Over the course of his 30-year career, Rick Steff has played on hundreds of records, toured with Hank Williams Jr., and more recently found a new role as the professor emeritus and pianist for local roots-rockers Lucero. But the one thing he’d never done was put out a record under his own name.
That changed last month as Steff released an EP called Rick’s Booogie. For the second-generation Memphis musician, who turned 50 in January, the release represents a personal mile marker.
“I’ve always been the sideman, the journeyman,” Steff says. “So I’m still feeling kinda funny about having my own record out.”
Inspired by the work of Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, Steff recorded the material at Ward Archer’s studio (Archer’s label also released the record). “I’d always wanted to do an old-school piano boogie piece,” Steff says. “A lot of piano players in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, they would have these boogie-woogie singles. I had a couple things I was playing live with Lucero at soundchecks or leading into other tunes, and they kind of grew into these two songs.”
The three-song EP — the two-part barrelhouse/boogie title track and the ballad “Bastard’s Lullaby” — were cut live by Steff, while members of Lucero added their parts later.
The record is a culmination for Steff, whose family name is a familiar one in Memphis music circles.
Steff was born in Dunkirk, N.Y. His trumpeter father, Dick, moved the family down to Memphis when Rick was still in diapers. Dick Steff came to the Bluff City to become a vocal and brass arranger for the jingle house Pepper-Tanner. In addition to his work there, the elder Steff would become a music teacher at Memphis State University, a member of the local symphony orchestra and an in-demand session man, part of the group of brass players who would appear on records by Dusty Springfield and Elvis Presley, among others.
For Steff, growing up around so much music, there was only one life path. “I used to tag along to my dad’s sessions and gigs all the time. He started me on piano lessons at age 5,” Steff says. “He was always doing something. He would go play on a Rod Stewart record or go play for the circus, and I would go with him.”
Already a talented player as a teenager, the younger Steff had to make a choice: accept one of several music scholarships he’d been offered, or hit the road and begin playing professionally. “I told my dad I wanted to make records and play cool gigs,” Steff says. “He said, ‘Fer chrissakes, then, don’t go to college. Go do that.’ It was good advice.”
A couple weeks after graduating from high school, Steff was on the road with a lounge band. He soon moved to London, where he had a cup of coffee playing with Dexy’s Midnight Runners during their early ’80s peak. “That didn’t work out too well — the fine folks of immigration asked me to leave because I was working illegally.”
In 1988, Steff finally got his big break, joining Hank Williams Jr.’s Bama Band. “I went and auditioned and got the gig because I knew how to play the theme from ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’” says Steff, laughing. “After learning 50 albums of his stuff, that was what sealed the deal.”
Steff spent six years with Williams, during the singer’s most prolific and popular period. “We played concerts to 70,000 people — it was a huge, huge production. And, no, I hadn’t done anything on that scale before or since,” he says. “There was never a setlist; you never knew what he was going to play. You just had to watch and go. That was good learning for a lot of things.”
By 1994, the ravages of road life had taken their toll, and Steff stepped back from touring. “I didn’t really want to go back out on the road again. So I did things purposefully that were not like that,” he says. “I just tried to stay working as a musician — which, in Memphis, can be tough.”
Steff’s reluctance to tour finally began to melt after a decade. In 2006, he was hired to record and perform with indie chanteuse Cat Power, as part of her Memphis Soul Band.
Around that time, while working a session, he ran into bassist John Stubblefield and drummer Roy Berry of alt-roots outfit Lucero. “And we just hit it off,” Steff recalls. “They asked if I’d like to come to a rehearsal. Once I met them and heard (singer-songwriter) Ben Nichols’ tunes, I was like, ‘This is the band I’ve been waiting to join my whole life.’”
The band was about to record its breakthrough LP, Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, and Steff immediately stepped in, adding a new dimension to the group’s music. “They really wanted a keyboard to beef their sound,” he says. “As a writer, Ben had grown, and the palette of sounds that he wanted to use had changed. It certainly was the nicest thing that ever happened to me, meeting and playing with them. It was a second lease on a career, really.”
Over the past seven years, Steff has become a full-fledged member of the band, recording and touring with them on several more albums, including the recently released EP Texas & Tennessee.
Aside from Lucero, Steff remains a busy sideman, working on roughly 20 records a year at minimum. In recent times, he’s recorded with Beatles associate Klaus Voormann, ’80s rocker Huey Lewis, power-pop supergroup Orange Humble and even up-and-coming local acts like the Dirty Streets.
Steff says he’s merely following the advice and example of his father, who passed away in 2000. “He really set a really high bar for what a musician does,” Steff says. “So I’ve just tried to do what my dad did, which is to do as many records as I can. He was big on playing with everyone, because he figured you’ll always learn something. That part of it, the learning, it never stops.”
Rick Steff’s new EP is available on iTunes or at archer-records.com.