Smithsonian receives instruments donation from guitarist Steve Cropper

Smithsonian receives instruments donation from guitarist Steve Cropper

The amplifier that Steve Cropper used during the recording of Booker T & The MGs' 1962 track Green Onions, alongside three of his vintage Fender guitars are now part of US heritage after they were donated by the American guitarist, songwriter, producer and performer to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

During an emotional ceremony on December 1 at the Museum, Cropper, now 75, said it was “wonderful” and “rewarding” to see his instruments be part of the music artefacts from the Smithsonian collection, which comprises over 300,000 pieces, from sheet music to John Coltrane's saxophone.

“I get asked a lot if I can donate my guitars but who else can you give guitars to but here,” said Cropper. “More people will see them here than in any other museum.”

The objects donated by Cropper will be part of a new floor at the Museum of American History dedicated to culture. It includes: a 1961 Fender Esquire "Doc," was played in the Otis Redding's recording (Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay (1967); a 1975 Fender Telecaster electric guitar that was played in the scene with Cab Calloway from the movie The Blues Brothers and used on two albums by the band's drummer and singer Levon Helm and the Blues Brothers' album Brief Case Full of Blues; and a Fender Telecaster electric guitar made in 1951–1952 that was gifted to Cropper by Jim Dickerson, a producer and recording artist from Memphis.

The Fender Harvard amplifier that is included in the donation was purchased by Cropper between 1957 and 1958, and was used during his work with instrumental R&B/soul band Booker T & The MG's. “I do not have the guitars I played with on Green Onions and other tracks but this is the amplifier that we used for the recordings,” said Cropper.  

John Edward Hasse, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian described Cropper as “the architect of the Southern sound” and said that it was a “milestone” to get these instruments that will document the story of Memphis rock, R&B, and soul music. “Steve Cropper has a very economic style that stood the test of time,” said Hasse. “If just for writing (Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay, he would have had a place in history.”

Cropper added that Atlantic, which was then distributing Stax, the label Redding was signed to, wanted to have a record out soon after, so Cropper finished mixing Dock of the Bay, adding the sound of seagulls and waves. “I worked on it 24 hours non stop,” he said. “We it was mixed, we went to airport and handed the master to a flight crew on its way to La Guardia, where it was picked by Atlantic. DJs had the record in their hands 10 days after his death.”

Reflecting on working in Memphis during racial segregation and the civil rights uprising in the 60s, Cropper said that “there was no colour at Stax at all, we felt that the divide was forced on us. At Stax we worked as a team. You win as a team. We treated all the artists that came through the doors the same way. We only had one goal: make hit records. We were not interested in the monetary aspect.”

The ceremony, which was attended by Congressman Steve Cohen from Tennessee, was put together with the support of performance right society BMI, to which Cropper is signed to. It ended with a showcase from Steve Cropper and The Blues Brothers Band during which they played Green Onions, (Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay (sang by Cropper himself), In The Midnight Hour, Knock on Wood and Soul Man, during which they were joined on stage by Vaneese Thomas, the youngest daughter of Stax recording artists Rufus Thomas. All the songs were composed or co-composed by Cropper, who wrote over 400 songs in his lifetime.

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