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Guitarist, songwriter and producer Steve Cropper

He's best known for his playing with Booker T & the MGs. He co-wrote such hits as "In the Midnight Hour," "Soul Man" and Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay." This interview first aired September 18, 1990.


Other segments from the episode on May 26, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 26, 2003: Interview with Steve Cropper; Interview with Isaac Hayes; Interview with Jerry Butler


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Isaac Hayes discusses his music and acting career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Memphis-based music label Stax Records released some great Southern soul
music in the '60s and '70s. Now the site of the label's studios is the home
of the new Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Isaac Hayes recorded several
hit albums for Stax, including "Hot Buttered Soul," "Black Moses" and "Shaft."
He was also an important behind-the-scenes figure at Stax, working as a
producer, songwriter and arranger. He co-wrote hits for Sam and Dave, Carla
Thomas and Johnnie Taylor. Now Isaac Hayes is also well-known for his role in
"South Park" as Chef. In 1994, I spoke with Hayes about his work at Stax.

Now I know before you started making your own records, before you started
singing in your records, you produced for other people, and also you played
piano and keyboards. And you used to play with Booker T. & the MGs. Now how
did you learn to play piano, growing up as poor as you did? I know there were
times in your life when you didn't have shoes, let alone a piano.

Mr. ISAAC HAYES (Musician; Actor): That's true. How did I do that? Well,
let's see. A friend of mine I grew up with, Sidney Kirk, used to be my
accompanist. We went places and he'd play for me. He joined the Air Force;
he wasn't there. There was a call in to him about a gig New Year's Eve. His
sister knew that I was destitute and I needed money, so she asked me if I
wanted to play? Well, I could play maybe "Chopsticks" and stuff like that.
And I said, `Yeah, I'll take it.' I took the gig out of desperation. And
when I got to the club, I was petrified. I said, `Oh, my God, they're going
to shoot me. I can't play.' And musicians started coming in, you know,
setting up, tuning up, and I'm sitting there, you know, trying to be cool. I
said, `God, they're going to find me out.' And the featured artist came in
and said, `Hey, man, do you all know such-and-such?' This is the first time
this band had been put together. We didn't rehearse anything.

And everybody said, `Yeah, we know it,' and blah, blah, blah. So he kicked
off the tune, and it sounded horrible. Everybody did. I said, `Wow, these
guys can't play either.' So I'm comfortable. And, you know, being New Year's
Eve, the clientele was drunk, and they thought we were cooking, you know? And
somewhere along the line, the club owner--he was sauced--he came up to me
saying, `You know, you boys sound real good. You all want a regular job?'
`Yeah, we'll take it.' And I was in Memphis and it was a regular gig, and
each night I would learn something more and more on the keyboards. And that's
how I got started.

GROSS: That's great. And then you started sitting in with Booker T. & the

Mr. HAYES: Well, I wound up at Stax Records. I changed bands and I joined
Floyd Newman's band, who was a staff musician at Stax. He played baritone
saxophone. All those `ba-dups,' stuff like that, that was Floyd. So he was
up for a recording, and he said, `Man, you know, we're going in the studio.'
And prior I had been to Stax about three different times with a blues band,
with a vocal group, you know, trying to get a break, and I was always turned
down. This time I went in with Floyd and Howard Grimes, a drummer, he and I
wrote some songs, some instrumentals and things like that. And Jim Stewart,
who, you know, was co-owner of Stax, he said, `You know, you sound pretty good
on keyboards. Booker T. is off at Indiana U. in school. Would you like to
become a staff musician here?' `Yeah!' You know? So that's how I got in

And my first session, I think it was an Otis Redding album session, I was
scared to death. But he made it easy, and I learned a lot and I fit right in.
And I became a staff musician. So when Booker came back, he and I both played
on sections. We'd switch around. Sometimes I'd play organ and he'd play
piano, and sometimes I'd play piano, he'd play organ. And with Duck, Steve
and Al, we were the nucleus of Stax, the rhythm section, and then, of course,
the horns and so forth.

