Pianist Joe Sample, also a prolific composer, dies at 75
Joe Sample – a pianist of enormous talents whose long, winding career spanned jazz, R&B, funk, pop, rock, country and zydeco – died Friday night. He was 75.
Sample was a founding member of the Jazz Crusaders, a bebop ensemble with roots back to Wheatley High School, which transformed into the Crusaders in the 1970s, a popular soul- and funk-influenced band that crossed over onto the pop charts in 1979 with the hit “Street Life,” his best-known composition. But Sample’s career projected well beyond his successful band. He was a prolific composer whose works were reimagined by blues, soul and pop performers – his 1980 composition “One Day I’ll Fly Away” was sung by Nicole Kidman in the film “Moulin Rouge” – and also sampled by hip-hop acts such as De La Soul and Tupac Shakur.
Sample’s ear for music and touch on the keyboard were so far-reaching that he could play just about any form of music, having done sessions with country singer Hoyt Axton, blues great B.B. King and progressive jazz rock act Steely Dan, and also played the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1997 with Eric Clapton. Sample was called in for sessions by scores of recording artists including Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell, including landmark recordings like Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” and Mitchell’s “Court and Spark.” In 2009, Sample played piano and did arrangements for Willie Nelson‘s standards album “American Classic.”
“He was one of the real shining lights in music – and not just jazz,” said musician and producer Steve Tyrell, a friend of Sample’s since childhood. “Music was music to him, he could play all of it. But the thing about Joe, he was so identifiable and broad in his style of playing. He could play anything, but no matter what he was playing it always sounded like him – whether it was jazz or something with Steely Dan or Eric Clapton.”
Sample’s career spanned well more than a half century. And it all started at a la la dance in Houston.
Last year Sample toured with his Creole Joe Band, an ensemble featuring his son Nicklas on bass and Sample playing accordion, the rare keyed instrument he didn’t play in the ’70s.
Sample was born in the Fifth Ward on Feb. 1, 1939. His parents had moved to Houston from Georgia and Louisiana, so Creole culture was always present. He remembers his parents stepping out on weekends at the la la dances, a form of music that would later become known as zydeco, the bluesy, often accordion-driven music still thriving in East Texas and Louisiana. When Sample was 8 his parents took him to see the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier.
“I never forgot that music,” he told the Chronicle.
“Blues is like the white dust in the neighborhood from the oyster-shell streets,” he said. “It’s a natural thing in this region.”
Sample’s career would take him around the world, but he said his roots in Houston meant there were “certain things I can play with musicians from here that I cannot play with other musicians from Chicago or Seattle or Boston or New York. They simply do not feel it.”
Music was music
Even as a child he didn’t differentiate between types of music he heard on the radio. “Hank Williams?” he said. “I didn’t know that was country music.”
At Wheatley High School, Sample co-founded a jazz ensemble with flutist Hubert Laws, drummer Stix Hooper and saxophonist Wilton Felder. At Texas Southern University the ensemble added a trombonist named Wayne Henderson and a few other players and became the Modern Jazz Sextet. After college the group – frustrated by the difficulty in finding good work in Houston’s segregated clubs – packed up and headed to Los Angeles. There they found work performing with a Houston connection, blues great Johnny “Guitar” Watson, who looked after the young players. During that time the Modern Jazz Sextet transformed into the Jazz Crusaders.
For more than a decade the Jazz Crusaders turned out a sleek form of bebop. But by the late ’60s jazz was suffering an identity crisis over its next direction. Some tended toward fusion, a melding of jazz and rock. The avant-garde looked to global sounds and free improvisation. Sample, who was increasingly drawn to the electric piano, and his band mates took a third path. They dropped the “Jazz” from the band name and became the Crusaders, marrying their jazzy foundation to smoother soulful sounds of the era. The decision was met with derision by the establishment – “a form of critical suicide,” is how the encyclopedic “Penguin Guide to Jazz” authors put it. But it also proved very popular. Henderson split in 1975 shortly before the band’s biggest chart successes.
Sample during this period was omnipresent in American recorded music, doing numerous sessions for all manner of artists and also working as producer on recordings by artists including B.B. King, Bobby Womack and Bill Withers. The Crusaders cruised into the ’80s and Sample continued to keep busy outside the band, doing production and playing keyboards on Tina Turner’s huge comeback album “Private Dancer.”
“People loved working with him because he was so good at getting the rhythm together,” said musician Ray Parker Jr., who worked with Sample frequently over four decades. “With Joe you had to have the rhythm right. He wanted a good groove. If you didn’t have that, he’d stop everything and fuss at everybody. He knew how to get a good groove and hold it down.”
