07/01/12 By Ed Hamilton
The Crusaders: Feel Their Feeling
The reunited group talks with Ed Hamilton about its storied history
After 30 years, before a sold-out audience, The Jazz Crusaders reunited in a 2-hour Los Angeles County Museum of Arts (LACMA) performance. It was a concert of acoustic Jazz Crusaders music without Nesbert Stix Hooper who hasn’t played with them since the late ‘70’s.
They christened the 22nd year of LACMA and performed a musical retrospective introduced by Mitch Glickman, LACMA Musical Director, that included seven of their most famous recordings: ”Broadway,” “Night Theme”, “Weather w/ a Beat,” “Hard Times,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Way Back Home,” “The Thing,” and “The Freedom Sound.” Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Wayne Henderson, Anthony Sample and Jimmy Paxon made up the group this evening.
Their music was an autobiographical musical experience; Joe and Wayne (Wilton is the silent man) gave brief stories in between songs about their getting together and growing up in Houston. It began with their childhood upbringings in Houston Texas: how they lived on the same street, went to the same schools, took up their instruments and practiced in each other’s homes.
On meeting Joe, Wayne said, “Joe and I met across the street from his cousins’ house in elementary school at 6 or 5 and he was called ‘PeeWee.’ Wilton and I met when we were 12.”
The only entertainment they had, Joe recalled, was playing piano, “So, we had boogie woogie wars—two-fisted boogie—playing the black keys. I wrote a southeast Texas church influenced thing called “The Thing” (on my street were 4-5 churches). And later on up in San Francisco at Basin Street, we opened for Anita O'Day. After we finished playing and as we walked off the stage, Anita came up to me and asked what was that, and I said it was southeast Texas inspired, she said ‘I like it, but I don’t know what the hell it is.’”
Sample talked about their pilgrimage to L.A. in 1958, backing up fellow Houstoner Johnny Guitar Watson at the 54 Ballroom, playing the Zebra Lounge and many times at the Lighthouse and finally getting the contract w/ Pacific Jazz doing their first album Looking Ahead with “Freedom Sound” and “Young Rabbits.”
“We left Texas in 1958 in four cars with Hubert Laws with us and he had transmission problems in a rural small town and we thought we were going to have to do battle with the Confederate soldiers to get the hell out of Texas. At that time (1958), we were in a civil rights struggle, Emmit Till had been killed in Mississippi, Little Rock Central High and Orval Faubus denying Black kids integration.”
“We got to L.A., tried to get this recording contract. We simply were not ready. And after playing gig after gig of Doo Wop clubs like the 54 Ballroom with Johnny Guitar Watson as leader (who was a fellow Houstoner), we finally got an audition with Dick Bock of Pacific Jazz Records. We’d do two takes—side A on Monday, off Tuesday and come back Wednesday and do side B for each song. After finishing, Dick Bock said ‘You are now recording artists,’ and ‘Looking Ahead’ became our title cut with ‘The Freedom Sound’ and ‘Young Rabbits.’”
Wayne urged on Joe to explain his inspiration for writing “The Freedom Sound.” Joe went on, “The reason we are here playing tonight is because of all the inspiration we had during the 1960’s. In the 60’s we had emotion, passion, and feeling in our music and I wrote a composition to support the sit-inners and marchers in the civil rights struggle. I titled it “The Freedom Sound” our most successful track to our very first album Looking Ahead and ended up in the American Top 40 pop charts. I was just 22 years old. Do you realize how hip we were in 1961?”
I said to him, “You had many bassists throughout the years—Jimmy Bond was your first bassist on Looking Ahead.”
“Jimmy Bond (who recently passed) was never our bassist,” said Joe. “In the ‘70’s, Stix and I had a conversation where I said to him, ‘Stix, it seems as if we are always going to be doomed. There will never be any bass player who will understand and feel what we feel. That’s a particular problem.’ The bass player thing eventually was going to destroy the band.” Searching for the right bassist, they used Bond, Buster Williams, Leroy Vinnegar.
Describing the bassist that night, Wayne said: “We’ve had incredible bassists throughout the years, but this one boy looks like somebody in this band, looks familiar.” “Where'd you get this guy from?” Wayne asked. Joe said, “That’s my son—Anthony Sample—and when he was born, I made him swear that he would play bass or not get any milk.” Continuing, Joe said, “We knew we were a unique feeling and look about everything and when I got older, I realized that we had got a tremendous blessing from the Lord—from the heavens—that I was given a gift of being able to feel and interpret every ingredient of African-American music. From hootchie-cootchie to soul to gospel to jazz to blues, I really didn’t fit into any particular category. I knew that the Crusaders didn’t fit into any particular category. I loved jazz. Why? I have loved the blues and gospel. When you are an instrumentalist, the normal thing for you is to go over and lean over to the jazz. Jazz influences were tremendous: Art Tatum, Milt Jackson. I worked hard in restaurants at 15, 16, 17 years old and finally started doing gigs with blues bands in Southeast Texas and when I had money, I bought records. Wilton has those albums at his house today.”
Wayne began to tell how they toured with various rock acts and one time they were touring with the Rolling Stones: I’ll tell you what's interesting about this band, we were the first jazz band to tour with the Rolling Stones.” Joe interrupts and says, “NO, NO, NO. We did not tour with the Rolling Stones. We were the opening act and people bombarded us with rolls of toilet tissue—
that was not touring.”