GROSS: Now you were not only a house musician at Stax, you became a house
songwriter. And you wrote a lot of songs with your partner then, David
Porter. And some of the most famous songs that you wrote were for Sam and
Dave, like "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Coming." How were you given them to
write for?

Mr. HAYES: Well, first thing, when I started with Stax on staff, David and I
went to rival schools, sang in rival groups. And he said, `Hey, man, I write
lyrics and you play music. Let's hook up and write, like Holland
(unintelligible)?' I said, `OK.' So we teamed up and we started writing.
And one day Jim Stewart called us all in, everybody on the staff, and said,
`We got some fellas coming down, and they need some writers and producers. So
they're going to come around and meet with everybody, and you show them what
you got.' So when Sam and Dave, you know, came to town, they, you know, met
with everybody, and they wanted to work with David and me, and that's how the
whole thing started.

GROSS: What do you remember about writing "Soul Man"?

Mr. HAYES: Well, I remember getting the idea from watching TV and the riots
in Detroit, and it was said that if you put soul on your door, your business
establishment--they would bypass it and wouldn't burn it. And then the word
`soul'--you know, the clenched fist, you know, `soul brothers,' soul this--it
was a galvanizing kind of thing as far as, you know, African-Americans were
concerned. And it had a kind of effective unity, and they said it with a lot
of pride. So I said, `Well, hmm, why not write a tune called "Soul Man"'?
And all you had to do was write about your own personal experiences because,
you know, all African-Americans in this country, during those times
especially, had similar experiences. So we did that but realized that in
addition to being an African-American experience, it was a human experience,
so therefore it crossed the board and then groove and everything else that
went with it.

GROSS: Isaac Hayes recorded in 1994. Here's "Soul Man" arranged and
co-written by Isaac Hayes.

(Soundbite of "Soul Man")

SAM and DAVE: (Singing) Coming to you on a dusty road. Good lovin', I got a
truckload. And when you get it--Ha!--you got some. So don't worry 'cause I'm
coming. I'm a soul man. Yeow! I'm a soul man. I'm a soul man. Whoa! Hey!
I'm a soul man, and that ain't all. Got what I got the hard way, and I'll
make it better each and every day. So, honey, don't you fret now 'cause you
ain't seen nothin' yet. I'm a soul man. Oh, no! I'm a soul man. Play it
please. I'm a soul man. Ha! I'm a soul man. Whoa. I was brought up on a
back street, and what I learned before I could eat, I was educated on good
stuff. When I start lovin', oh, I can't stop. I'm a soul man.

GROSS: Coming up, "Only The Strong Survive." We'll hear from soul singer
Jerry Butler. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Soul Man" music)

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Interview: Jerry Butler on his music career

The new documentary "Only The Strong Survive" profiles singers who helped
define the soul sound of the '60s and '70s, including several Stax artists,
like Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes. The movie is named after a
hit song by Jerry Butler, another singer profiled in the film. We're going to
hear an interview I recorded with Butler in 2000.

In 1957, Jerry Butler teamed up with Curtis Mayfield to form the vocal group
The Impressions. The group's first hit was the 1958 record "For Your Precious
Love" featuring Butler singing lead. The following year Butler left the group
to start a solo career, going on to have such hits as "He Will Break Your
Heart," "Moon River," "Make It Easy on Yourself," "Western Union Man" and
"Only The Strong Survive."

Butler was born in rural Mississippi in 1939. Three years later he moved with
his family to Chicago, where he still lives. In fact, he's now in politics
serving his fifth term on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Let's start
with some music.

(Soundbite of "Only The Strong Survive")

Chorus: (In unison) I remember.

Mr. JERRY BUTLER: I remember my first love affair.

Chorus: (In unison) I remember.

Mr. BUTLER: Somehow or another the whole darned thing went wrong.

Chorus: (In unison) I remember.

Mr. BUTLER: And my mama had some great advice, so I thought I'd put it in
the words of this song.

