If the sound of soul is not much in evidence today, stalwarts like Hank Crawford are keeping it alive. There are not too many left like Hank. You don’t hear many with that deep down, heartfelt sincerity that Hank Crawford puts into his music. No matter what bag he’s in – jazz, swing, R&B, funk or groove – Hank Crawford’s got soul. He’s super bad.
Benny Rose Crawford, Jr. was born in Memphis back in 1934 and took up the sax when he was 13. Ray Charles heard him playing around Tennessee and by 1958, recruited the 24-year old into his small group. Almost immediately Charles appointed Crawford as his musical director, a position he held until 1964.
By the time of Crawford’s first solo record on Atlantic in 1960, Benny became Hank and the sax man had already procured one of jazz’s most distinctive and easily identifiable sounds on alto – quite an accomplishment in the wake of Bird and the dawn of Cannonball. Throughout the next decade, Hank recorded a dozen solid sets for Atlantic Records, often with a variation of “soul” or “blues” in the title.
And then, in 1971, famed producer Creed Taylor launched the Kudu label. Kudu seemed tailor-made for the soulful gifts of Hank Crawford. Creed Taylor designed Kudu as a subsidiary of his CTI label with the intent of producing some of the successful soul grooves that were keeping the Atlantic and Prestige labels alive at the time.
Hank Crawford came over from Atlantic and recorded eight records for Kudu between 1971 and 1978 – just as many records, in fact, recorded on Kudu by Grover Washington, Jr,, whose first record and big hit, Inner City Blues, was actually intended to be Hank Crawford’s Kudu debut.
I Hear A Symphony, from 1975, is the fifth of Hank’s Kudu records and his first with James Brown’s former musical director, David Matthews. It’s also Hank’s first journey into “disco” – an emerging and still rather exciting soul innovation back then.
The big challenge for Matthews, indeed, was to build the right settings for Ray Charles’s former arranger. You don’t mess with the man who laid out “What’d I Say.” Matthews immediately recognized that Hank Crawford is best partnered with an equally distinctive soloist, as he is and was elsewhere with either David “Fathead” Newman or Jimmy McGriff.
Here, the unbilled “partner in crime” is the great guitarist Eric Gale (1938-1994). It’s Gale’s melodic, bluesy wailing that provides the intoxicating rhythmic drive and, in solos, a fiery, insinuating wail - the perfect complement to Crawford’s sensual soul.
With the title track, a cover of The Supremes’ huge 1966 hit and the one 45 released from this record, Matthews introduced his affinity for giving the Motown sound a 1970s spin. He would disco-fy even more Motown grooves with his own 1976 Kudu record, Shoogie Wanna Boogie. Hank sounds tight throughout this pop concerto with the guitarist, himself a veteran of the Motown sound.
Hank settles into the section for Matthews’s original, “Madison (Spirit, The Power),” blasting his commentary briefly at the end. It’s a sort of discreet social anthem with the soul and spirit of a Marvin Gaye classic that elicits its most powerful statement from Eric Gale. Hank’s back out front for Matthews’ soulful original, “Hang It On The Ceiling,” getting down in fine style with the “do, do, do, do, do it.”
Crawford and Matthews then conspire to fashion David Rose’s bawdy “The Stripper” into a surprisingly successful disco anthem. Hank sounds right on and right in his element here – with his boldest playing on the entire set. It works much better than it should, with Matthews’s clever arrangement anticipating David Shire’s Saturday Night Fever score (particularly “Manhattan Skyline”).
Up next is the album’s best and best-known piece, Hank Crawford’s totally righteous and perfectly titled “Sugar Free.” It’s pure fatback, cop-show funk – with a seemingly built-in chase sequence – that became a dance floor staple two decades after its release. Everything Crawford, Matthews and Gale do best, they do on “Sugar Free.”
Hank comes back home for his romantic and erotic take on Major Harris’s #1 hit “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.” Surely, this is among Hank’s greatest ballad performances, with beautiful signature support from Stuff mates Richard Tee on electric piano and Eric Gale on guitar.
Hank and Eric combine again for the pretty soul funk of “I’ll Move No Mountain” and come back, trading fours, on Minnie Ripperton’s mellow groover, “Baby, This Love I Have.” Here, Hank and Eric are propelled by Bernard Purdie’s driving rhythm – and coerced by Matthews’s impressive “roar” (a clever homage to the aggressive lion on the cover of Ms. Ripperton’s 1975 album, Adventures In Paradise, on which this tune first appeared). “Baby” found new life recently on the UK dancefloors with the trip-hop cover by Desert Eagle Discs.
Hank Crawford and Matthews would go on to work three more times together at Kudu (most memorably on 1976’s Tico Rico). But financial difficulties brought about the demise of the Kudu label in 1978. Indeed, Crawford’s Cajun Sunrise was the final “new” recording released by Kudu Records.
Crawford would leave Kudu to do session work for Mario Sprouse’s very CTI-like Versatile Records label (Grant Green, Buster Williams, Carmen McRae) until his next record, the fine Centerpiece (1980 - Buddah), a reunion with guitarist and fellow Memphis native Calvin Newborne.
Then, in 1982, Crawford settled into Milestone Records with producer Bob Porter, where the sax man has thus far waxed a dozen consistently soulful, bluesy discs (including many with I Hear A Symphony drummer Bernard Purdie). The sax man also continues to play a variety of sessions, lending his signature sound to such bluesman as B.B. King, Ronnie Earl and Johnny Copeland and such singers as Lou Rawls, Janis Siegel and Little Jimmy Scott.
Crawford began his most famed musical partnership in 1986 with organist Jimmy McGriff. The dynamic duo has recorded seven discs together for the Milestone and Telarc labels and continues to be a very popular act at local clubs and on jazz cruises too.
Even after four decades in the business and a quarter of century since I Hear A Symphony, Hank Crawford stays true to his soul. Pick up the needle from a Crawford/McGriff set, then drop it on I Hear A Symphony – or pick up an old Ray Charles side, and you’ll always know where you are. Hank Crawford signs everything he does with his own sound. It’s a sound of the soul, beyond fads and trends, and what makes music like I Hear A Symphony timeless.