Back in the early 60s, when air conditioning was still a luxury, many a summer night kids would get together, cruise, get into a little trouble, make out. There was also a soundtrack to those salad days. It could be as serene and elegant as the Drifter’s “Up On The Roof” or intense and frenzied as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer In The City.” It had an ingrained funkiness that made one forget the heat and humidity a precious few moments.
Two people who knew how to come up with them were Steve “The Colonel” Cropper and Felix Cavaliere.
Cropper, born in Missouri back in 1941, moved to Memphis, Tennessee when he was nine. He couldn’t have arrived at a better time. This main port by the Mississippi River was turning into a major junction point for both country and blues, and out of it was born rock’n roll.
In 1961, Cropper’ first band, the Mar-Keys, came up with a funky little number called “Last Night.”It was pressed through a local record store and label, Satellite Records, and it climbed to the Top 5 of Billboard’s R&B chart. Due to legal considerations, Satellite had to change the name of their label, and Stax Records was born.
By the time Cropper was 21, he was so hot guitar that Stax one day threw the studio’s keys to him and made him the A&R man. Aided by drummer Al Jackson and bass player Lewis Steinberg (later replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn) Cropper led one of the best rhythm sections in Memphis, if not the world. He was then introduced to an even younger musical prodigy named Booker T. Jones…and before this quartet even had a name they had a #1 hit, “Green Onions.” It would be the start of an exceptional decade for what would soon be called Booker T. and the MGs.
By 1967, the MGs had their grooves tight and in the pocket with the single “Hip Hug-Her.” Jackson and Dunn cooked up a tight support while Jones vamped and soloed around them. Meanwhile Cropper had become the epitome of the old Ben Webster axiom of “if you can’t say it in eight bars, don’t say it at all.” His Telecaster could cut like a hot knife on sweet butter. He also developed a style that interweaved around any soloist or singer he was working with–among them Wilson Pickett, Otis Reading and Aretha Franklin–insuring what little he said was always heard.
“I think the Stax stuff we did lived so long because it was all [live] performances,” recalls Cropper on his web site. “Most of the hits you know were done in one take. There were really no overdubs. There might have been a little mixing later, back when we finally got a 4-track, but there weren’t any real overdubs. In fact, if there were, then in was a tambourine, or some hand clapping. Maybe some backgrounds.”
By the early 70s, Jones went one way and the rest of the band didn’t. Undaunted, Cropper returned to A&R, producing and playing guitar on a number of hit records. Then in 1978, he got a call from Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi to lead the Blues Brothers Band, who he still works with to this day. Even when Jackson was brutally murdered, the MGs would reform and become the backing band to the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and was the first band to play at the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
Nearly 50 years since “Last Night,” and Cropper is now considered one of the all time great guitar players, producers and songwriters of all time. He was voted the #2 guitar player of the 20th Century by Britain’s Mojo Magazine, induction into the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and his own brand of guitars through Peavey.
But Cropper wasn’t the only guy heating up the summer in the 60s. Up north there was a young keyboard player setting New York City on fire.
Felix Cavaliere was born in 1942 in Pelham, New York. It wasn’t long before the young man was making waves with his keyboard prowess, but his mother insisted he be a classicist. In the early 60s, he left to study medicine at Syracuse University. Around this time he had also discovered the Hammond B-3 organ decided to forego the Hippocratic Oath to follow such idols as Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith and Les McCann. He formed his own act, the Escorts. They even recorded a single entitled “Syracuse.”
“When I first went into the musical world, I was playing for everything,” Cavaliere recalled at the website American Blues News. “Weddings, Bar mitzvahs. We had to play everything. I don’t put myself into a category of I can only do this. We had to play whatever those people wanted to hear that night. It was our responsibility to play it. I learned it all. Latin music. [I] Love Latin music. I have incorporated that into my work for many years.
“It’s kind of like learning how to paint when you learn the basics, and then learn from the masters and copy their work so you know how to do it. I think this is the same thing. Now whether you establish a style or not, that really to me is good fortune. I have no idea how that happens. I’m very, very happy about it, because I love to sing!”
They did well enough to draw the attention of one Joey Dee, who lead another troupe, the Starliters. It wasn’t long before Joey Dee & The Starliters were a headline act at the legendary nightclub The Peppermint Lounge. They even had a #1 hit called “The Peppermint Twist.”
