Sampling Joe Sample: 1977

Joe Sample (left) and his TSU students, 2013
Joe Sample (left) and his TSU students, 2013
Photo by Marco Torres

By 1977, the individual members of the Crusaders were so successful that the pressure to record two albums a year no longer applied. There was no new Crusaders album in 1977, but that doesn't mean the members weren't working, and working hard.

Trombonist Wayne Henderson was trying his hand at producing records, Stix Hooper could play anytime anywhere he wanted to, and Wilton Felder's career was in overdrive as he stepped up his session work with the bass guitar and his saxophone.

Meanwhile, Joe Sample kept on keeping on, working some very high-profile sessions in Los Angeles. While 1977 was not a banner year like 1975 and '76, he would end the year with one of the most significant sessions of his career, playing on Steely Dan's Aja.

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Lamont Dozier, Peddlin' Music on the Side Dozier, one of Motown's hit-writing machines, brought in Sample and Felder to jazz up his second release for Warner Bros. Here he works in a wider sonic range than most Motown releases, and is in top form on tunes like "Going Back To My Roots," which was helped along by Hugh Masakela's arrangement and Sample's keyboard wizardry.

A man of many moods and tempos, Dozier mixes it up nicely with Sample and Felder anchoring the sessions. With Ray Parker, Jr. and David T. Walker in the talent mix, this one at times takes on the Crusaders-at-the-disco feel.

Shawn Phillips, Spaced A tall Texan and part of that monumental Class of 1943 out of Fort Worth, Phillips was once called the best kept secret in the music business by promoter Bill Graham. Phillips was living in London during the early Flower Power era and recorded with Donovan and the Beatles, ran the streets with the Stones and other British musical luminaries; he and George Harrison shared a keen interest in the sitar.

Another huge star-studded A&M Records session, Spaced tanked and went absolutely nowhere. It was finally reissued on CD in 2013.

Wah-Wah Watson, Eye of the Beholder Mervin "Wah-Wah Watson" Ragin, who spent years toiling in the session rooms of Los Angeles and playing on albums by an array of artists just as wide as Sample's own, was finally given a shot to record his own album by Columbia. He went straight to the deepest well for talents such as Sample, Ray Parker, Jr., and Felder to record what was billed as a jazz fusion record, jazz fusion being a big buzz at that time.

Commercially, the album was a horrible flop, but it stands up very well over time and is really more funk than fusion, having more in common with Sly Stone than with Steely Dan.

Story continues on the next page.


The Whispers, Open Up Your Love One of the great smooth vocal groups of the soul era, the Whispers could enlist virtually any Los Angeles session musician they wanted, and that included Joe Sample for this combination soul/quiet-storm album produced for Don Cornelius' Soul Train imprint. The album reached No. 23 on the R&B chart and No. 65 on the album chart. It spawned singles "Make It With You," which went to No. 10 on the R&B chart; "I'm Gonna Make You My Wife," No. 54 on the R&B chart; and "I Fell In Love Last Night (at the Disco)," No. 16 on the dance/club chart.

Joan Baez, Blowin' Away Oh, Joan, so much talent wasted on such a trivial album. In an attempt to leave the folk ghetto, Baez enlisted Sample, Felder and L.A. session stalwart Tom Scott to provide her outstanding voice with a subtle, smooth platform. Unfortunately, the songs for this effort were not worthy of the players nor of her.

This album, Baez's first under CBS subsidiary Portrait Records, is remarkable for such poor choices of material from some of the top writers in the game. Baez went with obscure tunes, and the result is an album that is now justifiably obscure.

Steely Dan, Aja A marvel of sound engineering, Aja was a meticulously crafted soft jazz album that purposely side-stepped any semblance of rock. The sessions were lengthy -- almost interminable -- as Donald Fagen and Walter Becker spent a year seeking and insisting on the cleanest, clearest recording possible and were willing to pay for all the down time while engineers fiddled with mike placements and equipment.

Whatever the cost in time, money and manpower, the album was a huge success, going platinum with sales of more than 5 million, and climbing to No. 3 on the album charts while spinning off three Top 40 singles: "Deacon Blues," "Josie" and "Peg." The best-selling Steely Dan album of all, it won a Grammy for best engineering, was honored by the Library of Congress in 2011, and was added to the National Recording Registry. Sample played keyboards on the lengthy title track, which features a Wayne Shorter sax solo.


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