Steve Cropper celebrates his 82nd birthday next month with a little help from his friends. Translation: The beloved Booker T. & the MGs guitarist’s first solo album, 1969’s With A Little Help From My Friends, is being reissued with bonus tracks on October 13. You can pick it up as a CD, LP or both, and then give a birthday toast to Cropper on Oct. 21.
Originally released by Memphis soul label Stax/Volt, where Booker T. & the MGs were both the house band and stars in their own right, With a Little Help From My Friends is an instrumental album featuring, of course, the titular Beatles ditty. Cropper wrote or co-wrote five of the tracks, including “In the Midnight Hour” and “99½,” both monster hits for Wilson Pickett. He also produced, arranged and co-engineered.
As far as I can tell from the Discogs database, With a Little Help From My Friends probably has not been reissued in the U.S. or the U.K. since 1990 when it made its CD debut. The 2023 reissue, via Omnivore Records, features eight additional bonus tracks on the CD only, including alternate versions of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and “Land of 1000 Dances.” The CD will be released in Japan by BSMF Records of Osaka, with the same bonus tracks. (With a Little Help From My Friends is evidently a bigger deal in Japan with recent reissues in 2009 as an SHM-CD and in 2017 as part of a limited edition Stax 60th anniversary series.)
If you need a shot of Steve Cropper right now, how about a double shot? Try this fascinating repackaging of his two solo follow-ups — on which he sings! And quite nicely, I might add. This is their first time on CD.
The Playin’ My Thang (1981) / Night After Night (1982) twofer was reissued extremely surreptitiously in June via English indie Beat Goes On. It has just two Amazon reviews, both from Japan, which tells you everything you need to know about the deification of American soul artists in the Land of the Rising Sun. One of them reads, in part (via Google Translate): Rather than an MG’s soul, it feels like a West Coast rock and roll album with wonderful guitar sounds unique to Telecaster everywhere.
I interviewed Cropper in 2011 when he was promoting Dedicated: A Salute to the “5” Royales, a tribute to Cropper’s hero Lowman Pauling, the “5” Royales guitarist/songwriter who pulled off the remarkable feat of being both hugely influential and tragically obscure. The conversation turned to Cropper’s earlier works, and he mentioned a possible reissue of With a Little Help From My Friends. He wanted to give belated recognition to the “slew of people” who played on it, including Buddy Miles and Leon Russell, but were left uncredited. Stax — over his objections — rushed it out with bare-bones production info on the sleeve. I emailed Omnivore for more info, but never heard back.
As for Playin’ My Thang and Night After Night, Cropper told me: “Neither one of them got a whole lot of attention. Playin’ My Thang did really well in France of all places. It did well enough they sent a seven-man film crew over to my house on Mulholland to spend the day and shoot a documentary and all that stuff. We were looking for great things, and I know they sold a lot of records in Asia that never were accounted for!”
Both were recorded for MCA Records at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood, where Cropper relocated after splitting with Stax in about 1970. Cherokee co-owner Bruce Robb co-produced and engineered them. While I await the delivery Playin’ My Thang/Night After Night (1982) twofer, I have been streaming them on YT. They’re both perfectly pleasant historical artifacts, with plenty of efficient solos from the Telecaster master. It’s a real shame Cropper didn’t sing more during his career. He wouldn’t have knocked labelmates Isaac Hayes or Otis Redding off their perch, but he imbued these albums with a laid-back southern charm that rises above the ’80s production values. I’d probably give the edge to Playing’ My Thang. The album covers might split fans. I’m personally OK with Cropper as a preppy California sex symbol.
It seems there was a false start to Playin’ My Thang in 1979, when Billboard reported that Cropper was in the studio with his dear friend and producer Tom Dowd and engineer Andy Johns. Cropper had played on the Dowd-produced Rod Stewart 1975 hit album Atlantic Crossing. I surmise that Cropper might have taken a break to focus on the Blues Brothers movie, which started production in July 1979. Cropper and fellow MG Donald “Duck” Dunn starred as members of the Jake and Elwood Blues’ band.
By the way, I first interviewed Cropper in 1994. The highlights are here.
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