Chorus: (In unison) I remember.

Mr. BUTLER: I can still hear her saying (singing), `Boy...'

Chorus: (In unison) Boy, boy.

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) `...oh, I see you sittin' out there all alone, crying
your eyes out 'cause the woman that you loved is gone. Oh, there's going to
be, there's going to be a whole lot of trouble in your life.'

Chorus: (In unison) Whole lot of trouble.

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) `Oh, so listen. Get up off your knees 'cause only the
strong survive.' That's what she said. She said, `Only the strong...

Mr. BUTLER and Chorus: (Singing in unison) ...survive. Only the strong

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Yeah, you gotta be strong.

Chorus: (In unison) So...

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) You better hold on.

Chorus: (In unison) Hold on.

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Don't do...'

Chorus: (In unison) Don't, don't.

GROSS: Jerry Butler, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. BUTLER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Tell us the story behind this song.

Mr. BUTLER: Actually, this song--the lyrics were an actual conversation
that I had with my mother when I was about 16 years old. I was in love with
an older woman, if you can believe that, and naturally she said, `This is a
kid. I've got to move on with my life and do some other things,' and so she
just kind of dropped me like a hot potato. So I went, told Mama, `Hey, look,
this is the end of the world.' She said, `Boy, let me tell you this, that you
have not seen half of the beautiful, lovely women in this world. And for you
to be going through these kinds of changes this early in your life is
absolutely ridiculous. Get out of here. You'll get over it.' And "Only The
Strong Survive" was really created out of that conversation. Kenny Gamble and
Leon Huff were the co-writers on it, but the introduction that was recited was
really from that conversation with my mother.

GROSS: Now you first sang gospel music. You were part of a group called the
Northern Jubilee Singers, and Curtis Mayfield was in that group, too. And,
of course, you also sang together in The Impressions. How did you first meet?

Mr. BUTLER: Curtis' grandmother, the Reverend Annabelle Mayfield, was the
pastor of this little congregation called the Traveling Soul Spiritualist
Church. And Curtis' older cousins had this little group called the Northern
Jubilee Singers. I wound up at this church one afternoon with a friend of
mine, a fellow by the name of Terry Williams, because we just had singing in
common and loved to do it. And he said, `I want you to meet these people and
get to know, and maybe you will decide to get involved with the group.' In
fact, I did. We used to kick Curtis to the side because he was probably nine
years old; he was the little guy, you know. I was 13; I was an old man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTLER: And so we kind of kept shoving him to the back, shoving him to
the back, until he learned how to play the guitar. And then he kind of just
took over because he was the real musician out of the group.

GROSS: Had your voice changed yet?

Mr. BUTLER: As a matter of fact, it had. My voice went into the baritone
register when I was about 13, and it has never come up again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What about Curtis Mayfield's? His couldn't have; he was only nine.
How did he sound?

Mr. BUTLER: Well, you know, Curtis was just the opposite. Curtis always kind
of sounded like a little girl, you know? (Singing) `Gotta keep on pushin',
can't stop now. Move up a little higher...'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTLER: So he always had that kind of thing going. And I think, over
time, he effectively, as Smokey has done, used it to the point that it became,
really, kind of his natural sound.

GROSS: Now did you and Curtis Mayfield leave gospel music for rhythm and
blues at about the same time?

Mr. BUTLER: You know, see, we were never big and famous, as was Sam Cooke
or Lou Rawls with the Pilgrim Travellers and Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers.
We were basically a local group of kids attached to this one particular
church, and even though on occasion we might wind up in the company of those
great stars, we were never really known outside of the city of Chicago. And
so when we started singing rhythm and blues, nobody was really affected by it
but maybe the people who belonged to the church and us. When Sam left, that
was an uproar throughout the whole country in most of the churches because
here was this gospel icon that had gone from singing the sacred music to
singing the secular music. And so there was a lot of, you know, gnashing of
teeth and carrying on about that.

