Joe Sample's dynamic, elegant, fluid piano playing was one of several distinctive features that made the Jazz Crusaders, the group he co-founded with the drummer Nesbert "Stix" Hooper, the tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder and the trombonist Wayne Henderson, such an exciting proposition throughout the 1960s and 1970s and well into the 1980s.
Named after Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, whose two-horn front line had inspired theirs, albeit with the trombone replacing the trumpet, the quartet never completed their music courses at Texas Southern University in Houston but moved to Los Angeles, where they lived up to their billing as "masters of jazz communication" by Pacific Jazz, the label they signed to in 1961. Indeed, their repertoire evolved from original compositions by the four principals, as well as the occasional standard, to include breezy, bebop takes on pop hits by the Beatles, Sly & the Family Stone and Carole King as Sample made the switch from acoustic instruments to the Wurlitzer electric piano he had first seen Ray Charles play on The Tonight Show hosted by Steve Allen in the late 1950s, and then moved on to the Fender Rhodes in 1969.
Two years later, having shortened their name to the Crusaders, they forged a new sound which saw them tagged "the fathers of jazz-funk fusion" as they crossed over from the Jazz and R&B charts to the pop marketplace, most famously with the 1979 album Street Life, whose title track, composed by Sample with lyrics by fellow Texan Will Jennings, and sung by Randy Crawford, became a worldwide smash, a radio recurrent and their signature tune.
After watching skiers falling and running into each other on the beginners slope at Mammoth Mountain, the Californian ski resort where he had a home, he tried to recreate "the absolute chaos. It looked like a boulevard of madness. I said, 'That's what street life is.'" It was included on the soundtrack to Sharky's Machine, the 1981 police drama directed by and starring Burt Reynolds, enjoyed another lease of life in Quentin Tarantino's 1997 Blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown, and has been sampled by Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Mary J Blige and covered by Herb Alpert and others.
Again with Jennings as lyricist, Sample wrote "One Day I'll Fly Away", the soulful ballad Crawford took to No 2 in the UK charts in 1980, as well as the rest of her breakthrough album Now We May Begin, which he co-produced with Felder and Hooper. "One Day I'll Fly Away" has become another standard, reinterpreted by the pianist Keith Jarrett and the double bass player Charlie Haden, as well as Kimberley Walsh of Girls Aloud and Nicole Kidman who performed it memorably in Baz Luhrmann's 2001 juke-box musical Moulin Rouge!
Sample's wide-ranging musicality and lack of ego made him an in-demand session player and sterling contributor to classic albums like Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, Dion's Born To Be With You, Court And Spark and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns by Joni Mitchell, Aja and Gaucho by Steely Dan and Tina Turner's Private Dancer. He also worked with Quincy Jones, George Benson, Miles Davis, Simply Red, Everything But The Girl, Al Jarreau, Anita Baker and Eric Clapton, as well as Joe Cocker – guest vocalist on the Grammy-nominated "I'm So Glad I'm Standing Here Today", another Sample-Jennings song, from the 1981 Crusaders album Standing Tall – and BB King, particularly on Royal Jam, a live recording of their joint concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in September 1981.
Born in Houston in 1939, he was the fourth of five siblings, and mimicked an older brother who played the piano, absorbing the gumbo of ragtime and boogie woogie styles he later revived on 2004's Soul Shadows, the last of the 15 studio albums he recorded as leader. "I've been a solo pianist since I was six years old playing in my mama's living room for her after-church teas," he said.
As a composer, Sample wrote many popular songs, including "One Day I'll Fly Away," and "Street Life," both collaborations with lyricist Will Jennings. He had homes in Mammoth Lakes and Santa Monica in California but moved back to Houston in 2001.
Joseph Leslie Sample, pianist, composer and producer: born Houston 1 February 1939; married (one son); died Houston 12 September 2014.