By Malcom Prangell [partner at Soul Brother Records]
Sublime, beautiful, warm as a summer breeze and as close to the human voice as an instrument can be… is how you might describe Wilton Felder’s tenor sax playing. It defined, at least in part the classic ‘70s Crusaders sound, which in itself, epitomised jazz-funk [alongside Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd and Grover Washington Jr., to name a few other major players].
Sadly, Wilton Lewis Felder passed away on September 27, 2015, at the age of 75. I met him on three occasions, including interviewing him at the shop alongside fellow Crusader Wayne Henderson. He came across as a shy, genuine, yet strong-minded and dignified man.
His soulful saxophone graced innumerable Jazz Crusaders and Crusaders tracks, including personal favourites such as the band’s beautiful cover of Carole King’s So Far Away that became a band anthem. Equally stunning is the Felder penned Lillies Of the Nile from the wonderful 1974 double LP Southern Comfort. In fact, there are just too many great solos to mention them all.
Wilton, alongside school buddies Wayne Henderson, Joe Sample and Nesbert ‘Stix’ Hooper formed their first group as teenagers in the early fifties in their native Houston, Texas. Various name changes and a move to Los Angeles followed until fellow Texan, saxophonist Curtis Amy, arranged an audition with Pacific Jazz’s owner Richard Bock. That audition formed the basis for the Jazz Crusaders’ debut album Freedom Sound in 1961. It sold over 50,000 copies – a lot for a jazz record.
Throughout the sixties the Jazz Crusaders recorded for Pacific Jazz, including several live sessions at The Lighthouse. By the end of the decade their hard bop based sound, mixed with the band’s southern Texas bluesy roots, for which they were renowned, had run its course. A brief hiatus followed and then the Jazz Crusaders joined producer Stewart Levine’s and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s Chisa label. The band believed that the ‘Jazz’ tag in their name was holding them back, so it was dropped. That amounted to heresy in jazz circles, of course, but the move was in tune with the times and with the fusion experiments of Miles Davis, Hancock and Byrd.
Fame and fortune beckoned. Chisa’s connections, first through a distribution deal with Motown and then with ABC/Blue Thumb, proved crucial to the band’s success, as did a subsequent tour opening for The Rolling Stones. In 1972, the group had its first hit album, the amazing double set Crusaders 1 that featured the classic Put It Where You Want It as well as the aforementioned So Far Away. The 2nd Crusade – another double set – followed and both sold 250,000 copies. In 1974 Larry Carlton formally joined the band and their largest selling album to date ensued with the quite brilliant double set Southern Comfort, the second half of which remains one of this writer’s favourite pieces of vinyl. Sales of the LP exceeded those of the two previous doubles combined and saw the Crusaders cross-over to a wider audience and hitting the billboard pop charts.
At the same time, Felder and Sample supplemented their incomes with session work. In Wilton’s case he played bass on many LA sessions and became one of Motown’s ‘go to’ guys after the label’s relocation from Detroit. Indeed, it is Felder playing bass on the Jackson Five’s smash I Want You Back. His lazy, walking Jazz Fender adorned many soul and fusion albums, including Donald Byrd’s Ethiopian Knights and on some of the tracks on the trumpeter’s ground breaking Black Byrd Blue Note session. He also featured on some of the finest live sets from the seventies, including Grant Green’s Live At The Lighthouse and Jimmy Smith’s Root Down, where his funky bass drives both performances.
By the later seventies, the Crusaders had enjoyed their halcyon years, creativity wise. Henderson had left to pursue a successful career as a producer and, in 1982, Hooper also opted for solo ventures. In the interim, Carlton had departed for a solo career too and bassist Robert ‘Pops’ Popswell had come and gone. Filling the bass chair had always been a problem throughout the band’s existence. Wilton frequently did so on the studio recordings and to powerful effect, but this presented problems at live gigs, as even he could not play the sax and bass simultaneously! Ironically, during this period, The Crusaders enjoyed their biggest success with the pop hit Street Life featuring vocalist Randy Crawford, the record that effectively propelled her to superstardom.
In 1978, Wilton revived his solo career with ABC and MCA, his only previous solo record being Bullitt for World Pacific Records in 1969. We All Have A Star spawned the jazz-funk anthem Let’s Dance Together. It is, however, 1980’s Inherit The Wind that stands head and shoulders above his other solo work. The title song featured Bobby Womack, as well as on a spine tingling version of Donny Hathaway’s Someday We’ll All Be Free. It is a musical masterpiece. Womack also duetted with Altrinna Grayson on No Matter How I Get [I’ll Still Be Looking Up To You] from the 1985 Secrets LP which achieved commercial chart success, but nothing would or could surpass the sublime Inherit The Wind.
During the eighties, Crusaders albums gradually deteriorated as the inspiration deserted the two remaining original members, Felder and Sample. Various revivals of The Crusaders were rumoured and in 2003, Stix, Wilton and Joe reformed under The Crusaders’ name and released an excellent set, Rural Renewal. Whilst within the smooth-jazz remit, the album mostly retained the bluesy and funky essence of their classic ‘70s material. The album title referred to the band’s southern and Texas roots, of which they were all proud: it had inspired some of their greatest recordings, after all. Wayne Henderson had also continued to record as ‘The Jazz Crusaders’ from the mid ‘90s, often with Felder, so there were now two Crusaders groups, both featuring Wilton, though not at the same time.
I had the pleasure of meeting Wilton again when the group performed at Ascot racecourse to support Rural Renewal. Sample believed that the rift between Wayne and himself that had developed since 1976 was too great for reconciliation. Unlike the larger than life Wayne – the band’s front man on stage – Joe and Wilton were quiet and unassuming characters. Joe felt that Henderson had a tendency to dominate the group. That produced tension, and Wilton, always the conciliator in the group, was stuck in the middle. However, there had been rumours that the group had finally buried the hatchet and that they would get back together. Unfortunately ill-health prevented such a mouth-watering reunion. Both Wayne and Joe passed away last year, and now Wilton’s death leaves just Stix from the original line-up.
My personal recommendations:[With The crusaders] Crusaders 1
Free As The Wind
Images [Solo] We All Have A Star
Inherit The Wind