Steve Cropper, probably best known for his work at Stax Records, has had a remarkable career lasting about half a century now. With his new release Dedicated, he’s looking back not just at the start of that career, but to the influences leading up to it. Cropper’s regularly cited guitarist Lowman Pauling of the “5” Royales as his primary inspiration in his early years, and this disc is his chance to play tribute to the guitarist and the band that was vital to his own art (and, though short-lived, significant to pop history). As good a guitarist as Cropper is, he’s always known how to blend into his band, and this album’s no exception, as he lets his guest vocalists frequently take the lead role.
In a series of stellar vocal performances, Lucinda Williams makes the biggest impression. Her rough voice contrasts with the “5” Royales’ harmonies. The performance carries emotional weight without any overreaching. It doesn’t hurt that she’s joined by Dann Penn and gets background vocals from Dylan Leblanc, Lee Roy Parnell, and Keb’ Mo’. The strong showing on the marquee track makes it appropriate that she returns for the closing number, “When I Get Like This”. Williams’s style stays different from the Royales’, yet it’s a perfect blend with the R&B band backing her.
Two of the other vocalists make more sense from the start. Sharon Jones shows up a couple times, and her performance of “Messin’ Up” sounds like something that could fit on one of her own records, particularly given the high energy she and Cropper give to it. Bettye LaVette makes two appearances, on “Don’t Be Ashamed” and “Say It”. Both cuts have steady grooves that she can work with, and she uses restraint to good effect.
Plenty of noteworthy singers give good showings here, including B.B. King, Buddy Miller, Dan Penn, and Steve Winwood (who impresses on “Thirty Second Lover”). Even so, it wouldn’t be a proper Steve Cropper album without the band being stellar. Bassist David Hood and keyboardist Spooner Oldham sound like they could be back in Muscle Shoals, and drummers Steve Ferrone and Steve Jordan fit the sound nicely. The group consistently sounds more like the MGs than the Royales, but that makes sense given that it’s Cropper’s salute to his influences, and not a re-creation.
The band does give us a few mostly instrumental performances, and the best of this is “Think”, a song most often associated with James Brown but originally written by Pauling and a hit for the Royales. Here, the band plays it in Brown’s spirit. Cropper plays a lead line that’s not especially flashy, but is impressive in its style. Cropper interlocks his runs with the funky backing and toys with the melody while remaining surprising.
The album itself isn’t especially surprising (aside from a few vocalist choices that work out). If you’re familiar with Cropper and with the “5” Royales, Dedicated is probably what you would expect to hear. Even so, the disc never bores, and it shouldn’t, with talented performers working with high quality material. Combining the right amount of tinkering with the right amount of respect, Cropper and company have created a worthwhile tribute.
// Notes from the Road
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