Anyone who follows jazz or has much sense of Houston's music history knows that Joseph Leslie Sample, who passed away Friday night after a losing battle with lung cancer, is a giant. But Sample was not simply a virtuoso pianist, a prolific composer and one of the inventors of jazz-funk via the Crusaders.
With more than 50 years in the business, Sample amassed credits as a session player that are mind-blowing. While the Crusaders (nee Jazz Crusaders) were his main emphasis, in 1964 he began offering his services on the open market, and by 1968 he'd become a go-to Los Angeles session pro. Below are just some of Sample's most high-profile recordings as a side man from when he first began hiring himself out through 1975. Check back with us soon for more on Sample's stellar career as a session pianist, composer, and arranger.
Canned Heat, Living the Blues (1968) The landmark album by the seminal Los Angeles hippie blues band featured their first major hit, "Going Up the Country." Sample was brought in to play piano on one song, the Bob Hite-written "Sandy's Blues." John Mayall and Dr. John played piano on some tracks. Living the Blues has its own niche in rock and roll history as one of the first double albums to ever have serious chart success.
Merry Clayton, Gimme Shelter (1970) Merry Clayton's duet with Rolling Stone Mick Jagger on the Stones' 1969 version of "Gimme Shelter" set her up to record her own first album the following year. This was a typical Lou Adler L.A. session with many name players, including Sample on piano. The album surveyed popular songs of the day including James Taylor's "Country Road" and Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Clayton is one of the focal points of the highly successful 2013 music documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom.
Quincy Jones, Smackwater Jack (1970) One of those Quincy Jones L.A. sessions with an eclectic cast (Bill Cosby, Freddie Hubbard, Toots Thielmans, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Hubert Laws, and 30 other musicians and vocalists), Smackwater Jack was built around the title tune, a Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition. The album didn't do particularly well, but it contained the themes for two wildly popular television shows of the day, Raymond Burr's Ironside and The Cosby Show.
Marvin Gaye, Let's Get It On (1973) The granddaddy of slow jams and hailed as one of the most sexually explicit albums ever upon its release, Let's Get It On found Gaye shifting gears, finally leaning toward a funk formula after 12 soul albums. But it was the title track that captured the public and moved the sexuality bar in popular music forever.
Sample handles most of the keyboard duties, along with Gaye and Marvin Jerkins. Fellow Crusader Wilton Felder was also brought in to play bass on part of the album. Let's Get It On paved the way for other soft-n-sexy crooners like Barry White, while it also pushed funk further into mainstream consciousness.
Cher, Bittersweet White Light (1973) The concept was simple: Cher would sing American standard torch songs with lush production. Yet what would be Sonny Bono's last album producing his soon-to-be ex-wife became the first Cher album to basically flop. Only rising to No. 140 on the Billboard album charts, it spawned no hits; Sample was one of three keyboardists on the album. Cher divorced Bono in 1975 and quickly married another keyboard player, Gregg Allman.
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Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark (1974) Mitchell's sixth studio album was also her mainstream breakthrough. The album changed her public image from trippy, poetic folkie to that of a multifaceted writer and artist. Sample played electric piano and clavinet, while Felder again held down the bass.
The album reflected Mitchell's widening interest in jazz but also captured the fancy of mainstream listeners, eventually going platinum and peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard album charts. It was nominated for Album of the Year, and the single "Help Me" was nominated for Record of the Year and Best Female Vocal. When Mitchell previewed the album for Bob Dylan, he fell asleep.
Average White Band, Put It Where You Want It (1975) Bassist Alan Gorrie worked with Sample to set words to a funky tune that became the title track to the Average White Band's third album, actually a reissue of their first, mostly unnoticed debut album with one additional track. The Scottish funk ensemble would go on to become hugely successful, and Sample and his Crusaders had "Put It Where You Want It" in their set list for years, even playing a torrid version at the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974.
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