Wayne added, “I remembered that. Joe said, ‘Don’t ever put me in no shit like this again.’” Wayne went on, “The Rolling Stones loved the Crusaders.”
Joe: “Stevie Wonder got toilet papered, who else? Prince got toilet papered—
anybody who opened for the Stones got toilet papered, so don't lie and say that was a tour, Wayne.”
Joe tells how hooking up with Pop bands happened. “In the fall of ‘65, you won’t believe this, I got this call and this guy said this is so and so. I really didn’t know who he was and he said we want you to come to Paris with us and play piano with us. We’ll be doing five or six shows over the holiday season—and for the United Nations’; and I said, “Who in the hell is this?” ‘I’m with the Beach boys.’ So I went to Paris with the Beach Boys, Christmas of ‘65. It was a period where all the pop acts loved to blend the African-American gospel and soul into the pop or the rock—that's what happened.” Continuing, Joe says, “Mike Curb had Curb Records. He discovered a lot of rock acts and I was on most of them. One day Curb called me and said come to the studio and here were these little white kids. I said, ‘Who am I playing for today?’ He said, ‘They are Donny and Marie—
the Osmonds.’ I knew then I had the feeling. You have no Idea how many records Wilton played bass on. We could feel what everybody else could feel—we could feel their feelings. We had the gift.”
Jazz Crusader music changed in the 70’s. Joe described what happened and how their music changed. “Around 1970 in Cleveland, I said to the group, ‘I can’t play this type of jazz anymore,’ so we added electric piano and guitar and created ‘The Crusaders I.’ I put more time into piano then and to me that is the whole reason for music for me—because it heals me and the Crusaders. Our music is more therapeutic and satisfying than any doctor.”
Joe: “Everything in the music business changed—everything changed. I had some bad years based upon the new owners of the music industry who had contracts on me.”
Joe: ”Blue Thumb was cool—they had been purchased by MCA and 300 companies had vanished that were 6 corporate structures. The nightmare that did everything in was MTV. They killed the business. Youngsters stood no chance of being able to hear and feel---they started “Eyeballin” music and when I saw the first video, I knew there’s trouble. I also began to recognize that I got to see that there was still talented musicians on the face of the earth; every generation is gonna have its killer jazz musicians and singers. There was Whitney---she was one of the all time greats.”
And Randy Crawford?
Joe: “Yes, on ‘Street Life’ from our first movie score Sharkey’s Machine, Randy was phenomenal. Another of our most requested. We see every generation will have their own particular greats. The bass player thing eventually was going to destroy the band.”
Is that why you guys broke up?
Joe: “We really didn’t break up. You know a lot of things happened in everybody’s life. We would record. Wilton had to learn how to play bass to get the Crusaders music played.”
Joe explained that “Eleanor Rigby” was a song he vehemently disliked. When his producer suggested it, Joe said “I don't like it, not by the Beatles nor Ray Charles.” So we were doing the Lighthouse and Dick Bock said, ‘I know you write your own music but would you do me a favor?” Joe replied, “Don't even go there. I’m not going to do any crappy pop song.’ And Bock said, ‘This is a good song, Ray Charles did it. Would you please do one Beatles song?’ I said, ‘What Beatles song?’ He said, ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ I said, ‘Man, I hate that song—the harmony is so hard-boiled.’ So we had one more set and I looked at Buster Williams and said, ‘Do you know that song?’ So everybody kinda learned the melody. I didn’t know what the harmonies were and I didn’t want to know. So I told Buster just play it and somewhere 2 minutes into it we would have figured out how we could Crusaderize the Beatles pop song; and when you listen to it, Buster and I were in totally different places and we finally got it organized in one minute for Live At the Lighthouse. “Eleanor Rigby,” a song that I didn’t want to play and record and it eventually became a standard.”
About the closing song of the evening, an explanation about how the Crusaders, Patty Hearst and the FBI got linked together was told by Joe.
“It seems like in all those years playing the Lighthouse every activist group loved the Crusaders and they were always trying to indoctrinate me to become a Black Panther or this or that. And one day in Hawaii, we had done a show and my hotel room phone rang and the guy said this is agent so and so. We want to know what you know about Patty Hearst. I hung the phone up. He called back again and said this is serious, this is agent so and so. I hung the phone up and the next thing there was knocking at the door. We are very serious—the first thing on the kidnapping tape was Wilton Felder’s ‘Way Back Home.’ The SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army, who kidnapped Patty Hearst) had adopted Wilton’s ‘Way Back Home’ as their anthem. I said, ‘Ain't that some shit. I think you're looking for Les McCann.’”
Joe Sample, Wayne Henderson, and Wilton Feldon (The Silent One) have withstood a career of crusading throughout all the recorded sessions they’ve performed and been blessed with bountiful careers and longevity in the business. Joe, Wayne and Wilton have produced and recorded on hundreds of albums during their separate careers. I actually talked to an electric bass playing Wilton on Grant Green’s last recording Live at the Lighthouse. He can really talk. That was 1972.
This evening was a wonderful return to the acoustic sound of the young men from Houston who journeyed to Los Angeles and made a new home—an endeavor that was a zealous movement for a cause. They reunited for this special evening and musically illustrated the emotions, passions, and feelings that the Jazz Crusaders still possess. And to borrow the nomenclature of Joe Sample. We could feel their feeling. We had been “Crusaderized.”
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