Doug Herzog grew up 20 minutes west of Soul City and is a Soul and Funk enthusiast. We have been friends for nearly a quarter of a century. He is also a bonafide media don and a pivotal figure in the introduction of Hip Hop to a larger audience. It was during his time as the key programming figure and head of MTV that he approved, nurtured and developed the seminal Yo MTV Raps. And along with our friends Ted Demme (R.I.P.) Fab 5 Freddy and Ed Lover and Dre, he changed the course of history and culturally, set the stage for the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency. In what has been a career of note, he has been the President of Fox TV, USA Television and is now the head of both Comedy Central and Spike TV. Twenty-two years ago, while hosting Doug for lunch at New York power spot, 21, he revealed an interest and understanding to me, of my beloved jazz/funk/fusion area and spoke authoritatively and lovingly of The Crusaders. I never forgot it. Here is Doug’s tribute to the great Joe Sample, a founding member of The Crusaders who passed away this past weekend at the age of 75.
In the days before shock jocks and Howard Stern, Don Imus dominated New York morning radio. “Imus In The Morning” was heard on WNBC in the New York Metropolitan area. His mix of talk, humor and characters resonated heavily in the post-Watergate era radio landscape. It would be years before he was marginalized by the success of Howard Stern, and ultimately rendered obsolete by his own doing.
But in 1974, he was the coolest thing on AM radio. The clock radio next to my bed was set to 66 “WNnnnnnnBC” in order to wake up to his show every school day. It was “water cooler” radio in those days. Even the bus driver listened.
During that period, he used a theme song coming in and out of commercials. It was a funky, slinky instrumental that immediately stuck in my head called “Put It Where You Want It”. http://open.spotify.com/track/2RVzOkiDRBDpweaTZsor41
I remember thinking it might be The Average White Band, who’s own instrumental, “Pick Up The Pieces”, was making its way to the top of the charts. (Ironically, AWB had actually recorded the song on an album never released in the US).
It took me awhile to figure out who the band playing the song was – I couldn’t exactly Shazam it back then. But it sounded like something I needed to hear more of. At the time, my interest in RnB and funk had me drifting into the realm of jazz funk and fusion.
Once I figured out it was The Crusaders I was led to a series of their mid 70’s albums that were arguably the best of the then-emerging genre.
The band originated out of Houston, Texas as The Jazz Crusaders, and ultimately migrated to LA with a shortened name and a new approach that incorporated blues, jazz and funk. Built around the estimable talents of Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper, Wayne Henderson, and a rotating cast of sideman, (notably the great Larry Carlton), they built a catalogue of funky, yet sophisticated jams. You could dance to some, groove to others, or sit back and just enjoy the world class playing.
At the heart of it all was the work of keyboardist Joe Sample. His warm, soulful sound could lead the melody, fill in the spaces, or soar out front on a solo. The Crusaders epitomized the concept of the ensemble in every sense. A tight unit devoted to the groove, with room for everyone to step out, but never too far. They were melodic funky and smooth, but never with the strings that often cluttered the more esoteric CTI recordings. They played deep in the pocket but never let the funk get redundant. And with Larry Carlton on guitar, they were able to broaden their audience without resorting to the worst aspects of fusion. It was a slick LA sound, combined with Texas Roadhouse RnB that had more in common with Steely Dan than their counterparts Stuff in NY.
I had the chance to see them on a great bill at The Palladium in NYC in May 1977 supported by Les McCann and The Brecker Brothers. It was a hot sweaty night that may have been a peak period for pure jazz funk. Carlton had recently left the band, and Sample seemed to be the clear leader. They sold lots of records, concert tickets and had the kind of crossover success other bands could only dream of. They all became in demand session, guys. Most notably, Joe who sat in on sessions with everyone from; BB King to Marvin Gaye to Eric Clapton. He played a bit on the classic rock/jazz funk Steely Dan masterpiece “Aja” as well. He also played on one of my favorite records, the under-appreciated “Art of Tea”, the debut album by Michael Franks. Most of the Crusaders joined him on this disc where jazz funk met soft rock (then called “Mellow music”). I promise you it sounds better than I described it.
It all culminated in 1979 with the band’s huge crossover smash “Street Life”. That success led to Joe’s “Carmel” solo disc. This may have been the first true shot fired out of the “smooth jazz” cannon. My dad who was 40 something at the time was courting the woman who would be his future wife, listened to it while they sipped Chardonnay together in Newport Beach. This may have been the first indication it wasn’t for me.
Over time, many artists gravitated toward the radio-friendly smooth jazz while others tried the disco route, and fusion just collapsed under its own ponderous weight. Joe and The Crusaders rode the wave of “Street Life” until the whole thing ran out of steam. But they remain staples of smooth jazz radio to this day and have been oft-sampled by various Hip Hop artists. But for me, the legacy of Joe Sample lies mostly in those mid/late 70’s recording where he and the band’s signature style became one the enduring sounds of the era.