Keyboardist and Crusader Joe Sample left a major legacy of soul-jazz, R&B, and hip-hop

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Joe Sample

Joe Sample is a traditionalist. Born and raised in the segregation-era Fifth Ward section of Houston, Texas, he quickly developed a taste for the rich musical heritage of his homeland—the parts of the South they used to call “The Territory,” where boundaries between different genres of African American musical expression dissolved earlier than anyplace else. This fascination continued to be a driving force throughout his adult life and his career as a professional musician, setting the stage for the roots-bound sound Joe and his colleagues in the Jazz Crusaders became known for in the ’60s.

 

Originally published as “Territory Roots” in Wax Poetics Issue 24, August 2007

 

Both frustrated with the purists and critics who took offense to the accessibility of their music, and alienated by the advent of freer forms of improvisation, the band decided to drop the word “Jazz” from their name in 1971, and developed a new musical approach on their MCA debut 1. Next to Larry Carlton on guitar and Chuck Rainey on bass, Sample’s keyboard work stood at the center of the funkier and more “electric” Crusaders sound. He had already started to embrace electric pianos (first the Wurlitzer, later the Fender Rhodes) a couple of years earlier. Drawn to them for practical reasons at first, he would utilize their unique sound on the majority of his recording sessions in the years to come, often setting the vibe for the whole group.

It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to call Joe Sample one of the quintessential hip-hop keyboardists. Although he might not be happy with that assessment himself, and was never physically part of the recordings, his playing can be heard on many sample-based ’90s classics. His solo song “In All My Wildest Dreams” resurfaced as Tupac’s ode to motherhood, “Dear Mama,” and dozens of Crusaders records turned into blueprints for songs by East Coast staples like Biz Markie, Gang Starr, and Masta Ace—an impressive portfolio in itself. But less widely known is his session work. It was Sample playing that famous electric piano break on Minnie Riperton’s “Inside My Love.” The keyboards on Ronnie Laws’s “Tidal Wave,” Steely Dan’s “Black Cow,” and Herb Alpert’s “Rise”—all him.

As new generations trace the origins of their music back to him and his peers, the sixty-eight-year-old is still on a journey to explore his own roots. He moved back to Houston in 2000, after more than four decades in California, and revisited ancient jazz history on a solo piano album called Soul Shadows. Most recently, he revived his working relationship with longtime friend and collaborator Randy Crawford, the voice of his and the Crusaders’ biggest hit, “Street Life.” While waiting for some ice cubes to complement a glass of Scotch during downtime from their recent tour, Joe shared a few life stories and worldviews.

What initially sparked your interest in music?

Well, I was born in ’39 in Houston. And of course music was the only fun anyone had in their life at that time. There was the war, there were no baseball teams, no football teams, no television. There was only music on the radio, and everybody just loved it. Also, of course, the churches. I grew up in a very Baptist neighborhood, although we went to a Creole-Catholic church. I heard gospel and blues all my life.

When did you start playing the piano?

In my neighborhood in the 1940s, most kids started playing boogie-woogie on the piano when they were around five. It was one of the most popular styles at that particular time, and you only needed two fingers to play it. [hums a boogie line] So that was the beginning. At six years old, I told my mother I wanted to begin to learn the piano. Of course, I went to a Black piano teacher in a Black neighborhood, but all of sudden I was reading Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Mozart…they all had these strange names. Eventually, I found out that it was mostly German names.

That’s what you started playing?

Yes, and it was an incredible love. When I went to the Creole-Catholic church at five years old, the priest, who was Irish, asked me what I wanted to do in life, and I told him I wanted a trumpet.

Did you get one?

No, because I found out I was not physically shaped to play a horn. Eventually, I played the clarinet, which I still love—and if I had time, I would actually buy one just to relax. Then I went right to the piano. My oldest brother, who was fifteen, played in a swing band. He was in the Navy and played at the officers’ clubs in naval bases around the U.S. So I grew up hearing my older brother play swing music on the piano.

And that made you want to play professionally too?

