group has become a staple moment in Mason’s live set, but it found even more ears when Joe Cocker got a hold of it and put his own version out for his 1969 album With A Little Help From My Friends.

In the lyrics to the song, Mason wrote, “Got to stop believin’ in your lies/ Cause there’s too much to do before I die.” Little did he realize that he had a lot of days, months and years ahead of him as he wrote those words down. So it’s easy to understand why he’s been looking forward to his current Rock & Soul Revue tour with guitarist Steve Cropper. The two perform at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 19, at the Kent Stage.

“I’ve been doing ‘Dave’ for over 50 years,” he says with a chuckle, during a recent phone interview. “I just want to go out and put a cool rock and soul revue on the stage.”

With Cropper, he’s got the right ammunition to do just that. They’re both Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees — Mason, in 2004 with the members of Traffic, and Cropper, a 1992 inductee for his work with the legendary soulful rhythm and blues band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s. The amount of history that Cropper and Mason can bring to the stage together for one night is staggering. And as a fellow guitar player, one could understand if Mason found the prospect daunting. But he has a good view on the situation.

“I have to admit that things like ‘In the Midnight Hour,’ ‘Green Onions’ or stuff like that, I pretty much step off stage. Because for me, putting in another guitar in there, is kind of a bit redundant,” he says. “I want to hear his stuff and I get to sing some of them, which is great! That’s a kick. I get to sing ‘Midnight Hour,’ which is a trip. And we mix it up! There’s some of my stuff, there’s some stuff that Steve either co-wrote or played on. Then we throw other things in there, like ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ and ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll.’ It ties in a lot of history. There’s a hundred years or more between me and Cropper. We get to go out and play and do a great show with no dead weight in there, song-wise. It’s cool.”

In true revue fashion, Mason and Cropper are distributing the load a bit, with the help of Mason’s band, who form the instrumental core on this current tour.

“I’ve got my keyboard player singing some stuff, ‘Soul Man’ and ‘Knock on Wood.’ I have a great female singer in there, Gretchen Rhodes, who is singing ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ and a couple of other songs. It’s very much a revue. We have these great songs and we get to be up there together and play. I’m playing a couple of my songs without Steve in there and I’m stepping out for about three or four of his things. Because he’s the essence of the song, those guitar parts and I want them to come through without sitting back there and [adding something that isn’t necessary]. It’s cool. I mean, I hope people get turned onto it and get to enjoy it.”

Cropper is similarly excited about the current tour, which he spoke about during a separate phone call.

“It gives me a chance to play on some other stuff. I’ve been playing the same thing since I was a kid,” he laughs. “I try not to deviate too much. So I’m not really what you would call...even though I’ve been accused of being a guitar player’s guitar player, I’m not that kind of a guy. I do this same sound over and over and over and people dig it and I give them what they want and they seem to enjoy that. Dave allows me to do behind his stuff, stuff that was not on the record and I just play Steve Cropper. I do the same thing — that’s all I know how to do! [Laughs] When I sit in with people at different times, they just expect me to be me and I try as best as I can to be me, what they know me for.”

He sees a lot of common ground between himself and Mason, when looking at the work that they’ve done individually across the years.

“I’ve been fortunate, and so has he, to work with great singers and great artists. His work, a lot of it was done by other people and not by him,” Cropper says. “But he had his own hits too. I never did really have my own hits. In a way, I did with Booker T. & the M.G.’s, but we were a four man group, so we had to share everything, so I was one-fourth of something. Dave’s hits, ‘Only You Know and I Know,’ that one was him and he did more as well on his own. But a lot of the hits, other people did, like Joe Cocker’s hit. I didn’t even know he wrote that, because I don’t really get into that so much.”

Whatever might be buried in the liner notes, there are also a lot of incredible stories that go with the songs. When Mason and Cropper dig into their version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” it might come as a momentary surprise — until you realize that Mason himself, played the acoustic guitar on the recorded version by Jimi Hendrix.

“I am literally [part] of a handful of people that got to record and play with that guy. You know, there are a lot of great guitar players out there, but there are no more Jimi Hendrixes,” Mason points out. “He was just great. He was just so innovative. To have gotten to work with him was one of the big highlights for me that it happened. Like most of it, it’s [about being] at the right place at the right time. Happenstance.”

Mason was also in the right place to be able to sit in with the Rolling Stones on a couple of cuts on their Beggar’s Banquet album, and he’s cool with it, even though his work went uncredited at the time.

“I just played some of the drums and that weird horn on the end of ‘Street Fighting Man.’ I was there. We all used the same studio, and we were all using the same engineer, Eddie Kramer,” he explains. “Traffic and the Stones were using the same producer, Jimmy Miller. It was not unusual for people to stop by each other’s sessions back in London. There were only so many places to record. There were very few places to record. And everybody was in London. You would go out to some clubs at night, sort of semi-private clubs, and there’d be some of the Beatles, some of the Stones, whatever artist was happening, they would be there. It was very easy to cross paths with people.”

For Cropper, a 1993 journey working with Booker T. & the M.G.'s as the backing band for Neil Young for a tour was quite an experience.

