“It’s time to gear up again,” says Joe Sample, the brilliant keyboardist who, nearly a half-century after the birth of The Crusaders, is leading the charge for the group’s renewal. “It’s time to revisit and revitalize the tradition that gave us purpose and identity. We’re looking back to our beginnings for our strength—back to that healing feeling when the music first got all over us.”
“This reunion was long in coming,” he continues, as he listens to the final mix of Rural Renewal, the first new album from The Crusaders — featuring Sample, saxist Wilton Felder, and drummer Stix Hooper—in over 20 years. “More than ever, I missed playing essential Crusaders music. I needed renewal, and I knew that reassembling the team, with [producer] Stewart Levine at our side, was something I had to do.”
Although a reunion of these bandmates, who first joined together in Houston in the fifties with the formation of The Swingsters, would be special enough, Sample invited a few guests to the party. Chart topping contemporary gospel vocalist Donnie McClurkin contributes soulfully heartfelt renditions of “A Healing Coming On” and “Sing the Song”. Eric Clapton’s tasty string acoustic gives the title track its extra lift. Clapton also electrifies “Creepin’,” one of the album’s patented Sample smoothed-out funk grooves. The presence of stalwarts Arthur Adams, Lenny Castro and Dean Parks, veterans of past crusades, is keenly felt. Freddie Washington and Ray Parker, Jr., geniuses of the Cosmic Groove, groove hard and long, brothers of the heart with Joe, Wilton and Stix.
Ultimately, Joe, Wilton, and Stix are the renewers and the renewed. They’ve never sounded better—Sample’s boldly percussive piano, Hooper’s deep-pocket drums, Felder’s full-cry tenor. They wrote all the songs; they fashioned the charts; they reinforce their signature sound with a sweet maturity that nourishes our souls. The titles—“Heartland,” “Greasy Spoon," “Viva de Funk,” “Shotgun House Groove”—are self-descriptive pieces of poetry all pointing in the same direction.
“The renewal,” adds Stix, “is in the rapport. And the rhythmic rapport between us is downright magical. It’s innate. It’s a bonding of more than musical sensibilities. The bonding is spiritual.”
In that vein, The Crusaders create some inspiring gospel sounds on Rural Renewal. “The source of `A Healing Coming On’ was an Oprah Winfrey show that came on a couple of weeks after 9/11,” explains Sample. “She had Donnie McClurkin and The Winans as guests. Donnie said the words, `A healing’s coming on.’ I was certain he was referring to a song he was about to sing. Instead he sang his hit `Stand,’ which brought down the house. But the words stuck, and Will Jennings and I wrote to that theme. Then we asked the mighty Sounds of Blackness to provide the choral background and Donnie to sing lead. He said he was honored—so honored, in fact, he hung around to sing another story of quiet grace, `Sing the Song.’”
The group’s embracing of many different musical styles starts where it normally does, at the beginning. “Because we came up on the streets and not in the studios,” says Felder, “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.”
It’s no surprise, then, that once in senior high, The Swingsters became The Modern Jazz Sextet, a group that continued through their college years at Texas Southern University. Before graduation, though, the call of the road was irresistible, and they were off to L.A.
Two years later, in 1960, the group was signed to Pacific Jazz Records and re-christened The Jazz Crusaders. Their trombone/sax frontline sound was unique, their bop chops impeccable. In a series of superlative albums, The Jazz Crusaders built a national reputation, surviving a decade in which the popularity of jazz was in extreme decline. On one hand, the British Invasion and Motown dominated the youth market; on the other, the jazz avant-garde alienated scores of fans.
“We were caught in the middle,” says Stix. “We heard what visionaries like John Coltrane were doing—and we loved it. But we also loved the music of Marvin Gaye.”
“The era of soul music,” Wilton explains, “was perfectly akin to our own roots. At the same time, we were put in a jazz box and couldn’t break out.”
By 1968, The Jazz Crusaders were limping. “The last straw was somewhere back East,” Joe says. “I had to play on an old broken-down jazz organ and back a strip show. The jazz world was on the verge of collapse, and we were about to go down with it. I told my colleagues, `Man, this crusade is about over.’”
Ironically, it was just about to begin. Enter Stewart Levine, a musician-turned-producer who, like Sample, had grown disillusioned with the spacey jazz of the late sixties. His vision for the group matched Joe’s: a blending of the basics—inventive jazz and get-down rhythm-and-blues.
By 1971, “Jazz” was dropped and The Crusaders marched into new territory, unencumbered by category. The march continued through the seventies, culminating at decade’s end with the remarkable worldwide hit “Street Life.”
In the following years, The Crusaders worked both together and individually in the studios, backing everyone from Marvin Gaye to Steely Dan to Joni Mitchell. Meanwhile, The Crusaders’ oeuvre expanded into one of the great jazz/soul collections of the modern era. Their landmark albums—The Second Crusade, Unsung Heroes, Southern Comfort, Chain Reaction, and Those Southern Knights—took on iconic status in more ways than one. The Crusaders catalogue has become perhaps the most sampled in the world. The infectious grooves and licks from those songs are a veritable backbone of today’s neo-soul, rap and hip hop music. Artists that have sampled Crusaders tracks include 2Pac, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Tyrese, Destiny’s Child, De la Soul, Lil Bow Wow, Blackstreet, Masta Ace, US3 and Dave Hollister, to name a few.
In 1961, four fellows from Houston transplanted themselves to Los Angeles and added more distinctly bluesy elements to the soul jazz style with an ear-grabbing album called The Freedom Sound on the Pacific Jazz label. The band, which had been known in turn as the Swingsters, the Modern Jazz Sextet, and the Nighthawks, was now named the Jazz Crusaders. Its four co-leaders were trombonist Wayne Henderson, tenor saxophonist (and occasional bassist) Wilton Felder, pianist Joe Sample, and drummer Nesbert "Stix" Hooper.
The Jazz Crusaders sound caught on big time, and their subsequent Pacific Jazz albums rewarded them with a good deal of exposure. The band performed regularly and got plenty of airplay. One of its signature pieces, the rollickingly fast "Young Rabbits," was even used as the musical background for a Ford Mustang TV commercial.
But as times changed, so did the Jazz Crusaders. In the late Sixties, they placed such popular numbers as the Beatles’ "Eleanor Rigby" and "Get Back" in their repertoire, and firm backbeats began to bolster many a selection. By 1971, they decided that the word "jazz" kept them from attracting a wider listener base, and so they emerged anew with The Crusaders, Vol. 1 (Chisa), an album that openly infused jazz with pop, soul, and r&b elements.
If the Jazz Crusaders had achieved some degree of popularity, it was nothing like the crossover success that greeted the Crusaders. Such albums as Scratch, Southern Comfort, Chain Reaction, Those Southern Knights, Free as the Wind, Images, Street Life, and Royal Jam (recorded variously for the Chisa, ABC Blue Thumb, and MCA labels) sold well and brought in a deluge of new fans. Street Life’s title track provided the Crusaders with a Billboard top forty hit, reaching no. 36 in 1979.
The Crusaders’ popularity started to fade in the early Eighties, prompted by Henderson’s departure. Hooper then left as well, and by the early Nineties Sample and Felder had disbanded the group. A few years later, Henderson and Felder began performing together, first as the New Crusaders and, more recently, as the Jazz Crusaders.
Excerpted from The Crusaders’ Finest Hour 314 543 762-2
Zan Stewart writes on jazz for Stereophile, Down Beat, and the Los Angeles Times.