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"It's time to gear up again," says Joe Sample, the brilliant keyboardist who, nearly a half-century after the birth of The Crusaders, is leading the charge for the group's renewal. "It's time to revisit and revitalize the tradition that gave us purpose and identity. We're looking back to our beginnings for our strength-back to that healing feeling when the music first got all over us."
"This reunion was long in coming," he continues, as he listens to the final mix of Rural Renewal, the first new album from The Crusaders - featuring Sample, saxist Wilton Felder, and drummer Stix Hooper-in over 20 years. "More than ever, I missed playing essential Crusaders music. I needed renewal, and I knew that reassembling the team, with [producer] Stewart Levine at our side, was something I had to do."
Although a reunion of these bandmates, who first joined together in Houston in the fifties with the formation of The Swingsters, would be special enough, Sample invited a few guests to the party. Chart topping contemporary gospel vocalist Donnie McClurkin contributes soulfully heartfelt renditions of "A Healing Coming On" and "Sing the Song". Eric Clapton's tasty string acoustic gives the title track its extra lift. Clapton also electrifies "Creepin'," one of the album's patented Sample smoothed-out funk grooves. The presence of stalwarts Arthur Adams, Lenny Castro and Dean Parks, veterans of past crusades, is keenly felt. Freddie Washington and Ray Parker, Jr., geniuses of the Cosmic Groove, groove hard and long, brothers of the heart with Joe, Wilton and Stix.
Ultimately, Joe, Wilton, and Stix are the renewers and the renewed. They've never sounded better-Sample's boldly percussive piano, Hooper's deep-pocket drums, Felder's full-cry tenor. They wrote all the songs; they fashioned the charts; they reinforce their signature sound with a sweet maturity that nourishes our souls. The titles-"Heartland," "Greasy Spoon," "Viva de Funk," "Shotgun House Groove"-are self-descriptive pieces of poetry all pointing in the same direction.
In 1961, four fellows from Houston transplanted themselves to Los Angeles and added more distinctly bluesy elements to the soul jazz style with an ear-grabbing album called The Freedom Sound on the Pacific Jazz label. The band, which had been known in turn as the Swingsters, the Modern Jazz Sextet, and the Nighthawks, was now named the Jazz Crusaders. Its four co-leaders were trombonist Wayne Henderson, tenor saxophonist (and occasional bassist) Wilton Felder, pianist Joe Sample, and drummer Nesbert "Stix" Hooper. The Jazz Crusaders sound caught on big time, and their subsequent Pacific Jazz albums rewarded them with a good deal of exposure. The band performed regularly and got plenty of airplay. One of its signature pieces, the rollickingly fast "Young Rabbits," was even used as the musical background for a Ford Mustang TV commercial.
But as times changed, so did the Jazz Crusaders. In the late Sixties, they placed such popular numbers as the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" and "Get Back" in their repertoire, and firm backbeats began to bolster many a selection. By 1971, they decided that the word "jazz" kept them from attracting a wider listener base, and so they emerged anew with The Crusaders, Vol. 1 (Chisa), an album that openly infused jazz with pop, soul, and r&b elements.
If the Jazz Crusaders had achieved some degree of popularity, it was nothing like the crossover success that greeted the Crusaders. Such albums as Scratch, Southern Comfort, Chain Reaction, Those Southern Knights, Free as the Wind, Images, Street Life, and Royal Jam (recorded variously for the Chisa, ABC Blue Thumb, and MCA labels) sold well and brought in a deluge of new fans. Street Life's title track provided the Crusaders with a Billboard top forty hit, reaching no. 36 in 1979.