Hank Crawford: The musical director and alto saxophonist who played with Ray Charles

When Hank Crawford joined Ray Charles in 1958, he was playing the baritone saxophone in a small group behind the rhythm and blues pioneer, but he really made his mark when he switched to the more expressive alto, an instrument his boss also played early on in his career. Crawford became Charles’s musical director and helped to organise the horn section at the heart of the big band which backed the singer and pianist in the early Sixties.

Most notably, Crawford featured on Charles’s epochal worldwide hit “What I’d Say”, recorded in 1959, and the groundbreaking studio album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962), as well as the live recordings Ray Charles at Newport – to which he contributed the instrumental composition “Sherry” – and Ray Charles in Person (both 1959).

As Crawford later remarked, the alto saxophone has a unique tone and plaintive quality which sets it apart from the other reed instruments, and must be played more sensitively. “You can honk or squeal on a tenor sax and get away with it, but an alto sax was meant to sing,” Crawford said. “My approach to playing is vocal. It’s not a technical approach. It’s like singing. You can almost hear the words instrumentally. When I pick up my horn, I’m never far away from the voices in the church choir I grew up with.”

In a career stretching over five-and-a-half decades, Crawford also worked with Ike Turner, Etta James, Lou Rawls, Dr John, BB King, Eric Clapton and Jimmy McGriff. He recorded more than 30 solo albums fusing blues, jazz, soul and funk and even dabbled in disco, scoring a US club hit in 1975 with a cover of the Supremes’ hit “I Hear a Symphony”.

Jazz purists may have criticized the easy way he mixed blues, pop, soul and easy listening standards with his own compositions on the many albums he made for the Kudu and Milestone labels, but listeners enjoyed his sweet, seductive sound as much as his edgier, more piercing bursts. “I found out as a young musician in Memphis that if you weren’t reaching people, and having them tap their foot, then there was nothing happening,” he stressed. “So I’ve always played for the average listener, rather than the jazz die-hard.”

Born Bennie Ross Crawford Jr, in Memphis in 1934, he was something of a childhood prodigy who began taking piano lessons at the age of nine and impressed his large family and their friends when he played in church within a year. When his truck-driving father brought a saxophone home with him from military service, but proved unable to play it properly, the young Crawford picked up the instrument and never looked back, acquiring the nickname ‘Hank’ because he looked like Hank O’Day, the legendary Memphis horn player.

He joined The Rhythm Bombers, the jazz band at Manassas High School, and later backed R&B performers like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. Crawford studied music theory at Tennessee State University and had already made his recording debut as the leader of Little Hank and the Rhythm Kings on a single – “The House of Pink Lights” with “Christine” on the flip side – when he first met Charles in 1956.

“Ray was tough, a real general, but the only thing he really demanded is that you got it right,” he recalled of their six-year association. “I learned a lot about discipline and phrasing from Ray. He would keep me up a lot of nights and dictate arrangements to me. I learned how to voice and get that soulful sound. I think I kinda had it before, but being around him helped that much more. I had no idea that such a natural feeling would exist between us.”

Having already issued three critically acclaimed solo albums – More Soul, The Soul Clinic and From the Heart – on Atlantic in the early Sixties, Crawford left Charles’s employ to lead his own septet in 1963. Crawford’s bluesy, rich and urgent tone was instantly recognisable and meant that he stood out of the jazz-fusion crowd throughout the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Having been inspired by Charlie Parker, Louis Jordan, Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges in his youth, he in turn influenced players like Grover Washington Jr and David Sanborn.

In recent years, the atmospheric introduction to the title track of his excellent 1973 groove-jazz album, Wildflower, has been sampled by the hip-hop artists Tupac Shakur, Eminem and Kanye West. A supreme accompanist and arranger, as well as a gifted soloist and prolific recording artist, Crawford suffered a stroke in 2000 but managed a tentative return to the stage three years later. His long-time friends, collaborators and fellow Charles accompanists, the tenor saxophonist David ‘Fathead’ Newman, and Leroy ‘Hog’ Cooper, whom Crawford replaced on baritone sax in Charles’s band, also died last month.

Pierre Perrone

Bennie Ross ‘Hank’ Crawford Jr., saxophonist, pianist, band leader, musical director, arranger, composer: born Memphis, 21 December 1934; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Memphis 29 January 2009.

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