Houston and the world lost a giant today with the passing of Wilton Felder, saxophonist for the fabled Crusaders. Mr. Felder was 75. Word of his passing reached the Internet via longtime collaborator Ray Parker, Jr.’s Facebook page around 2 p.m. today.
Felder’s passing comes only a year after the death of his lifelong friend and fellow Crusader Joe Sample. Crusaders trombonist Wayne Henderson died in April, 2014, which now leaves drummer Nesbert “Stix” Hooper as the only living Crusader from the original four. Felder, Sample, and Hooper met early in life and formed their first band while attending Phillis Wheatley High School in the Fifth War. They added Henderson and took the name Jazz Crusaders while attending Texas Southern University, but they left school without graduating in 1959 and moved to Los Angeles. They quickly made a name for themselves in the West Coast bebop scene and recorded ten albums in the hard bop style of the day..
But the huge success of the band would wait ten years until 1971 when they dropped one of the first jazz-rock records to cross over into popular music culture, Pass the Plate. Pass the Plate put them on everyone’s radar; they received letters from the Beatles — they famously covered "Eleanor Rigby" — and garnered a slot opening for a Rolling Stones tour. They also were one of the headliners at the Rumble in the Jungle heavyweight championship fight in Zaire in 1974 between Muhammad Ali and Houstonian George Foreman.
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But by the mid-70s, the individual members of the Crusaders had moved outside the band to work as session musicians and as producers. Felder became a house bass player for Motown’s West Coast studio operation, but he also worked with a number of pop acts like America and Seals & Croft. He was one of three bassists on Randy Newman’s milestone album Sail Away. He also played on Billy Joel’s Piano Man and Streetlife Serenade albums, Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust, and John Cale’s Paris 1919.
Felder recorded his debut solo album, Bullitt, in 1970, and followed with We All Have a Star in 1978. He would go on to release seven more albums. His 1985 album Secrets, with Bobby Womack as primary vocalist, made it into the UK Albums chart and the single “No Matter How High I Get (I’ll Always Be Looking Up at You)” became a minor hit.
As of this posting, no official word has been released regarding Mr. Felder’s passing or any possible cause.