A Conversation with Felix Cavaliere and Steve Cropper (part two)

(Continued from Part One)

Bill Kopp / Musoscribe: There’s a lick on the title track that sounds a lot like the break on Sam & Dave‘s “Soul Man.” Was that a subtle nod to Steve’s past, or am I just hearing things?

Felix Cavaliere: [laughs heartily] You’ll have to ask Steve about that! It’s kinda like, “whoops — you can’t miss that one, can you?” But at least he did it. It’s really interesting working with another artist. It’s like walking between towers: you have to walk gently.

Steve Cropper: It was intentional; you’re right about that. It was meant to remind people. Even though that song is played on the radio twenty times every day, it’s been a looong time since that song was out. So it’s just bringing people’s attention to the fact that that’s what I’m known for, that’s what I do. So why not do it now.

Bill: Both of you have long, illustrious and critically-acclaimed careers. How – if at all — does having that behind you affect this project? What I mean is, do you perceive any pressure to create something extra special because people know they can expect taste and quality from you? Or do those sorts of outside concerns not really factor in?

Felix: I welcome the pressure. Because it kind of gives you a quality level to try and achieve. As a matter of fact, I don’t feel like I really achieved that level on the first album. Everything you do goes into your legacy. And it’s easy to make junk. Anybody can do that. It’s the difference between a sketch and a painting. We worked really hard; I spent a lot of hours on this album, and enjoyed every moment of it. We both feel like we’re really lucky, really fortunate to be able to make music at this time in our lives.

Steve: It’s always on my mind. We don’t want to put out a bunch of junk. There’s two thought-waves on this. First, obviously you don’t want to get egg on your face for doing something that’s less than par. But it’s also in the back of our minds that, hey, age is what it is, but we still have a youthful attitude toward music. We both perform with energy; we’re not a couple guys sitting up there in chairs, y’know. If you listen to this record, Felix still sounds like he’s coming out of his teens!

Bill: Felix, you’re 65. But your vocals sound every bit as strong as ever. Seriously, I don’t hear that sort of darkening of tone that vocals often take on after fifty at all in your voice. Do you do any sort of “working out” (so to speak) for your vocals, or do the live dates do enough to keep you in form?

Felix: The live dates really do make a difference. You can’t stop, and then try to start again. That’s the thing; that’s when time takes over. And there’s also a tremendous amount of good luck involved; I’ll be honest with you. You’ve got to take care of it, nurture it.

Bill: Steve, you left the original Stax back in 1970, I believe. Now with Concord’s ownership of the Stax catalog, that body of work – including you, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and many others — seems to be getting handled in a pretty thoughtful, respectful and market-oriented manner. And you’re back on Stax. So are you pleased with Concord’s handling of the older Stax material? How involved are you in any of those reissues – things like Stax Does the Beatles and such?

Steve: Concord was already viable, and they did the best thing that they could, which was to buy the Stax catalog. They bought it from Fantasy, who had bought it from Atlantic and kept it alive for years and years and years. For Concord to pick it up was a good thing. When they called me up and said, “Concord wants to reactivate the Stax label” – meaning that instead of just releasing old catalog stuff, they wanted to bring in new artists, and do production, and put out new albums – I said “If they go about it with the same integrity that we did, about quality, and try to get the music to the listening ear, regardless of the age of the fan base, they might be successful at it.” They’ve still got to prove it, but it’s got a chance.

The problem today is airplay: How are you going to get this stuff played? We get hours and hours of airplay every day on the Stax catalog. But in that genre of oldies-but-goodies — we’re on the Weather Channel; you name it, we’re on it – they don’t play the new stuff. Several years back, Booker T & the MGs did our last record that was on Columbia (1994’s That’s the Way It Should Be), and we found it at Tower Records in the oldies-but-goodies section! I said, “Guys, we’re not winnin’ anything here. We’re supposed to be on a billboard out front that says ‘Hear the latest from Booker T & the MGs, the guys with hits like “Green Onions”’ and stuff like that. And instead they put us in the back of the room, in the oldies section!” We didn’t win.

Bill: There’s less up-front Hammond organ on this album that people might expect — at least people who are familiar with you guys primarily through the Rascals or Booker T & the MGs. Was it a conscious decision to craft a sound that wasn’t overly reminiscent of your 60s-era groups, or is the vibe of the album sort of organically a product of where you are musically these days?

Felix: When you play a keyboard today — as opposed to when you played a keyboard back in the 60s – there’s a tremendous difference in what’s available to you. The electronics today are magic. In the old days, for example, just to bend a note was impossible. You could not bend a note, unless you did some sort of electronic tape manipulation. Nowadays you can bend notes, you can go in between the tones to fatten up your sound. It’s incredible. So with all due respect to the Hammond Organ company — which is owned by a Japanese company now anyway – I’ve kind of moved on.

Bill: So when you play live, that’s not a B3?

Felix: Onstage I use a B3 and a modern Korg to produce other sounds. The Hammond has a basis in a pad: it blends very well with vocals, with horns. And it has sort of a rhythmic aspect to it with the Leslie spinning. But it’s limited as to other things it can do. I’d much rather play a synthesizer in a studio, and then a Hammond live.

