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It's easy enough to find skilled guitar players in Music City, but any one of them would probably tell you that Nashville has had but a handful of truly iconic guitarists. Since relocating here 30 years ago, Steve Cropper has been paramount among them. Cropper's lean, soulful licks have appeared on hundreds of recordings, including the R&B standards “Knock on Wood” and “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”—songs the triple-threat musician also co-wrote and produced in the mid-60s at Memphis’ legendary Stax Records.
An unassuming family man, Cropper isn’t known to call attention to himself, but his body of work will forever do it for him—and so will a small collection of historic musical gear he recently donated to the Smithsonian Institution at a ceremony held in his honor.
The musician was notified a year-or-so ago that the famed establishment wanted to enhance its Stax Records history by, he says, “pay[ing] more attention to me. More me does not mean anything to me, but this particular thing did.” Cropper surrendered the most storied items still in his possession: the 1961 Fender Esquire electric guitar heard weaving around Otis Redding's vocals on “The Dock of the Bay” and his first amplifier, a Fender model obtained during his junior year in high school, later used at Stax.
He also donated two additional Fender guitars that could tell some stories, including being played on hits by the likes of Ringo Starr and Rod Stewart, as well as pictured in scenes from the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers, in which the guitarist appeared. Cropper says that a new showroom is under construction at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History that will house his donations as part of an R&B music display, probably sometime next year. His “The Dock of the Bay” Esquire, though, is slated for exhibition as early as this month.
“It will be in the section next to Judy Garland's shoes that she wore in The Wizard of Oz, so it will be viewed by a lot of people,” Cropper notes. He confesses, “The excitement hasn’t hit me yet.”
Cropper himself has been increasingly on display around Music City. He's been a regular guest on Nashville Sports Radio's morning show, he hosts a weekly radio show produced locally at downtown's rustic-cool Acme Feed & Seed, and he recently appeared with Vince Gill at the Grand Ole Opry. A documentary on the musician is in production that will premiere in Nashville on a date still to be announced. With a full slate for the next year, including the impending Smithsonian debut, the 75-year-old Cropper is clearly no museum piece.
Photos Courtesy of the National Museum of American History / Richard Strauss