A Conversation with Felix Cavaliere and Steve Cropper (Part One)

Felix Cavaliere and Steve Cropper are among the most highly respected names in pop music. As guitarist and producer for the legendary Stax house band Booker T & the MGs, Cropper appeared on hundreds of essential soul and R&B tracks. Cropper played with Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Albert King, Eddie Floyd, the Blues Brothers…the list goes on and on. His signature licks are among the most iconic and recognizable in all of music. Felix Cavaliere founded the (Young) Rascals in 1964, and throughout that decade that group gave the British Invasion a run for its money with an impressive string of hits featuring Cavaliere’s soulful voice and distinctive Hammond B3 organ work.

If these musicians had chosen to retire in, say, the 1970s, their reputations would be secure for all time.  But fortunately, both artists have continued to record and tour. Cropper remains a frequent contributor to others’ albums, and continues to work with Booker T & the MGs. And Cavaliere fronts his band (called Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals) for dates across the country. In 2008 these two men decided to record an album together, and that Grammy-nominated success of that album led to 2010’s Midnight Flyer. On the even of the new album’s release, I took the opportunity to speak at length with both of them.

Bill Kopp / Musoscribe: You both come from soul backgrounds. How aware were you of each other’s work back in the 1960s? Did you ever share a bill, or did your paths otherwise cross at all back then?

Felix Cavaliere:  The Atlantic group was like a big family. Quite different from the other record companies in existence at that time, it was closer, more akin to the Motown family. Steve would come to New York quite frequently. If you look at the recording history, you’ll see that Booker T & the MGs did “Groovin’” and had a hit with it as well. Some of the other songs we had done in our live show, they had taken those songs and done instrumentals. So there’s been a relationship – more on a business than on a personal level – between Steve and myself and those guys for at least forty years.

Steve Cropper: Being exposed to radio, being a radio nut, my whole career was not based on trying to impress people with music; it was based on trying to get hit records. The whole indoctrination of Stax records was to get the next chart hit record. Whether it’d be on the R&B charts, the pop charts, whatever. Stax was a singles label to some degree, and so too was Atlantic in those days. Even though they released tons and tons of albums, they really wanted those hit singles from their artists. That’s how we came to work with Wilson Pickett. Because of the connection with Atlantic – -with them being Stax’s distributor – I got to be really good friends with [producer] Tom Dowd. Tom had produced everybody — from the Drifters to Ray Charles to you-name-it. And he really made me aware of these guys The Rascals.

We were all aware that blue-eyed soul in those days just didn’t sell all that much, y’know? But there seemed to be some taste for it, and these guys out of New Jersey and New York just had a way with that kind of music. It worked for ‘em. But it didn’t work down South so much. We had a few one-hit wonders — Roy Head and people like that – but most of ‘em never made it past their one hit. I’ve always had a respect for Felix. Our connection came through the Northwest Allstar Band. We did that and realized how much fun we had working together. And we discovered how close the audiences are – people that like his music and like our music.

Bill: How did you come to work with each other? I know you both live in Nashville, but I’m guessing that there’s more to it than that.

Felix: Nashville is a Mecca for people who write songs. It’s like a daily thing here that people get together and come up with new ideas, new songs. Then of course we have all of the studios for people to demo the songs. Jon Tiven had just moved to town, and he said, “why don’t you guys get together and do an album” We said, “We’re on two different labels, but we’d love to write together.” So basically we got together as a writing entity. We started writing, started having a blast. We starting recording it and it started sounding pretty good.

These recordings were demos for songwriters, primarily. Time went by, due to the fact that we’re both working musicians on the road. So it took a little longer. At the end of the day, we had about ten songs that Jon Tiven heard, and he said, “We gotta sell this stuff! We gotta get it out there!”

Steve: Jon Tiven said, “Maybe you should put this stuff out yourselves, instead of trying to shop it to other artists.”

Felix: Neither of us really had any aspirations of it doing anything [commercially], especially in today’s musical climate. But, why not?! And sure enough, it happened.

Steve: I said to Jon, “We don’t have a record deal. And I’ve pretty much had it with all that. The MGs can’t get one, the Rascals can’t get one. How are we gonna get one?” He said, “Let me get to work on it.” So he went out and got us a deal with Concord.

Felix: With the first one (Nudge it Up a Notch) we got great reviews, and we got a Grammy nomination. So when they asked us to do a second one, it was just a tremendous lift, you know?

Bill: You’re both inextricably associated with soul music. How would you describe the difference between Steve’s Memphis style and Felix’s New York sound? Or is there an appreciable difference?

Felix:  There’s a definite difference. Steve’s roots are Southern, blues-based, and that wonderful vernacular that they have down south lyrically. Mine comes from a classical and jazz root; that’s basically the difference. It’s really the big difference between the east coast and the south. And when it joins together, there’s a certain quaintness about it that you can’t quite put your finger on. For example, when we come up with a title, the things that Steve comes up with are so different, because they’re kind of southern-based words. And that’s been kind of a cool centerpiece for music since rock’n’roll started.

