Steve Cropper (right) and Felix Cavaliere didn't actually record together until they made Nudge It Up a Notch.
Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere's first musical collaboration came at a distance in 1967. Cavaliere's band, The Rascals, had recorded a cover version of "In the Midnight Hour," one of Cropper's best-known compositions; it was already a hit for Wilson Pickett.
Cropper says he was able to repay the favor after he got hold of a test pressing of a new Rascals record — one with a song called "Groovin'."
"I played it over and over and over," Cropper says. "I went down and I played it for the guys. And we went in the studio — without permission, obviously — and cut an instrumental version of it. Their record comes out. It's a hit. It's a smash. And we put out this instrumental and boom — ours went right up the charts."
For years, they recorded for sister record companies; they ran in similar musical circles for even longer. Guitarist and songwriter Cropper, a founder of Booker T. & The MGs, helped shape the sound of Stax Records, the iconic Memphis label that made soul-music history in the 1960s. Cavaliere sang and played keyboards for Atlantic recording group The Rascals, which helped build the sound that came to be known as blue-eyed soul.
But Cropper and Cavaliere didn't actually make music together until just a few years ago. The unlikely matchmaker: Ringo Starr, who puts together touring bands of high-profile musicians to play hits from yesteryear. Now, Cropper and Cavaliere have made a new album: Nudge It Up a Notch is one of the first releases from a newly revived Stax label.
Music City Meeting
It was songwriter and producer Jon Tiven, who'd hired both artists for separate sessions in the past, who lobbied them to work on something more consequential than a tour together. Tiven says that the artists — one from Memphis, Tenn., and one from Long Island, N.Y. — have vastly different personalities. But their shared musical foundations were more than enough to bridge the gap as they began jamming together.
"The idea was you've got to do stuff that doesn't sound like we're just rehashing our past," Tiven says. "If I didn't know these guys as well as I do, I would have been very intimidated, because their accomplishments are just extraordinary. But they're just such easy guys that the three of us together in a room — it's just like Joe Blow and the Schmoes just trying to write a great song. And we never left a session without coming up with something."
Cavaliere says that the songwriting culture drew both him and Cropper to Nashville decades ago. By then, he'd already conspired with bandmate Eddie Brigati to write "A Beautiful Morning," "How Can I Be Sure" and most other Rascals hits. Meanwhile, Cropper was a huge force at Stax, co-writing "(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay," "Soul Man," "Knock On Wood" and many others.
"Because, remember, Nashville is a writing town," Cavaliere says. "People get together and write all the time."
Tiven says that nearly all of the keyboard and guitar parts on the album were preserved from those initial writing sessions — capturing, he hopes, the moment of creative conception rather than a performance off a music stand. Cavaliere says that they took those tracks to another studio, where they were fleshed out with bass, drums and background vocals.
"And then we realized, 'Hey, this stuff's OK. You know, this stuff's pretty good,'" Cavaliere says. "'Let's continue.' And then it became an album. Prior to that, it was just songs."
Neither artist had released new material under his own name for more than a decade. With years away from writing and recording original music, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that they'd be happy with the results. But Cropper says that they had no one looking over their shoulder and nothing to lose.
"We started with one, and it was fun, and we continued," Cropper says. "And I think we kept saying — thinking, I don't know if we said it — we were thinking that if it doesn't become fun anymore, we'll just quit. But it never stopped being fun."
There's a story in the album's liner notes about Otis Redding intruding on a Rascals session in the 1960s so he could convince himself that Cavaliere was, in fact, a white man. Today, Cropper says that Cavaliere still has the voice of a teenage soul singer.
All the same, Cavaliere discovered that there were times when it was better not to sing. "You know, sometimes you write good ones, and sometimes you don't write good ones," he says.
The duo had planned an all-vocals album, but Cavaliere didn't like how a song called "Full Moon Tonight" was coming together.
"I could not sing that song," he says. "And I literally hid. And Tiven said, 'I think it's a great song.' And I said, 'You sing it.' It just shows you how things happen."
In fact, four songs became instrumentals. That helped revive some of the organ- and guitar-driven Booker T. & The MGs sound, and let Cropper assert his own voice.
All the music on Nudge It Up a Notch has one foot in the past and another in the digital now. Cropper and Cavaliere couldn't have recorded an album like this in their hit-making days, layering parts onto a tiny hard drive in different studios.
Cavaliere says that while he loves those new tools, he's a little bewildered putting a CD out in today's very different music environment.
"I have no idea what to expect," he says. "Like, I don't even know where it's going to be for sale. Literally. Because the places I know of are all gone. So if we're going to be downloaded, so be it."
The artists understand that it's impossible to re-create the unique social, political and personal chemistry that made their work of 40 years ago so important. But it can't hurt that this album features two artists who so vividly remember a music business where work was play and colleagues were family.