Crusaders Saxophonist Wilton Felder Dies at 75

Third member of veteran band to pass

Wilton Felder image 0

Wilton Felder

Saxophonist and bassist Wilton Felder, a co-founder and longtime member of the Crusaders, died Sept. 27, at age 75, in Whittier, Calif. The cause was cancer. Felder was 75.

Felder’s death, confirmed by his son Wilton Felder Jr., and reported in multiple news outlets, follows those of fellow Crusaders Joe Sample (keyboards) and Wayne Henderson (trombone), both in 2014, leaving drummer Nesbert “Stix” Hooper as the only surviving member of the core group.

Felder remained with the Crusaders-originally known as the Jazz Crusaders-for more than 30 years. Although he continued to collaborate with the other members in later years, and served both as a sideman and solo artist, he never joined another group. In a 2003 interview, Felder told JazzTimes, “The Crusaders have been the only band that I’ve loved playing in. I realized as I got older that nobody else played like them. The way that we played together, and the music that we made can only be played when we’re together.”

Born in Houston, Tex., on Aug. 31, 1940, Felder-along with Sample and Hooper-co-founded the Swingsters while attending Wheatley High School in Houston. Henderson was added after Sample, then in college, heard him play. Changing their name first to the Modern Jazz Sextet and then the Jazz Crusaders, the quartet relocated to Los Angeles, where it was signed to Pacific Jazz Records. They released their debut album, Freedom Sound, in 1961, and remained with that label for the duration of the ’60s, releasing numerous studio and live recordings.

In 1971, as their sound diverted from mainstream acoustic jazz toward electric funk, and now signed with Blue Thumb Records, they shortened their name to the Crusaders and enjoyed a string of chart albums as such. Henderson left the group in 1975, but the Crusaders’ popularity continued, and their 1979 Street Life album reached number 18 on Billboard‘s album chart. Felder and Sample carried on until 1991, when Sample left to pursue his solo career. (All but Henderson reunited briefly in 2003; in 2010, Sample, Felder and Henderson reunited, with flutist Hubert Laws added.)

Felder also maintained a busy side career as a studio musician, most notably contributing to the first hit by the Jackson 5, “I Want You Back,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” He also worked with Marvin Gaye, Cat Stevens, Billy Joel, Barry White, John Cale, Randy Newman, B.B. King, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Shuggie Otis and such jazz artists as Grant Green, Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Nancy Wilson and John Klemmer.

Felder released several albums as a leader, beginning with 1969’s Bullitt.