Odd Couple: Cavaliere and Cropper take to the air with ‘Midnight Flyer’

Worlds apart in the 1960s, geographically speaking and perhaps musically, as well, Felix Cavaliere, of the British Invasion-influenced, East Coast R&B gang The Rascals, and Steve Cropper, the quintessential Southern soul guitarist who powered the Stax label house band Booker T. & the MGs, would, occasionally, pass each other like strangers in the night.

“You know, we used to know each other in the past from the Atlantic (Records) family,” explains Cavaliere. “We used to cross paths once in a while in the studio. Matter of fact, Booker T. did cut ‘Groovin’’ – they cut an instrumental version of ‘Groovin’’ and had a hit with that.”

A sunny, summery ode to carefree Sundays spent loving the one you’re with and gazing upon nature’s wonders, with bird sounds flitting about the instrumentation, the organic “Groovin’” was a massive #1 hit for The Rascals in 1967 and proof of the band’s increasing sophistication with regard to pop arrangements and songwriting. They were the kings of blue-eyed soul.

Meanwhile, down South, Cropper was creating that signature guitar style of his, one so fluid and expressive that it seemed the very embodiment of hot, humid Dixie soul. No ordinary sideman, Cropper’s skill as an arranger, writer, player and producer gave Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” a certain glow and introspective depth, while pumping heated blood through the huffing, puffing circulatory system of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.”

“I think what’s unique about his playing is, he’s got sort of a style that he’s developed from listening to people like Curtis Mayfield and a lot of the blues guys, but it’s not any of those, it’s his own,” says Cavaliere.
From afar, the two artists shared a mutual admiration for each other’s work. But, working together? That seemed a far-fetched notion in the late ‘60s, back when Cropper’s Southern cooking was still simmering in Booker T. & the MGs’ soul kitchen, and Cavaliere and the Rascals were branching out into psychedelia and jazz. Years went by, and both bands dissolved, leaving Cavaliere and Cropper as free agents. And Cavaliere, along with his New York accent, would, shockingly, wind up moving to Tennessee, home to Cropper.

“We just started writing together, and it kind of jelled and we had a good time, and he got us a [record] deal,” says Cavaliere, explaining how the partnership that’s resulted in not one, but now two albums, that latest being Midnight Flyer, on Stax, came to fruition. “It was a total surprise to both of us. It kind of went on from there, and we went on to do the second one, which was just a lot of fun. And the reason that it works so well is because we both have kind of similar musical kind of identities, you know.”

Although, being from places that couldn’t be more different, Cavaliere and Cropper have their own approaches when it comes to lyrics and music. “He, being from the South, has these kinds of little idioms that really go well with music, and they come out in the words,” says Cavaliere. “They just have that kind of Southern charm to them that I think people like. On the other hand, I come from a more jazz background, more of an R&B/jazz type world; he’s like more of straight-on blues world. So, the mixture of the two, I think it works because, as I say, both of those formats are kind of cool.”

The marriage works, at least in part because of Cavaliere and Cropper’s interest in exploring diverse musical styles. From the high-stepping funk workouts of “Move The House” and “Do It Like This” to the seductive grooves of “Sexy Lady” and the sweaty soul faceoff between Cavaliere and his daughter Aria on “I Can’t Stand It,” Midnight Flyer is a multi-dimensional effort from two old dogs who’ve been teaching others tricks for a long, long time. And yet, there’s still something about Midnight Flyer that harkens back to the good old days for both.

“He gets a kick out of my chord changes, and the grooves that come out,” says Cavaliere, “because he relates it to like ‘Groovin’’ and the same with his stuff. You know, there’s kind of like a Wilson Pickett feeling in some of these songs.”

It’d be easy for Cavaliere and Cropper to fall back into familiar working patterns, but on Midnight Flyer, they took inspiration from advanced technology. But they did draw some lines in the sand.
“Well, you know, we tried something different this time, a little bit more modern,” relates Cavaliere. “And you know, whenever two older guys do modern stuff you’ve got to really be careful. I used Apple products called Logic, and we set up in a studio. It is so much fun to write in the studio because you’re getting like immediately great sound, and we found these loops to write to and kind of just composed on the spot live to those loops. You know, drum patterns, and it just, you know, brought a different type of inspiration to the project. And then, of course, we went back and did the traditional bass, drums, of course guitars, keys. But it started from kind of like the more modern, computer type of thing.”

As for Aria, the young singer didn’t back down being the in the company of legends. Her dad wouldn’t have had it any other way.  “I wanna tell you, she kind of freaked me out a little because I know she’s good, and she came totally prepared and just like belted it out, man,” laughs Cavaliere. “Everybody was just like that old Pioneer speaker commercial, you know, they were just kind of blasted against the wall. She kicked it. It’s a thrill, you know. I can’t describe how good you feel when somebody really comes to a job and does well like that. You know, she looked at it like a job. I mean, I told her, I said this is for real. You’ve got to be prepared when you come in the room. Nobody’s going to sit around and teach you anything. And she did great. She did … I took her on the road with me for a while, although I’m not really encouraging this type of life for anybody. It’s very difficult. She loves it.”

So far, as it relates to their partnership, so do Cavaliere and Cropper, two artists intent on letting the world know they still have something to say.

-Peter Lindblad

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