But Curtis and I, we really made the--and I would like to say we made an
extension rather than a transition because even in Curtis' music throughout
the civil rights movement or what have you, you can still hear the strains of
the gospel. And he really wrote kind of inspirational songs as opposed to
what I call `hope to die love songs,' which are the kind of things that I was

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What's an example of a `hope to die love song'?

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Your precious love means more to me than any love could
ever be.

Whereas he was writing (singing), `Gotta keep on pushin', can't stop now.
Move up a little higher...'

You see...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. BUTLER: ...a difference in that.

GROSS: Well, I think it's time to hear your first hit, "For Your Precious
Love," which was recorded in 1958 when you were with The Impressions. And you
say that the lyric was originally a poem that you wrote when you were in high

Mr. BUTLER: Yes, a poem called "They Say," as a matter of fact, as you will
hear in the lyric.

GROSS: Was it changed at all for the lyric, or is it exactly the same?

Mr. BUTLER: The only thing that was changed is the title, "For Your Precious

GROSS: OK. This is 1958, Jerry Butler and the Impressions.

(Soundbite of "For Your Precious Love")

THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) Your precious love means more to me than any love
could ever be, for when I wanted you, I was so lonely and so blue for that's
what love will do. But, darling, I'm so surprise, oh, when I first realized
that you were fooling me. And, darling...

GROSS: Now you recorded "For Your Precious Love" in your first recording
session for Vee Jay, and you also recorded that day "Sweet Was The Wine."
Which was supposed to be the A side?

Mr. BUTLER: Actually, we thought--when I say `we'--I thought and most of the
people who were in the room when "For Your Precious Love" was recorded felt
that "For Your Precious Love" was a hit. But because it was such a ballad and
so slow and so spiritual in feeling, the record company wanted to go with the
other side, which was more up-tempo and danceable and supposedly more of what
teen-agers were all about. But "For Your Precious Love" won out, and it was
just one of those songs that teen-agers as well as older people enjoyed. And
it became the A side.

GROSS: Were there any squabbles about who would get to sing lead on your
first recordings?

Mr. BUTLER: You know, it kind of came with the song. For instance, if Curtis
wrote the song, Curtis sang the lead; if I wrote the song, I sang the lead.
There was a squabble after "For Your Precious Love" was released because
Vivian Carter, who owned Vee Jay Records and was the Vee in Vee Jay
Records, I should say, was also a disk jockey in Gary, Indiana, and she
decided, having had an experience with a group called The Spaniels, where she
wanted to take the lead singer and give him a career of his own, but he was so
interwoven with the fabric of The Spaniels that she was afraid she would
destroy the whole thing, made a promise to herself that the next time someone
came through that door that had a unique sound and had a unique voice in it,
that she was going to build that unique voice along with the group, so that in
later years if there was a breakup or if she decided to move one of the parts
toward another career, she could take one act and make two.

The Impressions happened to be that act, and Jerry Butler happened to be that
voice. And so when the recording was released, it was released as `Jerry
Butler and the Impressions,' and the group never recovered from it. We argued
and fought about the billing from that day until the day I left, which was
about seven months, eight months later.

GROSS: Did that have to do with your leaving?

Mr. BUTLER: Yes.

GROSS: Explain more about that.

Mr. BUTLER: Well, here we were, five young guys, walked into a recording
studio as The Impressions, walked out as Jerry Butler and the Impressions.
The other four guys were wondering, `Well, what did Jerry do to get top
billing? How did, all of a sudden, it start to look as though we're working
for him as opposed to him being just part of the group?' When we got to the
Apollo Theater in New York, it had `Jerry Butler' in great big letters, `the
Impressions' in small letters. By the time we get to Miami, Florida, there's
just `Jerry Butler' on the marquee, no `Impressions' at all. And in each one
of those places, the other guys refused to perform because their feelings were
hurt, their pride was hurt. They just never could understand it. And no
matter how much I told them that I hadn't done anything, that this was a
decision that had been made by the record company, they just never bought it.

