Saturday, September 13, 2014

In Memoriam: Joe Sample (1939 – 2014)

The tragic news hit fast and furious on Facebook originating from Joseph Leslie “Joe” Sample’s Facebook page. At the young age of 75, pianist, keyboardist, composer and one of the founding members of the legendary jazz outfit, The Crusaders (originally the Jazz Crusaders, also released as The Young Rabbits), was pronounced dead at 9:50pm in Houston, Texas. One of the most recognizable names in music from the jazz fusion pioneers, The Crusaders, Sample is also known for recording with such luminaries as: Miles Davis, B.B. King, Steely Dan, The Supremes, and George Benson, among others. Sample also recorded classic duet albums with singers Lalah Hathaway and Randy Crawford, respectively. As a solo and duet artist, Sample appeared on over 22 albums over 44 years (not counting his multi-decade work with The Crusaders and other acts). Most recently, Sample was actively working on the original lyrics and music with Jonatha Brooks for a musical theatrical work, Quadroon, which just experienced a successful reading this summer in his hometown of Houston. 

A child prodigy, Sample began playing piano at age 5 and was trained by organist/pianist Curtis Mayo. Following several iterations that began while Sample was in high school, his jazz quartet transitioned from the fun moniker The Swingsters to later become the Modern Jazz Sextet (in college at Texas Southern University), then the Jazz Crusaders by the time the group left Houston for L.A. in the late ‘60s and recorded a series of projects later released by Blue Note as The Young Rabbits. Ultimately becoming best known as The Crusaders for a knockout hit run from the 1970s that lasted into the early ‘90s, Sample and company reunited in 2003 for a final reunion album, Rural Renewal. The musical successors to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Sample, along with core members trombonist Wayne Henderson, saxophonist Wilton Felder, and drummer “Stix” Hopper (along with former members Larry Carlton and Robert Popwell), crafted a fusion of jazz, funk, and soul that was exceedingly progressive for its time. As one of the first to commercially record using the electric keyboard, Sample himself is considered one of that instrument’s leading pioneers. As a result of their unique fusion, The Crusaders had several top charting albums in the Jazz, R&B, and Pop categories, earning several #1 Billboard Top Jazz and Contemporary Jazz albums, including: Images, Street Life, The 2nd Crusade, Southern Comfort, Free As The Wind, Rhapsody and Blues, and Healing The Wounds. 

Outside of a three decade string of Crusaders’ hits, Sample also worked as a solo act beginning in 1969 with Fancy Dance as a featured pianist and perhaps most prominently with the 1985 Top 10 Billboard Top Jazz Albums (#8), Oasis, the 1997 George Duke produced Billboard Top 5 Contemporary Jazz Album (#5), Sample This, and Sample’s uber-successful 1993 #1 Billboard Top Jazz Album (#43 R&B/Hip Hop and #194 Billboard 200) charter, Invitation, produced by Tommy LiPuma. Throughout his career, Sample also frequently worked as well as an in-demand studio musician for such acts as: Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Joni Mitchell, Anita Baker, Kenny Burrell, and Minnie Ripperton, among others.   

In more recent years, Sample scored a 1999 hit album with Lalah Hathaway on The Song Lives On, #2 Top Contemporary Jazz Album (#53 R&B, #196 Billboard 200), birthing the cult classic “When Your Life Was Low.” Sample hit again as a duet artist in 2006 with Feeling Good (#3 Top Jazz Albums, #77 R&B Albums) and again with 2008’s No Regrets (#8 Top Jazz Albums) with Randy Crawford who with The Crusaders earned a #1 Jazz Album in 1979 with Street Life, an legendary album which birthed a Top 40 Pop and Top 20 R&B smash with the album’s title track (#36 Hot 100, #17 R&B Singles). 

Exploring different soundscapes to the end, Sample's last release was 2013’s CreoleJoeBand, an excursion in bluegrass and country in collaboration with Denise Labrie. At the time of his passing, Sample was also actively working in 2014 on the original musical, Quadroon. 

Joe Sample is survived by his wife, Yolanda, and his son, bassist Nicklas Sample. Sample was 75 years old.  

By L. Michael Gipson

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