Steve: At the root of the music, I don’t think there is a lot of difference. It’s rhythm-based music, and the overall projection of it is good music. Even if it’s a medium-tempo ballad, it’s about feeling good. It’s not tear-jerkin’ stuff. We had “Dock of the Bay,” which is medium-tempo, and he had “Groovin.’” And both of those songs have that soulful quality that makes you feel good inside. People relate to it, and it makes you feel better as you go through your daily routine. And of course the Rascals did a version of “In the Midnight Hour,” which is a nice connection. So I think Felix and I just automatically read each other’s minds. Without saying so, we have the same sort of direction.

Bill: How – if in any way – do you think that Midnight Flyer differs from Nudge it Up a Notch? I see that both David Z and Tom Hambridge are involved again…

Steve: I think this album has a little more serious direction musically. The last one was more simple. These songs are more thought out. And I think this record has more keyboard influence in it than the last record did. Felix’s voice is still there, of course. I’m not saying he’s playing more on this album; it’s that there’s more keyboard influence in the root of the writing of the songs. The last album was based more on the guitar chugging along. On the last one, I was in on the writing of every song. On this one I wasn’t on every single one. And I think that’s kind of a good thing. It opened it up. It was kind of fun for me to come in and lay down guitar on something I hadn’t heard before.

Bill: About your approach to writing these songs. Did you each bring pieces of songs to the project and then finish them together, or did you write in the studio, or what?

Felix: One of the things that we’ve done with this album that is kind of different for us, is that we’ve used Apple Logic loops. We went into a studio that Steve used to own, and we wrote in the studio. Basically, we had an invisible drummer that came in from the computer, and we had a keyboard and a guitar. And then Tom Hambridge — who’s a great writer as well as a great musician – co-wrote with the two of us on almost all of the songs. So we literally wrote the songs on the spot. We’d come in with some ideas, and what I did was bring mine in on the computer. So instead of it being merely a verbal idea, it was something I could present.

And it’s really a lot of fun like that. In the old, old days, you used to have the luxury of writing in the studio. Unless you have your own studio nowadays, that’s impossible. But if you do have [access to a studio], you can do that. And it’s a whole lot of fun. First of all, it sounds a lot better as you’re doing it. And you get this kind of “excitement of the hunt.”

Bill: I hadn’t thought about that. In a way, modern technology allows musicians to go back to the tried-and-true method of writing in the studio.

Felix: As you get older, people can’t afford the time to sit around jamming like they used to do. So we have a drummer that doesn’t need to take a break, ‘cause he’s in the computer! That’s really where this technology can come into successful use. And the plethora of ideas that come from those loops – where do they even come from? Even the title Midnight Flyer: that came from one of the Apple loops. The ideas came from guitar, harmonica, drum loops. I can tell you, if I hadn’t heard some of those loops, I would have never written a song like that. Loops totally inspired the whole thing. In the old days, you would experience the idea by traveling to New Orleans; nowadays you can basically do that on the computer! Not as much fun as going to New Orleans, but…[laughs].

The software that I’ve purchased for this is just magnificent. There’s a program called Sonisphere by a company called Spectrasonics. They have expended so much time creating sounds that you would never even have heard of. For example, they took pianos, and recorded the sound of them burning! So you hear strings snapping. What they’ve done in the music field, is that they’ve taken these sounds that sound eerie, and they’ve made it so that we can play them. So there are some really weird sounds in there. I just love it. But of course we can’t get too modern. If we get too modern, we’ll get panned. We’re two oldies-but-goodies guys who are keeping our roots as much as we can, while using modern technology.

Bill: Yeah, you don’t want to make something that gets dated, where in five years people will say, “Oh, that’s so 2010.”

Felix: Yeah, whatever that means. I don’t know if we’ll still be making music in five years!

Bill: Have there been – or will there be – any live dates, any performances of these songs? If not, did sort of knowing that you wouldn’t be playing these live have any effect on your songwriting and/or arrangement?

Felix: We haven’t to date. But I certainly do hope we do something live. It would certainly take some organization, because we are two separate entities. To bring those together is certainly possible; we just need an excuse. Something like a showcase, or an event where people would like to have us play. We could work it together really quickly.

Steve: If we get forced into it, holy shit. It’s scarin’ my pants off. Because, at my age, having to learn a whole new routine…but it can be done. It’s not a problem. What I’ve done with bands in the past – Jimmy Buffett, Neil Young, Dave Edmunds, you name it – I have to learn their catalog of songs. And even in the old days it took some work. Music fans think — since you wrote it, and you played on the recording, and you’re the artist who did it — that you know it like the back of your hand. And it’s not necessarily true, especially in the old days at Stax. I’d say, “You know what? We’ve cut a hundred and fifty songs since we cut that one.” So I know it, but I’d need to re-learn it, just like anybody else.

But it would be a fun challenge to put something together. And I’ve always envisioned that if Felix and I ever did go out together, he could do Felix and the Rascals stuff, and I could do Booker T stuff, and Blues Brothers stuff. And then he and I could present, “How would you guys like to hear a couple things we’ve collaborated on.” We wouldn’t promote the show as just the new record; it would be deeper than that. I think people that would come to see us would want to hear our hits as well. That’s just me. There would never be a dull moment, that’s for sure.

In Part Two Steve Cropper owns up to lifting a lick from a popular song, Felix Cavaliere reveals that he’s not all that crazy about Hammond B3s, and the two consider what a potential Cropper/Cavaliere gig might be like.