GROSS: My guest is Jerry Butler. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Jerry Butler. He's one of the
soul singers profiled in the new documentary "Only The Strong Survive."

Did you realize yourself at the time how talented a singer and songwriter
Curtis Mayfield was?

Mr. BUTLER: No. You know, Curtis was, when we first started, writing fairy
tales, you know, "Minstrel and Queen," "Gypsy Woman," those kinds of little
songs. And they were cute, but they, to me, did not show any out-of-sight
kind of talent. About 1963--'2 or '3, somewhere in there--he started to write
the songs that, to me, were really Curtis Mayfield. He had matured to the
point where he was writing "We're A Winner," "Keep on Pushin'," "Say It's All
Right," "I'm So Proud of You." And then in the late '60s, he starts to do
movie scores, "Superfly" and "Let's Do It Again" and "Claudine." And that was
when, you know, my head started spinning around and I said, `You know, this
guy, who I've treated as a younger brother most of his life and as a kid
brother at that, is really a genius.'

GROSS: You wanted him to work as your backup guitarist when you went solo.

Mr. BUTLER: Actually, what happened was when the group broke up, I got my
share of whatever was left and started out on a solo career. I was performing
in Washington, DC, and my guitarist, who denies to this day that he did it, a
fine guitarist by the name of Philip Upchurch, just quit. He said, `I'm
leaving. I've got a better gig, and I'm out of here.' I was in a lurch. I
didn't know what to do. I needed a musician to help me get through these
performances, and so I called on my friend Curtis and he responded. He said,
`You know, all I can play are the songs that I've written or the songs that we
wrote together, and, yeah, I'll do that.' And so he flew out to Washington,
and we started to work together, and out of that we developed some songwriting
skills between the two of us and we started a publishing company called Curtom
Music, which he later sold to Warner Brothers Music for a whole lot of money.

GROSS: Now you say in your memoir that when you were a, quote, "lightweight
celebrity," before you became very famous, that you still lived in the housing
projects, in Cabrini Green in Chicago.

Mr. BUTLER: Yeah.

GROSS: And you say you used to be able to ignore the pee in the elevators and
the stairs, the wine bottles and junkies. You'd been surrounded by that kind
of filth most of your life. But then it became too much to bear. What
changed that made that filth too much to bear?

Mr. BUTLER: You know, you become oftentimes a product of your environment.
Once you have something else to compare it to, then it's difficult. You know,
it's like how you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen
Paris, you know? Suddenly we were moving around, we were being treated as
celebrities, we were eating in restaurants, we were going and living in hotels
where the rooms were spick-and-span and the beds were made up perfectly. And
there was no smell of urine around. And suddenly we realized that it was
within our reach to get out, to be part of a bigger and better world. And
what I'm hoping that the book will do--and as I go around talking to a lot of
young people who are still living in those kinds of conditions--that you can
get out. You have to work, you have to compete, but you can get out.

GROSS: Jerry Butler recorded in 2000. He's one of the soul singers profiled
in the new documentary "Only The Strong Survive."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with Ann Peebles from the soundtrack of "Only The Strong Survive."

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. ANN PEEBLES: (Singing) Right around home alone on a rainy night like
this. Starving for your love, hungry for just one kiss, mmm.
(Unintelligible) by the windowpane. Mm. Ooh. You're so loud and clear.
Well, that spells your name. Yes, it did. I got nowhere to turn. Tired of
being alone. Feel like breakin' up somebody's home. I know it's useless
hanging on when you belong to someone else. Yeah. Take control of my
feelings now 'cause, after all, I didn't make myself. No. Tonight I cried so
hard, I believe I caught the chill. Yeah. Can't control them outbreaks. My
heart just won't stand still. No, it won't. I got nowhere to turn. Tired of
being alone. Ooh, feel like breakin' up somebody's home. Mmm. I got nowhere
to turn. Tired of being alone. Feel like breakin' up somebody's home. Yes,
I do.
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