“That was about as good as it gets, right there. If it were known, I don’t think of anything official, there’s no awards or anything, but we were voted the number one tour of the year that year,” Cropper remembers. “It was a great tour, and Neil loved it and thought it was fantastic, and heavy duty people like Sting would come backstage. Sting, we were over in Cordova, Spain, I think, and he said, 'Why didn’t I think of this, having Booker T & the M.G.’s back me?' [Laughs] He did pretty good on his own, but we had comments like that."

Cropper says that Young also “got a lot of bad mail on the tour” with detractors saying that Booker T. & the M.G.’s were “too slick for him,” a point of discussion that he disagrees with. And as he also recalls, the process of getting ready for the tour sent Neil digging into his past, literally.

“We brought him to a different level, but it didn’t stick. He’s great; there’s no question about it. Neil is just fantastic. He didn’t write one or two songs, he wrote hundreds of songs,” Cropper says now. “We came into rehearsal one day, not the first, but the second week of rehearsal. He was in there and had shoeboxes all over the floor. We said, ‘What are you doing, Neil?’ He said, ‘I’m looking for some more songs you guys can do.’ We were supposed to have a three week rehearsal and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re playing tonight’ and I’m going, ‘What? I don’t even know the songs that we’re doing yet. I mean, I don’t have them down in my head. I could look at my notes and play them.’ ‘Nope, we’re playing’ and we did. They made one phone call, and it’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. They made one phone call and filled the house out in San Francisco. One phone call is all they made, that Neil Young and Booker T & the M.G.’s are playing tonight, boom, that was the end of that. I don’t think it had anything to do with the M.G.’s; it had to do with Neil Young. They had it down. He’s like the Grateful Dead. All they have to do is let somebody know they’re showing up somewhere and 20,000 people show up.”

No matter how many negative letters Neil Young might have gotten for deciding to take Booker T. & the M.G.’s out, Mason says we owe the legendary band a huge debt of gratitude.

“Without Booker T & the M.G.’s or without any music that was made in America, there would be no British rock 'n' roll or blues players,” he says. “This is all of the stuff we listened to when we were kids. This is where it all comes from — jazz, blues, gospel, country, rock and roll, it’s all American music. We were just copying it. The one difference 50 years ago or more was that we didn’t have any segregated radio. That was the big difference. It's unlike America where black artists were not played on white stations and vice versa. You heard everything. It was just great music.”

It’s his mission with this current tour to make sure that more people acquire an awareness of Steve Cropper and the amazing work that he’s been a part of.

“He has a very distinct style [and that] makes him stand out. I’m doing it, because for me, it’s a trip to be able to [play these songs]. I was listening to this stuff when I was part of the bands I would listen to when I was 16, 17 and 18 years old,” Mason says. “All of these years later, I’m actually doing something with him. What’s amazing is how few people know who the hell he is. Or know the history or know what he’s contributed to. You’re talking about backing virtually every Stax artist that ever came out. Co-writing ‘(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,’ ‘In the Midnight Hour’ and stuff like that. For me, it’s amazing how few people know about this man’s history.”

Cropper remains humble about the success that he’s had with his work.

“Al Jackson [a founding member of Booker T. & the M.G.’s] said the most profound statement that I think I’ve ever heard. He said, ‘Well, Steve, you know, they’re all hits until they’re released,’” he remembers. “I went, ‘I never looked at it that way!’ [Laughs] Because it’s true. You do something, and it doesn’t mean that it’s going to make it, just because you like it and everybody else likes it. You’ve got to play it for the fans and see if they like it. If they like it, it will probably do something. If they don’t, it won’t. Fans are the best judges of your work. I’ve been fortunate, I’ve never had what I would call a bad show where people get up and walk out and say, ‘Eh, this ain’t nothing.’ They have fun. We get everybody’s booty moving and we get them dancing and having fun and singing along. It’s always a party wherever we go.”

Unless you’re partying with John Belushi — in which case, you needed to pack a change of clothes for that party, as Cropper humorously recalls now, when thinking about his departed Blues Brothers bandmate.

“He was a super guy, a lot better than he got credit for. He just had a big heart and loved everybody. I never saw him refuse a fan who wanted to touch him or wanted an autograph or whatever. I used to hang out with him a lot in New York and L.A. too. I never saw him refuse a fan or go, ‘I’m too tired, I don’t have time for this.’ I never saw him do that. The only thing about Belushi was that you couldn’t stay with him, because he’d stay up for two or three days,” he laughs. “You’d have to shut it down and say, ‘Okay, John, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ He’d go somewhere else and get somebody else to hang out all night long. And he did that. You know, religiously, he did that. He just went until he literally couldn’t go any further. He’d just drop and pass out. He was notorious for just knocking on somebody’s door, busting in and passing out on their couch. They were glad to see him. They’re going, ‘Man, we’ve got John Belushi sleeping in our house.’ They’d call everybody they knew! So he had no trouble with that. I remember one time, they had to go find him, because he didn’t show up on time for the shoot of the movie. They went around where he was the night before and found him in somebody’s house!”

Dave Mason and Steve Cropper, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19, Kent Stage, 175 E. Main St., Kent, 330-677-5005. Tickets: $55-$125, thekentstage.com.
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