Yes. And even besides that, it was in me. At fourteen years old, I made the decision that it would be my life’s work. At fifteen years old, I became more determined than ever. I didn’t even really know if I could ever become a meaningful professional, but I said, “I am going to do it! And whatever comes, just let it come…”

Were you in some kind of music program at school?

Well, I played piano in the swing band and the jazz orchestra. And I also played the clarinet in the marching band in high school.

During your high school years, you were also part of the Swingsters, which included almost all the future Crusaders. How did you guys meet?

We were all in the jazz orchestra: Wayne [Henderson], Wilton Felder, Stix [Hooper], Hubert Laws—and I played the piano. Stix formed the Swingsters, and eventually asked me, would I play in the band. Soon after that, we became known as the Modern Jazz Sextet, and we won a high school talent contest, which was between all the high schools in the city. And right away, everyone in the city loved us; all the older people loved us, and they were very proud of us.

Did you know about the Modern Jazz Quartet when you chose that name?

Well, I believe, in high school, someone had an old-style two-track tape recorder, and he came to the high school campus with a recording of the Quartet, a John Lewis composition entitled “Django.” We were all absolutely thrilled.

Soon afterwards, the band was renamed again, this time becoming the Jazz Crusaders. Who came up with that one?

We were also known as the dance band the Hollywood Nighthawks. Then we left Texas in ’58 for Los Angeles and became a hot dance band in that area. We went up to Las Vegas in 1960 and then decided that we were not a show band. Of course, our love for jazz and our own music took over, and eventually we went to an audition in Los Angeles, which was still our base. The audition was for Pacific Jazz, and after the second song the owner, Richard Bock, came up and said, “Okay, fellas, you can relax, you have a recording deal!” And that was that. The year was 1961.

And the name was created for the first record?

We were in the studio trying to think of a name, and no one could think of one. Stix’s wife said, “Why don’t you call the band the Jazz Crusaders? Because, me and my friends, we didn’t know anything about jazz, and you guys introduced us all. You’re crusading for jazz, and that’s what you should be called!” And it sounded good.

Your jazz sound always had a heavy R&B influence. Did that stem from your time as a show band?

The influence was there in the neighborhood. We are from a region of the United States that is known as “The Territory.” It runs from New Orleans westwards to San Antonio up north to Kansas City and then east to Memphis. Prior to World War I, bands from that region were known as “Territory musicians.” And everyone knew that these were Southern musicians, and they would blend jazz, blues, and gospel.

And why that specific area?

Slaves went into the South; it was the origin of massive plantations. The slaves went into New Orleans—they had the slave markets. And in the Civil War, in order to avoid the Union troops, they would send the slaves over to Southeast Texas. Even slaves from as far as Virginia went to Southeast Texas. Of course, these people had more roots and were very naturally involved with their West African roots. And that root, that spiritual basis, was known as “Moanin’,” which is the basis of the blues. [moans] All of that came from West Africa.

Crusaders

 

Over the years, you started to incorporate more and more electric pianos and synthesizers into the Crusaders sound. What started that?

I’ve always believed that the life of the piano player is the worst life any musician can have. Why? Because the pianos you get to play are usually dogs; they are horrible, horrible, horrible! In ’68, I told the Crusaders: “We have to stop this; I cannot go to anymore of these jazz clubs in America and sit at these horrible pianos.” I could not play them. I felt as if I was wasting my life, and I said, “We must stop and change things now!”

At the same time, I saw jazz moving into the direction of free jazz. And me being a “Territorial musician” and realizing that I was given a tremendous gift—all of the ingredients of African American music—I was not going to discard that simply to join that new movement. So we just decided that jazz had changed—I don’t belong in a free-jazz world; I belong in a world that God had planned me to be in, because it came out of me.

And that’s why you dropped the “Jazz” part of your name in 1971?

Yeah. And we recognized we had a unique sense of music, a unique sense of feeling. Even at the very first record, Freedom Sound, people instantly loved the feeling of our music. I hear that music today, and I am surprised at how good it was; yet the jazz critics never did like us, because we never approached music from the purist standpoint. But if you’re born in the Territory, of course you’re not pure. I’m all mixed; my family came from Louisiana. Everything about the history of my family has always been mixed: the races, the food, the language—everything. It’s very natural.

