Sampling Joe Sample: 1976

The Crusaders' album Free as the Wind
The Crusaders' album Free as the Wind

If 1975 was a whirlwind year for Joe Sample, the Crusader who passed away last Friday, 1976 was a full-blown hurricane. The newer, funkier Crusaders were increasingly popular, so much so that United Artists began to repackage and reissue some of the early 1960s Jazz Crusaders tracks the group made for the Pacific Jazz label, but titling the reissues The Young Rabbits. There was also another reissue, Best of the Crusaders, a compilation of tracks recorded for Blue Thumb.

The Crusaders themselves issued a live album, Live: Midnight Triangle, and one of their finest studio recordings, Free As the Wind, in 1976. But these efforts aside, Sample worked a string of sessions that kept him on the move both physically and musically. Following are his most notable sessions of 1976.

Sampling Joe Sample: 1976
Photo by Marco Torres

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Albert King, Truckload of Lovin' Albert King was another artist trying to make sense of what was happening in the pop music world and remain relevant commercially, so this effort, which features Sample on piano on several tracks, is a bit disco-ish. King was always having keyboard player issues and band personnel issues, so it was probably a pleasure for him to work with a seasoned session man like Sample.

Seals & Crofts, Sudan Village A very popular soft-rock duo throughout the early Seventies mostly due to their mega-hits "Hummingbird" and "Summer Breeze," Seals & Crofts almost put the nail in their commercial coffin in 1974 with their anti-abortion single "Unborn Child." Sudan Village was an attempt to weather the storm -- pro-abortion groups picketed their shows, etc. -- but it only took them to No. 79 on the Billboard charts, and the single ""Baby I'll Give It to You" only reached a disappointing No. 57. Sample was part of the core band. Seals & Crofts would only have a couple more charting singles before fading into the vast wasteland that is cornball oldies radio.

Ray Charles & Cleo Laine, Porgy & Bess Sample finally gets to work with his hero and the man who piqued his original interest in the electric piano, Ray Charles. Sample was part of the core band that included guitarists Lee Ritenour and Joe Pass. Cleo Laine sings the female parts while Charles sang all the male parts of this famous George Gershwin opera. Sample's ease with jazz and classical idioms made him a perfect fit for this project, and the album peaked at No. 14 on the jazz charts.

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Al Jarreau, Glow The beginning of what would become a long if intermittent association between Sample and smooth-jazz singer Al Jarreau, Glow also included Crusaders Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton. The album finds Jarreau working out on popular tunes like Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Your Song," which Sample intros with his classic simplicity; James Taylor's "Fire and Rain"; and Leon Russell's "Rainbow in Your Eyes."

Critic Ron Wynn described the album as a "good session, though the gimmicks are kicking in." It peaked at No. 9 on the jazz charts, No. 30 R&B. The sessions also put Sample in the same room with noted jazz producer Tommy LiPuma, with whom he would work many times over the next three decades.

Seals & Croft, Get Closer Seals & Croft assemble the usual L.A. suspects, including Sample, Carlton, Felder, and Ray Parker, Jr. and put together a classic radio-friendly soft-rock album. It eventually peaked at No. 37 on the album charts, with the title track peaking at No. 6 on the pop charts. It was boring and cheesy then; it's boring and cheesy now.

Hoyt Axton, Fearless Hoyt Axton had major songwriting successes with tunes like Three Dog Night's versions of "Joy to the World" and "Never Been to Spain." He had also become fairly visible as a singer of his own songs via a long string of albums beginning in 1963.

On Fearless, Axton is right at the top of his performing and writing game, and these were typical A&M Records super-sessions with talented players at every turn. "Flash of Fire" and Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" got major airplay,as Fearless climbed to No. 26 on the country chart.

Randy Crawford, Everything Must Change This Warner Brothers debut album would mark the beginning a long professional relationship between Sample and vocalist/writer Randy Crawford. Sample's compadre Larry Carlton did most of the arrangements, and Sample's keyboard work is a major feature of the ensemble.

Featuring a mix of obscurities plus a few popular covers like John Lennon's "Don't Let Me Down," which gets something of a Crusaders treatment, the album went nowhere but it did establish a working relationship between Crawford and Sample that would hit real paydirt in 1979.

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Stanley Turrentine, Everybody Come On Out Turrentine combines Crusaders funk with some big-band swatches in this scorching sax album. Again Sample and Ritenour form part of the core band, and sparks fly from the first bar. In fact, for a rookie looking to break into jazz, this album would be like a senior-level how-to. The album peaked at No. 8 on the jazz chart, No. 29 on the R&B chart, and even No. 100 on the Billboard album chart.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dee Dee Bridgewater A Jerry Wexler production, this album is out of character for two-time Grammy winner and Tony award winner Bridgewater, who was always more a jazz stylist than a pop/blues/funk artist. But give Wexler credit for putting Sample, Felder and Carlton up alongside the crew from Muscle Shoals on the same album.

The difference between the L.A. tracks, which have the Crusaders vibe all over them, versus the Muscle Shoals tracks makes for an interesting comparison of the two music hubs. Overlaid with generic strings, the album went nowhere, but it stands up pretty well today.

American Flyer, American Flyer This is one of the delicious oddities in Sample's session career, as it placed him in a room with major league country players like Byron Berline and Rusty Young. Consisting of Pure Prairie League's Craig Fuller, Steve Katz (Blood Sweat and Tears), Doug Yule (Velvet Underground) and songwriter Eric Kaz, American Flyer was envisioned as something of a country-pop supergroup a la Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and the album is an obvious attempt to commandeer that genre. Another "went nowhere" album that stands up very well today.

Albert King, Albert Mr. King must have liked what he got from Sample on Truckload of Love because they were back in the studio before the year ended. Critic Thom Owens notes that the disco-tinged album "is about as slick as Albert King ever got" as King fancies up down-and-dirty tunes like Willie Dixon's "My Babe" and "I'm Ready" as well as Jimmy Lewis's "Rub My Back" a bit. While for King's hardcore fanbase this one may have been a little overdone, it offers one of those rare moments where Sample gets to show his flare for blues piano.


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