Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Sample, Joe (Joseph Leslie)
Pianist Joe Sample was a founding member of the bop-to-funk group the Jazz Crusaders. His style is heavily influenced by the blues and gospel, with sprinklings of Red Garland in his in the way he voices chords. A prolific session musician, Sample's later work can be characterized as smooth jazz, with occasional and dramatic flashes of bop.
A fiery soloist, Sample is capable of playing multiple styles of music. His early piano solos were very rooted in the jazz traditions of swing and bebop. While primarily associated with the Crusaders, Sample has been active as a sideman with drummer Buddy Rich singers Ella Fitzgerald Lou Rawls, and the jazz-tinged rock band Steely Dan, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.
Joseph Leslie Sample was born on February 1st, 1939 in Houston, Texas. Sample grew up soaking up the sounds of boogie-woogie piano and also fell in love with the music of Louis Armstrong At the age of six, Sample told his mother he wanted to start playing the piano, so she signed him up for lessons with several local black pianists in his Houston neighborhood.
Sample explained in an interview that during this time of racial segregation, music education was lacking in the South and his teachers instilled in him a love for the piano but didn't provide him with a polished education. At the age of fourteen, he began studying with a teacher named Dr. Mayo, and by the age of sixteen, Sample was studying music at Texas Southern University.
During high school, Sample put together a band called the Swingsters with saxophonist Wilton Felder and drummer "Stix" Hooper. The trio met trombonist Wayne Henderson at Texas Southern and in 1960, the four men moved to Los Angeles. Upon arriving in Los Angeles the group became known as the Jazz Crusaders and soon signed with Pacific Records, where they remained for the duration of the 1960s.
In 1961, the Jazz Crusaders released their debut album entitled Freedom Sound. The title track is very indicative of the direction the band would pursue over the next eight years. Riding a mid-tempo swing beat, Sample and company carve out their own collective niche with a strong adherence to the hard-bop of the early 1960s. Sample plays a delicately balanced solo that spans the mid-range of the piano to the upper range.
The Jazz Crusaders went on to release a series of albums for Pacific during the 1960s. As rhythm 'n' blues and free jazz began to fight for the mainstream of jazz performance, the Jazz Crusaders gravitated towards rhythm 'n' blues, still retaining a strong sense of swing in their music. The group's 1966 album Live at the Lighthouse captures the essence of their sound. The group covers Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight," showing their affinity for standard jazz while on "Blues Up Tight," Sample shows that he could have fit right in with any top-notch jazz group with his introspective solo.
Sample recorded several albums outside of the Jazz Crusaders during the 1960s as well. Sample is heard on Lou Rawls' 1962 album Black and Blue. In late 1963 the Jazz Crusaders did an album with keyboardist Les McCann entitled Les McCann and the Jazz Crusaders, which was released on Pacific Jazz. Other notable appearances for Sample during the 1960s included albums with tenor saxophonist Harold Land, vocalist Kenny Hagood, organist Richard "Groove" Holmes, drummer Buddy Rich and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine.
During the 1970s, Sample moved towards a more polished sound which predated his full jump into smooth jazz. By this time the band had shortened its name to The Crusaders, and Sample became the group's leader. The Crusaders began to adopt a more funk driven sound and by 1975, founding member Wayne Henderson left the group to dedicate his time to being a producer. The group also added guitarist Larry Carlton and electric bassist Robert "Pops" Popwell. Songs of interest from this period include "Greasy Spoon" from the 1974 album Southern Comfort and "It Happens Everyday."
As the Crusaders' sound became more smooth they also became more popular. At the height of their success in 1979, the group's album Street Life reached number 18 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart. The title track is characteristic of Sample's writing style, featuring strong gospel harmonies, which complement the vocal style of Randy Crawford. On the other hand, with electric pianos and string cues, Street Life was indicative that the Crusaders had but altogether abandoned their original sound, which was much more rooted in the jazz tradition.
Sample continued to be prolific as a sideman during the 1970s, continuing his work with drummer Buddy Rich in the early part of the decade as well as performing and recording with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. He also worked with fellow Los Angeles native, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in 1970 on his album Bobby Hutcherson Featuring Harold Land. Sample was also a key session musician on the later albums of jazz rock group Steely Dan. He is heard on the title track to their 1977 album Aja and was also featured on their 1980 album Gaucho.
Steely Dan's members, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, were long known to be some of the hardest people to work with because of their perfectionist aesthetic. When asked in an interview once about the recording process with Steely Dan, Sample said, "Every Steely Dan session I went to had a leader. It was some guy who would sit down with Donald Fagen and they would go over songs. He could have been a keyboard player or a guitarist, and they would come up with the piano score and the form of the song and everything was beautiful. But when I would go to a recording session and we would begin to record, a lot of times I could feel things that were not right in the track. But I never could say anything because all these other players had characters and personalities that were super-dooper strong."
All the while, the Crusaders were still going strong with 1980's Standing Tall. The album built on the popularity of Street Lifeand featured the Grammy-nominated song "I'm So Glad I'm Standing Here Today" with vocalist Joe Cocker. In 1982 the Crusaders played a live concert in London with legendary blues guitarist B.B. King and the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The album was recorded and dubbed Royal Jam.
Unfortunately by 1983, founding Crusaders member Stix Hooper had left the group and the group's recording pace slowed. Sample devoted much of his solo work during the 1980s and 1990s to smooth jazz and funk jazz. He released a string of albums for different labels including MCA, Warner Brothers and Verve. However, Sample never abandoned his hard bop chops, as demonstrated by his cover of trumpeter Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder."
In 1999, Sample appeared on guitarist George Benson's album Absolute Benson and is heard on the Donny Hathaway composition "The Ghetto." Sample also recorded with Hathaway's daughter Lalah in 1999 for a collaborative album The Song Lives On. A song of interest from this album is "Fever."
In 2007, Sample and vocalist Randy Crawford rekindled their working relationship with the album Feeling Good. building on their past work when Crawford sang with the Crusaders on 1979's Street Life. Staying busy, Sample also appeared on vocalist-guitarist Jonatha Brooke's 2008 album The Works. He is heard along with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Steve Gadd on the Woody Guthrie song "My Flowers Grow Green."
In a career that has spanned more than fifty years, Joe Sample has gone from swinging blues pianist to funk keyboardist, working with some of the most influential musicians in popular music. Along the way he has inspired many younger musicians and delved deeper into popular music with the Crusaders during the 1970s. His work as a sideman is often underrated but he has proven that jazz has stayed with him. His harmonic and melodic capabilities encapsulate this understanding, making Sample an unsung musical hero of his generation.
With The Jazz Crusaders
Freedom Sound (Pacific Jazz, 1961)
Lookin' Ahead (Pacific Jazz, 1962)
Tough Talk (Pacific Jazz, 1963)
Heat Wave (Pacific Jazz, 1964)
Stretchin' Out (Pacific Jazz, 1964)
Chile Con Soul (Pacific Jazz, 1965)
The Thing (Pacific Jazz, 1965)
Talk that Talk (Pacific Jazz, 1967)
With The Crusaders Pass the Plate (Chisa, 1971)
The 2nd Crusade (Blue Thumb, 1972)
Unsung Heroes (Blue Thumb, 1973)
Southern Comfort (Blue Thumb, 1974)
Chain Reaction (Blue Thumb, 1975)
Those Southern Knights (Blue Thumb, 1976)
Free As the Wind (Blue Thumb, 1977)
Standing Tall (MCA, 1980)
Royal Jam (MCA, 1982)
With Steely Dan Aja (MCA, 1977)
Gaucho (MCA, 1980)
Contributor: Jared Pauley