And the main reason to use the electric piano was a practical one?

The electric piano was a blessing that God gave—finally!—to the piano player. “I will take you out of your misery, fellas!” It saved everything. When the synthesizers came, I didn’t care. I like the contact of my body and my fingertips touching the keys, them touching the generator of the sound, whether it’s a piano string or the tuning tine of the electric pianos. I like to have that control, absolute control of my touch going into the instrument. And the synthesizer doesn’t allow that.

You weren’t able to play as dynamically as you wanted to?

The synthesizer’s a wonderful, wonderful world. I know that [Joe] Zawinul got into it, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock. I made a choice at the same time. I again thought I had a very special gift: to touch the piano. I had been doing that since I was five years old; why would I stop doing that when I was thirty-five? To me it was madness. I wasn’t going to change. Even though I became known as one of the foremost leaders of the electric piano, my great love is the acoustic piano. The Hamburg Steinway is my favorite piano. Of course, you don’t see them everyday or everywhere, because they cost $140,000.

Did you also play Hammond organs back then?

Yes, I bought a Hammond in ’59. The bass player who was originally in the band decided he was leaving, and he went on the road with a very popular band at that particular time, so he sort of left us stranded on a Saturday night. That next Monday morning, I bought a Hammond, brought it into a bar in Long Beach, California, and by Wednesday I was playing it exceptionally well. [laughs] I needed the money badly.

Fast forward to 1979: Although being known mostly as an instrumental jazz band, you had a big hit with “Street Life” sung by Randy Crawford. How did you decide to incorporate vocals on that song?

Throughout the years, I did realize that I like vocals; I do not like pop vocals, I do not like mushy love songs—I can’t stand that and never did—but great singers I have always loved. Whether they did jazz, blues, or gospel—I grew up with that. I recorded on Randy’s first album for the Warner Brothers label in ’76; it was titled Everything Must Change. And I recorded on a second album, and there was something about her voice that I absolutely loved. I had a feeling that I should write some songs for Randy, and the very first song I wrote for her was “Street Life.” I wrote the melody, Will Jennings wrote the lyrics, and I knew that only somebody like Randy Crawford could sing such a strange song of this nature. She did. And to this day, I’ve only met one person who can sing “Street Life” in a magnificent manner, and it still is Randy.

I’m very happy that this song has traveled to a number of places since its recording. That’s the wonderful thing about music: you can write a piece, and it goes on and on and on. I heard Marcus Miller doing a version of [Beethoven’s] “Moonlight Sonata” a year ago in Japan. It was very unusual, but a powerful piece of music. And that’s when something becomes classic, when it transcends time and generations—and every future generation will be able to feel the same exact thing that Beethoven felt when those notes finally surfaced.

Similarly, your music travels on in the form of samples. How do you feel about that?

When I grew up, the music that I heard was always a recording of performances. Someone had to perform; it was all done live. And that’s what the Crusaders have always done. Around 1980, I realized that the documenting of performances had ended, and we were now in the new age of making records. If I look at a hip-hop record, it is a recording. I can’t say that it is music. It uses the elements of music, but it does nothing that actually uses the inspiration that the music is created from. Everything that I hear, I hear very little creation; I hear the manipulation of ideas from the past that they have now turned into clichés. During the 1970s, almost every single recording that you heard was something that you’d never heard before. Today’s records exhibit the recent technology. A lot of it is done very tastefully though.

In the course of your career, you also worked as a studio musician, playing on records by the Jackson 5, Diana Ross, Minnie Riperton, Steely Dan, and loads of others. What is the most memorable moment from that part of your work?

From that particular time, I remember the Marvin Gaye record “Let’s Get It On.” It was done at the Motown studios in Hollywood, and it was an event I will never forget. The producers, Rene Hall and [Ed Townsend], they argued and argued for four hours about how fast the song should be, what the song should feel like, and so on. Suddenly, Marvin just came into the middle of the room—there were forty musicians there—and said, “Gee whiz! We got four minutes; let’s record this thing! If we don’t do it now, we’re gonna have to pay all the musicians overtime.” And so they just kicked it off and—bam!—there it was: “Let’s Get It On.”

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