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Westport Musician Helps Smithsonian Celebrate Memphis Soul Music

Smithsonian curator John Hasse, guitarist Steve Cropper, and Roger Kaufman.

A Westport musician has been working with the Smithsonian Institution to collect musical instruments and other ephemera related to Memphis soul music. 

Roger Kaufmann is a bass player who runs Old School Music Productions, a music events production company. He said as a kid growing up in Connecticut, he was instantly drawn to R&B, especially the artists working at Stax Records in Memphis.

Legends like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Wilson Pickett helped make Stax and Memphis the epicenter for soul music in the early to mid-1960s.

"I heard the voice of Sam Moore, I heard the voice of Otis Redding, and I couldn't stop listening to it," said Kaufman."The instrumentation and the vocal intensity was two of the ingredients that made Stax so compelling."

Kaufman said the heart of the Stax sound was Booker T. and the MGs.

The instrumental group was house band at Stax, laying down simple but driving rhythms and horn parts that propelled songs like "In The Midnight Hour" and "Try A Little Tenderness" onto the charts. Booker T. and the MGs was also one of the first racially integrated groups at a time when much of the deep South was still segregated.

Roger Kaufman comes from a musical family. His grandfather, Mel Kaufman, was a successful ragtime composer. In fact, it was through the music of Mel Kaufman, a man who died before Roger was born, that he was handed the opportunity of a lifetime -- helping the Smithsonian Institution collect Stax Records memorabilia.

"I met this gentlemen who had been playing my grandfather's music for years. We became friends, " said Kaufman. "As it turns out, he worked in the Smithsonian and told the curators that I was a good source for rhythm and blues contacts, and the curator asked if I would be interested in assisting them in their search for people related to this. I thought about for about nine seconds -- and then I said yes."

Kaufman jumped at the chance, and hit up an old acquaintance, the guitarist for Booker T. and the MGs: R&B legend Steve Cropper.Cropper agreed to donate a number of historically significant items, including three Fender guitars.

"One that he used in the sessions to play on Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay." Another that he used in "The Blues Brothers" movie -- the scene when the band is in Ray Charles's music store, and they break into "Shake A Tail Feather." And the third one is a session guitar that he used for Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," said Kaufman.

Credit Facebook
Steve Cropper's 1961 Fender Esquire "Doc." Cropper played the guitar on many recordings, including Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay."

Cropper also donated his 1957 Fender Harvard amp -- the amp he used to record the 1962 Booker T. and the MG's hit "Green Onions." At the donation ceremony at the Smithsonian in December, Cropper said he was motivated to donate after seeing instruments at the museum from some of his musical heroes.

"I really felt the emotion, and I thought wow, I really need to do this. So where else would you donate your guitars? Everyone will get to view these, and when they read the stories behind them, I think they will be interested," said Cropper.

Through Cropper's participation, Kaufman has been in touch with others associated with Stax records, including the family of Otis Redding and the daughter of Rufus Thomas.

The Smithsonian will include Stax memorabilia in a new modern music wing at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The new wing is expected to be ready for visitors in 2019.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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