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Saxophonist Hank Crawford Dead at 74

Hank Crawford, whose alto saxophone graced many of Ray Charles’ classic recordings, and who went on to a prolific solo career, recording for Atlantic, Milestone and other labels, died Jan. 29 at his home in Memphis. The cause was complications from a stroke he suffered in 2000. Crawford was 74.

Known for his soul-jazz sound, Bennie Ross Crawford Jr. was born in Memphis on Dec. 21, 1934. He took piano lessons at age 9 and switched to the alto saxophone while in high school. After graduating, he began his professional career as a musician in the bands of local Memphis blues artists such as B.B. King, Ike Turner and Bobby “Blue” Bland. He formed his own band, Little Hank and the Rhythm Kings, in 1956. Crawford took on the name Hank during his teens when some local musicians told him that he sounded like another Memphis saxophonist named Hank.

Crawford joined Charles’ band in 1958 as a substitute for another saxophonist, and by 1960 he was serving as the band’s musical director. He performed with Charles during the same period that the band featured tenor saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, who died just nine days before him, and Leroy “Hog” Cooper, who also died last month.

Crawford began recording for Atlantic as a leader in 1960, releasing the album The Art of Hank Crawford. Crawford left Charles’ band in 1963 to lead his own septet. He remained with Atlantic until 1970, cutting a dozen albums, producing a sound that walked the line between jazz and R&B, for the label. He signed with Creed Taylor’s Kudu label in 1971 and then Milestone in 1982.

Crawford recorded more than 15 albums for the label until the stroke sidelined him. Four of those were duo dates with organist Jimmy McGriff, with whom Crawford toured frequently. He also recorded as a sideman with many artists, including Eric Clapton, Etta James, Dr. John, Lou Rawls, and B.B. King.

Among the many musicians influenced by Crawford is David Sanborn, who covered four songs by Crawford on his album of last year, Here and Gone.

Originally Published