If health woes slowed down his pace, it was only in comparison to the enormous output he produced in the ’70s and ’80s. He played sessions regularly, including one for one of Rod Stewart’s “Great American Songbook” albums, and continued to record.
Sample realized California no longer held any professional benefit for him, so he returned home, settling in the Clear Lake area nearly a decade ago. Here he performed numerous charity events for his Joe Sample Youth Organization and also Our Mother of Mercy, the Catholic elementary school he had attended.
Returned to roots
Being back home turned Sample’s creative attention back to his roots, also. Henderson was playing an old Jazz Crusaders album and reached out to Sample. They reunited four members of the band and returned to the stage in 2011. (Henderson died in April.) Sample then formed his Creole Joe Band, going back to the first sounds that captured his attention as a kid in the Fifth Ward, mesmerized by the enormous sound produced by Chenier and his band. Sample labored but quickly learned his way around the accordion, an instrument that was new to him, but a music that was inside him.
“You have to have the feel of the music,” he said. “If you don’t feel this music, you won’t ever be able to perform it.”
Sample is survived by his wife, Yolanda, and his son, Nicklas. His family posted news of Sample’s passing on Facebook, but no cause of death was given. Sample had suffered heart attacks in 1994 and 2009.
Service details are pending.
|Birth name||Joseph Leslie Sample|
|Born||February 1, 1939
Houston, Texas, United States
|Died||September 12, 2014 (aged 75)
Houston, Texas, United States
|Labels||Blue Thumb, MCA, GRP, Warner Bros., Verve, ABC Records|
|Associated acts||Jazz Crusaders|
Joseph Leslie “Joe” Sample (February 1, 1939 – September 12, 2014) was an American pianist, keyboard player and composer. He was one of the founding members of the Jazz Crusaders, the band which became simply The Crusaders in 1971, and remained a part of the group until its final album in 1991 (not including the 2003 reunion album Rural Renewal).
Beginning in the early 1980s, he enjoyed a successful solo career and guested on many recordings by other performers and groups, including Miles Davis, George Benson, Jimmy Witherspoon, B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, and The Supremes. Sample incorporated jazz, gospel, blues, Latin, and classical forms into his music.
Sample began playing the piano when he was five years old. He was a student of the organist and pianist Curtis Mayo.
In high school in the 1950s, Sample teamed up with two friends, saxophonist Wilton Felder and drummer “Stix” Hooper, to form a group called the Swingsters. While studying piano at Texas Southern University, Sample met and added trombonist Wayne Henderson and several other players to the Swingsters, which became the Modern Jazz Sextet and then the Jazz Crusaders, in emulation of one of the leading progressive jazz bands of the day, Art Blakey‘s Jazz Messengers. Sample never took a degree from the university; instead, in 1960, he and the Jazz Crusaders made the move from Houston to Los Angeles.
The group quickly found opportunities on the West Coast, making its first recording, Freedom Sounds in 1961 and releasing up to four albums a year over much of the 1960s. The Jazz Crusaders played at first in the dominant hard bop style of the day, standing out by virtue of their unusual front-line combination of saxophone (played by Wilton Felder) and Henderson’s trombone. Another distinctive quality was the funky, rhythmically appealing acoustic piano playing of Sample, who helped steer the group’s sound into a fusion between jazz and soul in the late 1960s. The Jazz Crusaders became a strong concert draw during those years.
While Sample and his band mates continued to work together, he and the other band members pursued individual work as well. In 1969 Sample made his first recording under his own name; Fancy Dance featured the pianist as part of a jazz trio. In the 1970s, as the Jazz Crusaders became simply the Crusaders and branched out into popular sounds, Sample became known as a Los Angeles studio musician, appearing on recordings by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye,Tina Turner, B. B. King, Joe Cocker, Minnie Riperton and Anita Baker. In 1975 he went into the studios with jazz legends Ray Brown on bass, and drummer Shelly Manne to produce a then state-of-the-art recording direct to disc entitled The Three. About this time Blue Note reissued some of the early work by the Jazz Crusaders as “The Young Rabbits”. This was a compilation of their recordings done between 1962 and 1968.
The electric keyboard was fairly new in the sixties, and Sample became one of the instrument’s pioneers. He began to use the electric piano while the group retained their original name, and the group hit a commercial high-water mark with the hit single “Street Life” and the album of the same name in 1979. In 1978 he recorded Swing Street Café with guitarist David T. Walker.
The Crusaders, after losing several key members, broke up after recording Life in the Modern World for the GRP label in 1987. Despite the disbanding of the Crusaders, the members would join each other to record periodically over the years, releasing Healing the Wounds in the early ’90s. Felder, Hooper, and Sample recorded their first album, called Rural Renewal, as the reunited Crusaders group in 2003 and played a concert in Japan in 2004.