I’ve never played any keyboard that got the “waterfall” action right like on a Hammond. You try and do a glissando, you’ll cut your hand on anything else.

Felix:  No question. The action on a Hammond is magic. But you know, that company had no clue what they had. They came out of Chicago, and they had no idea this thing was going to be one of the most soulful instruments in the world. And then this other company – Leslie – came along. And without a Leslie, a Hammond sounds horrible! But the Hammond people initially objected to the Leslie. Hammond would take the franchise license away from dealers who sold the Leslie. Eventually they bought Leslie. But I’d say to the Hammond people, “Okay, you made a great instrument, but you had no idea what you were doing.” And of course they stopped making them in 1972. Talk about an oldie-but-goodie! If you don’t find one that’s in good shape, they can be pretty bad.

But I never really felt like Hammond did anything for me beyond giving me an instrument to play. A lot of guitar companies, for example, really nurture their contacts, their players. So I don’t really have any love lost with the Hammond company. I love the instrument, but y’know what? I have a better relationship with Korg. They’ve helped me out over the years; they’ve let me try new stuff. So I’m really an exponent of the more modern stuff, with due respect to all the organ aficionados out there.

Bill: The impression I get is that Midnight Flyer was a relaxed, nothing-to-prove project for you guys. There’s plenty of spotlight given to backing vocalists, the bass parts, sax, etc. What I mean is that you guys aren’t all over the record with your own solos and stuff. Again, was that by design?

Steve: We didn’t approach it as “Let’s show ‘em what we can do,” or “This is an education in music.” We were just having a good time. Lyrically and hookwise, I think there’s more to this album than there was with the last one.

Bill: The album closer “Do It Like This” really rips it up, pulls out all the stops. For me, it could have gone on a lot longer. You seem to sort of know that people would want that, and the clip of Felix saying “that’s it” at the end is almost a playful sticking-your-tongue out  at the listeners, sort of like ending a concert on a high note so that people will really want to come back and see you next time.

Felix: You remember the record “Watusi?” It had talking behind it. That was my intent. But that song had a really weird creation. It started off as a vocal number. Jon Tiven was involved – in fact that’s the only song he was involved in – they put a vocal on it, and I hated it. So I said, “Let’s turn this thing into an instrumental.” Because it’s a cool instrumental. It has so much life to it. And the song wasn’t really a planned thing. It was more of a last-minute thing.

Steve: The original edit was a lot longer. Felix got in there with Tom Hambridge and edited it down, and I said fine. It’s sort of like the old days when songs weren’t over three minutes long. And I’ll tell you something – it ain’t a secret – in the old days if anyone got onto us that the song was too long, we’d just erase the time and put “2:59” on the label. Then we never had a problem getting played.

In the sixties, I was around radio. That’s all I did in my waking hours. And I noticed that disc jockeys always talked over a record until the singer started singing. And I decided, “I’m gonna try my damnedest to do something about that.” So I started making intros as powerful – more powerful — than the first verse. Like “In the Midnight Hour,” “Soul Man.” You can’t talk over it! It’s louder than you are! The disc jockeys would come to me and say, “Man, that intro of yours, it’s almost as good as the song.” I didn’t tell them that they were my inspiration! Those intros usually had nothing to do with the rest of the song. They were music outside of music.

Bill: So should we look forward to more Steve Cropper / Felix Cavaliere collaborative albums?

Felix: When Concord asked us to do a second album, I was absolutely thrilled. For somebody that wants to make music in 2010, it’s such an honor. So I would certainly welcome it. There are so many people in Nashville, and across the country, and around the world that would be thrilled to know that somebody actually wants to hear their music.

Steve: I took it very personally that Concord felt after the last one that they wanted another one. I got excited about it. And we’ll probably do another one anyway; we won’t wait for any kind of demand or anything. We just enjoy working together.

Bill: Steve, Felix has contrasted the subject matter of many songwriters with the more upbeat material the two of you wrote for these albums.

Steve:  A lot of deep songwriters – obviously they’re very good – in their lyrics, they’re projecting what’s going on with them. Local events, or things in their lives. I’ve been through that so many times, working with artists that just broke up with their girlfriend or their wife. They’re down and out, and they just want to write these sad things. And it’s like, “Oh, my lord. These are some pitiful songs!” And I have to sit through that. I want to say, “Man, can you write something that will get everybody up and dancing?” They’re just not in the mood for that, and I understand that. If you’re not feeling good, it’s kinda hard to throw that aside and pretend that everything else is great.

But I don’t think Felix and I have a problem like that. We look at each other, and we smile, and we just go for it. When somebody starts a groove, we just sort of contribute to it, rather than saying, “I don’t like that. I don’t feel like that groove today.” If that’s what the groove is, we just try to write something around it. Making everybody feel good is what it’s all about. The first album did that, and I hope the new one does that as well. The music makes us feel good, and we hope it makes other people feel good.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.