Earlier this year, Booker T. Jones released his best music in the 35 years since the dissolution of Stax with the solo album The Road From Memphis. And now, Jones' Booker T. & the MGs bandmate Steve Cropper has done the same, albeit in a more unlikely manner.
Cropper acts as bandleader and co-producer on Dedicated, a tribute to the early '50s North Carolina R&B band the 5 Royales. Led by guitarist/songwriter/resident genius Lowman Pauling, the 5 Royales never gained the cross-over glory of the first-generation rock-and-rollers they immediately presaged, but in blending jump blues, jazz, doo-wop, gospel, and R&B into music that set the stage for both rock and soul, they equaled titans like Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and the Sun Records crew in both significance and artistry.
At this stage, the band's best-known songs are in cover versions — the Shirelles' "Dedicated to the One I Love," James Brown's "Think," Otis Redding's "Tell the Truth" — but the 5 Royales' catalog is deep, providing plenty of material to draw from. And Cropper — who reveals in the liner notes that he was first turned onto the band in high school by then-and-future bandmate Duck Dunn — proves to be the perfect person to oversee this project. "As a one-man guitar, [Pauling] was able to play rhythm and then, when it was acceptable, play fills or a solo," Cropper writes, describing a versatility and tastefulness that would mark Cropper's own career.
Cropper mentions wanting to "educate these young ears" and get younger listeners or, perhaps more pointedly, musicians, interested in the 5 Royales, but Dedicated doesn't sound like proselytizing. Nor does it — unlike most tribute albums — feel designed to tap into a ready market of nostalgic consumers. After all, how many people at this point even know who the 5 Royales are?
Rather, Dedicated seems to exist solely as an act of love and has the sound and feel of a private party to which we've been granted entry.
Unlike most tribute albums, this one has a uniformity of sound, with as much focus on the band as the singers. Rather than a hodgepodge of separately recorded tracks, Dedicated is built to work as a single house band, led by Cropper and assembled along with co-producer Jon Tiven (who oversaw Alex Chilton's first solo album once upon a time). The basic tracks were all recorded at Dan Penn's Better Songs and Gardens studio in Nashville, with Cropper leading a mix of soul-era compatriots (David Hood, Spooner Oldham), session aces (drummers Steve Jordan and Steve Ferrone), and younger inheritors (soul revivalist sax-man Neal Sugarman).
The result is a warm, loose sound that adds a Memphis and Muscle Shoals overlay to the 5 Royales sound, a record that knows when to swagger and when to sway and that has the good sense to underscore its musical appeal by giving Cropper and the band a couple of instrumental showcases, including the smart decision to strip vocals from "Think," thus highlighting Pauling's strictly musical command.
Vocally, this is a homey mix of soul-schooled singers that sidesteps celebrity or gimmicks. On the male side, Steve Winwood loosens up on the opening "Thirty Second Lover," Delbert McClinton swings on "Right Around the Corner," and even Blues Traveler's John Popper sounds great, taking lead on the high-stepping "My Sugar Sugar."
Better are the women, with blues veteran Bettye LaVette and soul survivor Sharon Jones taking multiple leads and suggesting that if this show ever went on the road, they'd be the perfect front people.
But the real standouts here, after Cropper himself, are Lucinda Williams and Penn, who duet on the deathless "Dedicated to the One I Love," Williams wrapping her marble-mouthed voice around the verses and Penn crooning the bridge. Separately, Penn's worn voice deepens the swooning "Someone Made You For Me," while Williams returns to close out the album with "When I Get Like This."
In a highly questionable genre, this surprise triumph bests the merely decent-by-comparison but higher-profile Buddy Holly tribute from earlier this year and might rival 1997's Bob Dylan-helmed Jimmie Rodgers tribute among the best of the format.