If the Crusaders did not invent contemporary jazz, they certainly played a pivotal role in popularizing what was then a new approach to the classic hard bop style, occupying a space somewhere between fusion, smooth jazz, R&B, funk and soul. Originally from Houston, Texas, the group’s sound calls up the 1970’s in a way that few can duplicate.
To listen to their records now, one is reminded of Return to Forever, Pat Metheny & Michael Brecker, but the Crusaders got there first.
Said Crusaders tenor saxman Wilton Felder, “Because we came up on the streets and not in the studios, our music was live. The Texas streets were rich with the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins. We grew up on all the deep country sounds. We ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the same time, we had ears for modern jazz—Miles and Monk—and never saw a contradiction between the old and new.”
The Crusaders began life as a jazz combo founded by pianist Joe Sample, saxophonist Felder and drummer Stix Hooper, then known as the Swingsters. The year was 1954. Trombonist Wayne Henderson came aboard, and in 1960, the group relocated to Los Angeles & changed their name to the Jazz Crusaders. Signed to Pacific Jazz Records, the melodic interplay between Henderson and Felder was a distinctive identifying mark from the start.
By the time the 1970’s arrived, the group decided to drop the “jazz” from their name and became simply The Crusaders, formalizing what by then was an increasingly eclectic and diverse musical approach. Pianist Sample had embraced electronic keyboards like the Fender Rhodes. Guitarist Larry Carlton joined the band in 1971, adding a distinctive new dimension that contributed exponentially to the Crusaders’ popularity (and raised his value as a session player too – Carlton recorded with Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Barbra Streisand, the Bee Gees and dozens of other heavyweight artists of the day). His fellow Crusaders branched out as well, working with artists like B.B. King and Joe Cocker.
The group’s output during these years included the albums Scratch, Southern Comfort, Chain Reaction, Those Southern Knights, Free as the Wind, Images, Street Life, and Royal Jam.
The Crusaders enjoyed their greatest commercial success with the hit “Street Life,” featuring guest vocalist Randy Crawford, released in 1979. The track reached number #36 on the Billboard Hot #100 and #18 on the album charts, and was featured in the 1981 film Sharky’s Machine as well as Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 movie Jackie Brown (a fitting choice to represent the 1970’s culture that is the film’s reference point).
However, Henderson had left the band in 1975, with Carlton following soon after; Sample, Felder and Hooper parted company in the 1980’s. Henderson toured under the Jazz Crusaders brand, while Sample & Felder retained the Crusaders name. These various iterations continued to record, with highlights including their 2000 release, Rural Renewal on Verve with Sample, Felder & Hooper, and guest stars such as Eric Clapton.
Henderson became a noted producer, working with Patti Austin, Jean Carne, Bill Withers, Ronnie Laws, Ramsey Lewis, Steely Dan, Bobby Lyle, Everette Harp, Phillip Ingram, Nathan East, Lenny Williams, Rebbie Jackson, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King, the Jackson Five, Hiroshima, Hugh Masekela, Joni Mitchell, Wilton Felder, and Tina Turner, to mention a few.
Meanwhile, the Crusaders’ music was discovered and sampled by a who’s who of rap, hip-hop and neo-soul artists, including include 2Pac, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Tyrese, Destiny’s Child, De la Soul, Lil Bow Wow, Blackstreet, Masta Ace, US3 and Dave Hollister.
Now, three of the four original members – Sample, Felder & Henderson – are back together as the Jazz Crusaders, touring and playing for the first time in almost forty years. To say they are legends is almost to state the obvious; to hear them united again on one stage is an opportunity not to miss.
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