Thursday, November 02, 2006

Legends in the Fall

Why do I love Nashville? Last night is a great example of what happens here on a fairly regular basis - musical magic. The Legendary Steve Cropper, guitarist, producer and songwriter extraordinare was paid tribute last night in a benefit for the T.J. Martell Foundation.

Steve Cropper is a key figure in American Music. He played all of the guitar on everything cut at Stax Records in Memphis. That puts him on the seminal tracks of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Booker T and the MG's, et.al. He co-wrote (Sittin') On The Dock of The Bay, Knock On Wood, and other Soul classics. I can't begin to scratch the surface. Try here for more: Play It, Steve!

Steve dug into his Rolodex and put together an amazing show. The house band consisted of Cropper, bassist Dave Santos, guitarist Bob Britt, drummer Bobby Beckett, piano and organist Mark Jordan, and a brass section led by Jim Horn, with backing vocals by Robert Bailey, Vicki Hampton and Wendy Moten. Google any of those names or type them in All Music Guide and you will see a list of credits that covers the breadth of popular music. They were a powerhouse band that easily handled every style they attempted from greasy R&B to Stone Country.


Rehearsal at The Ryman

I got a call to be the guitar tech after Bob Britt mentioned to Production Manager Hugh Bennett that there sure were a lot of guitar players, both local and flying in from around the country. Hugh agreed and hired me to keep an eye on the guitars and pickers all day at rehearsal and all night during the show.

The first special guest I met was Steppenwolf's John Kay. Very nice guy, still sounds great and rocks hard, but he did not play guitar at this gig.

The next special guest certainly plays guitar.


The Guitar Strap

James Burton is a living legend. Every guitar player - including me - has learned something from James Burton whether they know it or not. It would take an entire post to cover his career, but here are some highlights. At 17 he was playing with Dale Hawkins when Hawkins cut "Suzy Q". That's Burton's lick that propels the song and gives it it's swampy hook. John Fogerty knows that lick well, a cover of "Suzy Q" was CCR's first single.

James left Hawkins (to be replaced by Roy Buchanan, who learned much from Burton) and joined up with Ricky Nelson, the singing son of TV icons Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. Each week, Ricky would play a song featuring James' incredible Rockabilly guitar licks, played on a red Telecaster plugged into a Fender Twin Reverb.

After Nelson, James became the hotshot session guitarist in L.A., playing the pivotal "Lonesome Fugitive" lick on the Merle Haggard classic among many others. On the road, Burton was the ultimate sideman with Emmylou Harris, Elvis Presley, John Denver and a list of luminaries. Check out more at his web site, James Burton: Wild Man of the Telecaster.

We got along immediately, since I was playing "Burtonesque" licks on a rental Tele that the show had ready for any guests not traveling with their own instruments. He pulled his signature Tele out of his gig bag, with the custom strap and let me go over it. Gulp!

James' action is very low, his strings are .009 to .040, if I recall correctly. He plays with a very light touch and uses a flatpick and a metal fingerpick on his middle finger. He probably invented light gauge strings, since back in the '50's he used to buy a regular set, throw away the low E, move all of the strings over and put a banjo string on the high E. Many a frustrated musician of the day could not figure out how he was bending the strings so easily.
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James Burton's Signature Telecaster


Me and James

During rehearsal, Steve Cropper, Burton and my great friend Bob Britt were standing near each other and I coaxed this photo out of them. If you are a guitar player and are wondering what to play next, ask your self what Steve, James or Bob would play and you will be just fine.


Steve Cropper, James Burton, Bob Britt

A second shot, just because the lighting guy accidentally gave me a nice "look".

Cropper, Burton, Britt

I'm not too shy to get a picture made with heroes of mine.

Cropper, Me, Burton

The front man and guitarist of Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Benson, stopped by the guitar tech station to get a rental Tele and hang for a while. Great guy, great player. He showed me the right way to play Bob Wills' "Roly Poly", the way Eldon Shamblin showed him. Thanks, Ray!


Ray Benson

The next special guest that arrived for rehearsal was Blues Master Robben Ford. Robben has been visiting Nashville lately, writing songs with the many great writers here in town. He plays guitar like no one else has...or can. Simply gorgeous tone, even from a borrowed amp (Bob Britt's black panel Super Reverb) and my Boss Blues Driver stompbox. He enraptured every musician in the building. Stunning, on a stage filled with legends. This is the guitar he brought. I slapped some D'Addario XL110s on it and he was good to go.


Robben Ford's '59 Reissue Les Paul


Me and Robben Ford


Lee Roy and Ray

My old boss and friend Lee Roy Parnell came in to rehearse his two tunes, and James Burton jumped at the chance to play with Lee Roy. Nobody has Lee Roy's touch on slide guitar, and his phrasing on standard guitar is so beautiful and melodic. I strongly suggest you pick up his last two records to hear some excellent contemporary soul and R&B with a Texas country twinge.


James and Lee Roy


Lee Roy's '57 Reissue Les Paul

For all of you guitar geeks out there, here's a special treat. Everyone except Lee Roy and Mark Farner used the house amps, all Fender Twins and Bob Britt's Super Reverb. Trust me when I repeat the old adage "Tone is in your hands", but if you want a peek at how certain amps get set as a starting point, check this out. I did the old tech trick of writing down the settings of the amp on a piece of gaff tape and taping it to the top. Usually, this is so we can set up the artist's amp to their usual settings, which can get bumped and changed on the road. Since we had multiple guests playing, I was not sure who was going to be sharing amps, so I wrote down each player's preferences after the rehearsed.


Vintage Fender Super Reverb, Boss Blues Driver

Robben Ford Amp and Settings

Reissue Fender '65 Twin Reverb, Boss Digital Delay

James Burton Amp and Settings

Silver panel Fender Twin Reverb with Master Volume

Ray Benson Amp and Settings

After an amazing night of great performances from all of the above, plus Mark Farner, Beth Neilsen Chapman, B.J. Thomas, T. Graham Brown, Delbert McClinton, Felix Caviliere, and many others. Cropper brought out the man he introduced as the "finest singer I ever heard" - which is saying a lot - Michael McDonald. McDonald sang "Knock On Wood" and blew the roof off.


Steve Cropper and Michael McDonald

It would not be a guitar fest without a Blues Jam to close the show.

The Blues Jam: Cropper, Burton, Farner, Parnell, Ford

The MC of the evening was the star of "The O.C.", Peter Gallagher. He did a wonderful job keeping the many set changes interesting and did a very credible job singing an R&B ballad on his own. My wife insisted on this photo, she loves them dimples.


Peter Gallagher and Donna

Here's the final shot in my camera, taken by Etta Britt of Robben Ford and her husband, Bob. Thanks, Bob Britt for hooking me up with yet another choice tech gig. And thanks to Steve, Robben, James, Ray, Lee Roy and all of the band, Stage Manager Edwin Lewis and the Ryman crew for an amazing night.


Robben Ford and Bob Britt

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