Late last week, I left Jim to his own devices in the shop as I took a sojourn to Nashville to do some studio time. Generations of musicians have grown up with Steve Cropper's trademark licks as the soundtrack to their lives, so when producer Jon Tiven invited me to participate in the making of Cropper's new recording, a tribute to the "5" Royales, I couldn't say no.
The Royales were a seminal R&B group who bridged the gap between Doo-Wop, Soul and Funk. Their guitarist, Lowman Pauling, wrote most of the hits, and was a madman on guitar—so I understood where Cropper was coming from. I anticipated a good time, but it was only when I arrived in Nashville that I realized the true magnitude of the undertaking. As an unforeseen bonus, the recording was being done in Dan Penn's studio. If you're not familiar with Penn's career, do yourself a favor and follow the link—very cool stuff.
When we arrived at the studio, Cropper had already unloaded his silverface Quad Reverb and Billy Block was dropping off a drum kit for Steve Ferrone, who would play on the first day. Bassist David Hood was on hand and he and I immediately started talking bass-player trash.
What a thrill to sit and watch this guy track—a master class in restraint and note choice. Although he'd brought four instruments including a '57 P-Bass, David was tracking with a pink Jazz Bass made in Chicago by Lakland. When I asked him why he chose to use it he said "it was just the first one I took out."
As one of the Muscle Shoals "Swampers" Hood was one of my teachers through the grooves in vinyl, and here I was in the studio with him. As the session began to roll Billy Block and I busied ourselves with the video and audio equipment. I was soaking it up, learning a few new tricks along the way.
Keyboard chores were handled by Spooner Oldham, who is a legend in his own right. Knowing when not to play is the test of any musician, and Spooner has mastered this art. Standing two feet from him as he laid down piano and organ parts was simply a sublime experience.
Day one brought vocal performances from Buddy Miller and Bettye LaVette. Laying down vocals live with the band is the best way to capture the raw energy of a song, and the sessions proceeded at a breakneck pace. Near the end of the day Dylan LeBlanc dropped by to do some singing and was clearly loving the atmosphere in Penn's studio.
Day two saw the arrival of drummer Steve Jordan who took over from Ferrone, who happily attended to various percussion duties. Jordan's recordings with Keith Richards and the Winos are some of the best grooves ever committed to tape so I was stoked. I wasn't disappointed—two of the world's most solid drummers laid it down together without a hint of ego. Tiven had assembled an unbelievable team of individuals.
One high point was having lunch at the Penn dining table. Eating 'taters and greens surrounded by music legends listening to stories about Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Jerry Wexler, Wilson Pickett and more from the people who were there—just priceless.
As the days wore on, we got confirmations from some soon-to-be-announced guest-stars, but I had to high-tail it out of there before any of that went down. As it was I got more than my share of mojo risin'. I can't wait to hear the finished product.