Since Sample’s Fancy Dance (1969), he has recorded several solo albums, including the George Duke produced Sample This.
GRP also released Joe Sample Collection, and a three-disc Crusaders Collection, as testament to Sample’s enduring legacy. Some of the pianist’s recent recordings are The Song Lives On (1999), featuring duets with singer Lalah Hathaway, and The Pecan Tree (2002), a tribute to his hometown of Houston, where he relocated in 1994. His 2004 album on Verve, Soul Shadows, paid tribute to Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton, and pre-jazz bandleader James Reese Europe. In 2007 he recorded Feeling Good with vocalist Randy Crawford.
In 1983, MCA released Joe Sample’s The Hunter LP. The Hunter sessions had taken place during the previous year at Hollywood Sound Recorders and Salty Dog Studios in Los Angeles, producing a fine body of recordings of which six were brought forward. Fans believe there maybe other recordings from the sessions yet to be released. Amongst the six tracks, was Night Flight – a mammoth work of over 9 minutes long. UK Jazz Funk and Soul DJ Robbie Vincent premiered Night Flightin its entirety in the Spring of 1983 on his famous Radio London “Saturday Show” resulting in a surge of jazz fusion enthusiasts and Sample fans to buy up all the import copies from London Stores (the same effect had taken place for Earl Klugh’s Low Ride album around the same time).
For Sample, The Hunter album like the aforementioned Earl Klugh work, featured a number of leading musicians of the day including Marcus Miller on bass (who was also working on Lonnie Liston Smith’s Dreams of Tomorrow and Michael Jackson’s Thriller) and Paulinho Da Costa on persussion. Sample was also joined on the album by the impressive Phil Upchurch on lead guitar, Dean Parks (also on guitar), Steve Gadd and Bob Wilson on drums, John Phillips on bass clarinet, and Abraham Laboriel on bass. For production, Joe Sample called on his Crusaders’ stable mate Wilton Felder. The Hunter album came at a very important juncture in Sample’s solo push. Night Flightwas and remains the great achievement from these sessions though fans were extremely disappointed when an edited version appeared on the compilation Joe Sample Collection. The Hunter album has been transferred to CD from the original tapes but fans are still awaiting a remastered expanded edition with previously unreleased material and demos.
Joe Sample appeared on stage at The Waterfront Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland, on 28 May 2000, playing keyboard solo on George Benson’s Deeper Than You Think. This concert was recorded and a DVD entitled George Benson: Absolutely Live was subsequently released. A studio version of Deeper Than You Think was recorded featuring Joe Sample in New York in May 1999 during sessions for a Benson collection which took the title Absolutely Benson. Fans again believe there may have been other collaborations of Sample – Benson which remain in the vaults unreleased.
Some of his works were featured on The Weather Channel‘s “Local on the 8s” segments and his song “Rainbow Seeker” is included in their 2008 compilation release, The Weather Channel Presents: Smooth Jazz II. Nicole Kidman sang his song “One Day I’ll Fly Away” in the Baz Luhrmann film Moulin Rouge! The very popular “In All My Wildest Dreams“, also from the 1978 album “Rainbow Seeker”, was sampled on Tupac‘s “Dear Mama”, De la Soul‘s “WRMS’s Dedication to the Bitty” and Arrested Development‘s “Africa’s Inside Me”.
Sample had a bassist son named Nicklas (with ex-wife Marianne), who is a member of the Coryell Auger Sample Trio featuring Julian Coryell and Karma Auger.
Sample died in Houston, Texas, on September 12, 2014, from complications from lung cancer. He was 75 years old.
“Street Life” – Randy Crawford (2006)
Uploaded on Nov 6, 2008
Joe Sample Trio and Randy Crawford in one of the best live registrations of their 1979 worldwide.hit Streetlife, 27 years later.
Randy Crawford (vocals); Joe Sample (piano); Nikolas Sample (acoustic bass); John Mclean (drums).
Joe Sample – Old Places, Old Faces
Uploaded on Apr 9, 2011
One of my favourite pieces from Joe Sample’s vast Jazz repertoire :D
Joe Sample – “Old Places, Old Faces” from his album “Old Places, Old Faces”
Joe Sample (piano, Fender Rhodes piano); Dean Parks (guitar); Charles Lloyd (tenor saxophone); Jay Anderson (bass guitar); Lenny Castro (drums, percussion); Ralph Penland (drums).
Soul Shadows – Joe Sample ( Piano Improvisation )