At one time or another the Starliters included Joe Pesci, the Ronettes, Charles Neville, Regis Philbin and a then unknown guitarist named Jimmy James before he returned to his family name of Hendrix. Still, the hottest version of the act had Cavaliere on keyboards, vocalist Eddie Brigati and guitar player Gene Cornish. One day Brigati called up a buddy from his native Lodi, New Jersey, drummer Dino Danelli, this new quartet would soon be calling themselves The (Young) Rascals. In 1965 they would replace the Starliters as the main act with their first #1 single, “Good Lovin.'”
Where the MGs could sit on a groove and rock your socks off, the Rascals would do it with youthful exuberance. One minute they could be as soulful as all get out with the Cavaliere-penned “Groovin'” (which the MGs even covered), the next they could tear the house down with rockers like “See” or “People Got To Be Free.” Along with the Righteous Brothers and Soul Survivors, the Rascals became the epitome of what would be labeled Blue-Eyed Soul.
Yet, success meant the band would eventually fall apart. Cavaliere and Brigati wanted to go jazz. Cornish and Danelli wanted to continue exploring pop. The latter two would soon bolt for form the bands Bulldog and then Fotomaker (with Raspberries guitarist Wally Bryson). Cavaliere and Brigati’s reinvented Rascals ended a bust, even though they had stellar jazz support from Alice Coltrane, Hubert Laws, Buzz Feiten and a young David Sanbourn. The Rascals were no more by 1973. They would only reform once–without Danelli–to celebrate Atlantic Records 50th Anniversary.
As it happened, Cavaliere also turned to production and a respectable solo career. He would even have a few hits on his own. He, and the rest of the Rascals, would eventually also earn their own spot in the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame.
What’s interesting though was the Cropper and Cavaliere knew each other for almost all this time. According to Cavaliere, they had been introduced to each other through Atlantic Records legendary producer Tom Dowd around 1967. Still, it would take nearly 40 years before the two would think about teaming up…and by now they both were living in the same city, Nashville.
In fact, the team up of Cropper and Cavaliere is due to another rock’n roll legend, Ringo Starr. Ringo loves to put together groups made of past musical superstars and take them on the road. In fact, he’s still doing it today.
“It started with the Ringo Starr Band,” says Cropper. “When Randy Bachman left he wanted me to come and join them. We talked about it, and then I did. I think we did about 21 shows together. That’s when Billy Preston was in the band. We still had Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad), and they brought in Lou Gramm (Foreigner). That was a pretty good combination. We did a lot of corporate shows. I called it ‘Jukebox Onstage,’ because everybody was just doing their hits. That’s what people want to hear, you know.”
In 2009, the first collaboration between the Cavaliere and Cropper would be called Nudge It Up a Notch, on the recently resuscitated Stax Records no less. If it sounded like a whole new swatch of Rascals and MGs tunes, it was admittedly intentional. It also was a crowd pleaser that did so well a second record Stax requested a follow-up.
Released this June, the second collaboration is entitled Midnight Flyer, and this time Cavaliere decided to do things a little different. Over the years he became enamored with synthesizers, samplers and loops, and wanted to see if he and Cropper could take them out of the frigid domains of disco for some funkier beats.
Admittedly, Midnight Flyer has some dull moments. First of all, no synth or series of patches just have the grits to match up with a Dunn and Jackson or Danelli and Cornish. For instance, the opening track, “You Give Me All I Need” probably would make a great Hall & Oates song. While Cavaliere does have a set of pipes that can match Daryl Hall note for note, he still sounds wrong when surrounded by cyberized Philly Soul sweetness. Quite frankly, both artists are at their best when there’s that touch of rawness running through one of their songs.
On the other hand, when the two keep the loops and orchestration down to minimum, the results are hot. The last two tracks in particular, a cover of the Ann Peebles blues classic “I Can’t Stand The Rain” and the instrumental “Do It Like This” will bring back nostalgic memories of balmy summer nights with hot girlfriends. The title track is a sly piece of funk with a chugging rhythm that’s totally infectious. These are the kind of things one would expect from these two old masters, and even though it’s a long time since “Green Onions” or “Good Lovin,'” they can still give it up. .
As for the present? In his interview Cavaliere admits he and Croppr are both so busy they have a hard time meeting with each other. Apparently at this moment Cropper is back out on the road with the Blues Brothers, shaking it up over on the other side of the Atlantic. He also started his own record label, PlayItSteve! Cavaliere still tours, too, usually under the moniker of Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals.
No matter what, whether together or apart, both these rock’n roll masters look like they have plenty of summer grooves to sooth our souls. Next time let’s hope they dump the synths and concentrate on just the B-3 and the Telecaster.