Thursday, September 1, 2011

Steve Cropper Deadicated- A Salute To The 5 Royales 2011

I've discussed with misgivings the Dreaded Tribute Album before. It is usually a disappointing mix of artists and styles and recording venues that combine to form a bit of a mish-mash that has a few great moments between mostly lackluster performances by artists often mismatched with material that doesn't suit them.

Well, as tribute records go, there is a new gold standard. The bar has been set, and it is very high indeed. And it should come as no surprise that the man making the best tribute record ever is Steve Cropper. Guitarist extraordinaire Cropper should need no introduction, but just in case, here goes. Guitarist for Booker T. and the M.G.s, both on their funky records and as the house band behind many if not most of the great soul records released on the Stax and Volt labels in the sixties. On many of those sessions, he was also a songwriter and/or producer. Guitarist for the Blues Brothers, who of course mostly lived off the Memphis and Muscle Shoals soul that Cropper help define. And really, that's just the beginning. He went on to produce many artists and recorded a number of solo albums.

This record is so good I don't know where to begin. Cropper admired Lowman Pauling, the guitarist of the 5 Royales, and was influenced early by Pauling's guitar playing. The 5 Royales recorded between 1950-1957, and it could be argued that they were combining R&B, Doo-Wop and Gospel into the precursor of soul music every bit as much as Ray Charles, who usually gets the credit. And it turns out that Pauling was also a fantastic songwriter.

But all that won't make for a great record either. First, the songs are great. Second, the band is Cropper, Muscle Shoals veteran David Hood on bass, the incomparable Spooner Oldham on piano, Steve Ferrone and Steve Jordan on drums, and producer Jon Tiven and The Daptone's Neal Sugerman on sax. And they are tight. Third, about half the vocal performances were actually recorded live with the band because all the guests contacted were falling all over themselves to participate in any project in which Cropper was involved. Fourth, the guest stars are really stars in their own right, no second-stringers hired to flesh out the record. Vocalists are B.B. King, Shemika Copeland, Sharon Jones, John Popper, Bettye LaVette, Steve Winwood, Delbert McClinton, Lucinda Williams, Dylan Leblanc, Dan Penn, and Buddy Miller. Miller and May also add even more killer guitar to Cropper's remarkable chops. Fifth, every performance is stellar. Band, arrangement, vocal- everything clicks. Sixth, and this one should have come first really, Steve Cropper plays the heck out of everything, in the most unassuming way possible. This guy is so good, and always has been, that it takes a while to realize just how magnificently he plays. He is a guitarist who has always served the song first and foremost, and never his ego.  

Lucinda Williams doing Dedicated To The One I Love (it's too cool), Sharon Jones's Messin' Up, Buddy Miller's The Slummer The Slum, and Dan Penn's lovely reading of Someone Made You For Me are all great vocal performances backed by that stellar band, all recorded in Dan Penn's studio. The instrumental Think (yes, the song James Brown covered famously) shows off Cropper's skills both as guitarist and arranger/band leader. The rest of the songs? There isn't a single weak performance.

The recording is clean and neat, just like those Stax records of yore, but with modern production values. If you have any interest in Cropper's playing, or you just want to hear a killer record for a change, look no further. Five stars. This is not product. This is music lovingly prepared by talent of the highest caliber.

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