cropper

Steve Cropper & Felix Cavaliere reunite for new album, 'Midnight Flyer'

Steve Cropper, guitarist for Booker T. and the MGs and one of the primary architects of the unmistakable Stax sound of the 1960s, and vocalist/keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, the voice of the Rascals and the pivotal figure in the blue-eyed soul movement of that same era, have reconvened for their second collaborative recording. Sparks fly at the crossroads of Memphis soul and East Coast R&B when Stax Records releases Midnight Flyer on June 15, 2010.

Midnight Flyer, recorded in Nashville and mixed by the legendary David Z, is the followup to Nudge It Up a Notch, the 2008 maiden voyage by Cropper and Cavaliere that scored critical acclaim from the music and mainstream press. The San Francisco Chronicle called Nudge It Up a Notch “an unexpected delight,” while Blues Wax heralded the project as “one of the great surprises of 2008, and further evidence of Concord’s genuine commitment to the revamped Stax imprint.”

The Stax legacy — and Concord’s commitment to it — are very much alive in Midnight Flyer, an album that once again showcases the songwriting prowess of two towering figures from one of the most seminal periods in the history of American pop music. Assisting with the songwriting throughout most of the album’s 12 tracks is drummer/percussionist/vocalist Tom Hambridge, who also lent a hand with the crafting of the previous album.

“Felix and I come from pretty much the same musical school — but from different geographical locations,” says Cropper. “He’s a Jersey boy at heart, and I grew up in Memphis, but when soul meets soul, what can you say? There are no borders. There are no boundaries.”

But geography does play a role in the making of great songs, says Cavaliere. “Steve has that Southern vernacular, which is something I really like,” he says. “It’s almost like another language to those of us from the East Coast. It has a certain folky quality to it. Some of those idioms are part of the hit songs that Steve has written and recorded over the years, and they’re part of this record as well.”

The impact of both of these musicians and songwriters on pop music is nearly impossible to quantify. As part of Booker T. & the MGs — the house band for the Stax label in its original incarnation during the 1960s — Cropper co-wrote and produced classics by artists like Eddie Floyd (“Knock On Wood”), Wilson Pickett (“In the Midnight Hour”) and Otis Redding (“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”). In subsequent decades, he lent his instrumental and production skills to a range of artists including Jeff Beck, the Blues Brothers, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and many others.

Cavaliere came to prominence in the mid-’60s as vocalist/keyboardist/songwriter for the Rascals (initially known as the Young Rascals). Cavaliere wrote and/or sang several of the band’s biggest hits, including “Good Lovin’” (1966), “Groovin’” (1967), “It’s a Beautiful Morning” (1968) and “People Got To Be Free” (1968). The phrase “blue-eyed soul” was coined during the Rascals’ heyday, due in large part to the group’s highly successful forays into R&B and soul — styles that had been developed and previously dominated by African-American artists.

Co-produced by Cropper, Cavaliere and Hambridge, Midnight Flyer captures the synergy and brilliance that can only emerge when two powerful forces of nature come together. The result is a range of styles and shades, from heartfelt ballads like “When You’re With Me” to the soul-charged “I Can’t Stand It,” a churning vocal duet featuring Cavaliere and his daughter Aria. “Sexy Lady” harkens back to the soul stylings of the ’70s, while the funky instrumental “Do It Like This” digs into a tight groove and makes plenty of room for Cropper’s tasty riff work to close out the set.

“The main thing we both take away from this record is how much fun we had making it,” says Cavaliere. “We may have used a lot of new technology that didn’t even exist when Steve and I were recording back in the day, but the songs themselves are still the most important part of the process, and we just had a blast writing and recording them. I think that spirit comes through on the record.”

Cropper notes a timelessness about Cavaliere that serves as a metaphor for the music itself. “Felix is ageless,” he says. “Sure, you can look at him and see that he’s gotten older since those early days, just like we all have. But if you close your eyes, he sounds as young and energetic as he did when he was making records back in the ’60s . . . Working together on records like this reminds us of the kinds of things that go into the making of a good song. We’re still doing that, and we’re still having fun doing it.”

Steve Cropper & Felix Cavaliere Summit Album Streets 7/29

Steve Cropper & Felix Cavaliere- for the Grateful Web

What would happen if you combined Steve Cropper, the Memphis-weaned Stax guitar powerhouse who also wrote and co-wrote many soul classics, with Felix Cavaliere, the singer, songwriter and keyboardist whose soulful voice and songs helped form the Rascals? The world is about to find out when Stax Records releases Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere's Nudge It Up a Notch on July 29, 2008.
 
This soul summit came about as a result of conversations between Cropper and producer/songwriter Jon Tiven. When Tiven moved to Nashville several years ago, he asked Cropper what he was up to. Cropper replied that he was focusing on live dates with Booker T & the MGs and the Blues Brothers, but harbored the desire to record some new music. But who would sing? The answer, it turned out, was Cavaliere, who, like Cropper and Tiven, now lived in Nashville. In fact Cropper and Cavaliere were no strangers: they had, with a few other well-known musicians, put together a band to play special events. The two hadn't written together before, but agreed it would be fun to try.
 
The writing process began at Tiven's Hormone Studios, followed by the recording of two songs, "One of Those Days" (the album's lead track) and "Love Appetite." Drummer Chester Thompson, a veteran of John Fogerty, Frank Zappa, Genesis and Frank Black, signed on as drummer, and suggested a bass player, his friend Shake Anderson, who was Curtis Mayfield's protégé. The assemblage grew to include two backup singers, Mark Williams and N'nandi Bryant. And that was it. No special guest stars. As Tiven wrote in the notes, "This isn't one of those albums where you have to guess who's doing what — every guitar lick is Steve, every keyboard is Felix, and all the songs are originals."
 
Tiven elaborates on the legacies of Cropper and Cavaliere: "Steve Cropper is a guitar player's guitarist but also a songwriter's songwriter," he writes. "If the only thing he did in life was to play producer/co-writer/guitarist for Otis Redding, that would be enough. But he also helmed enough albums that made their mark on American pop culture by artists like Booker T & the MGs, The Blues Brothers, Jeff Beck and John Mellencamp to qualify him as a bona fide national treasure."
 
"And Cavaliere . . .," he adds, "If you were alive in the alive in the mid-to-late '60s, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing his voice and songs are part of his group The Young Rascals (later The Rascals). Their blue-eyed soul dominated the airwaves . . . and gave this country the kind of soul music most folks wouldn't think to associate with a bunch of Long Island Peppermint Lounge expatriates."
 
Nudge It Up a Notch, which was reverently mixed by the legendary David Z, features 12 tracks, including several instrumentals (Cropper having a bit of history in the R&B instrumental department) alongside vocal tracks. On a few tunes the team turned to friends Henry Gross and Tom Hambridge to provide their lyrical spin. One track, "Make The Time Go Faster," embellishes its chunky soul riff with rap passages.
 
"If all this combination of iconic songwriter/performers had to offer was simply the sum of their parts it would be extraordinary," Tiven concludes. "But you put this much flammable material in the room and you don't just get a little heat. You get a bonfire."