CTI Records

Hank Crawford: Help Me Make it Through the Night

One of the first artists signed by Creed Taylor for the Kudu label, Hank Crawford suffered violent criticism during the period (1971-1978) he recorded  for the label, being accused to make mellow and commercial albums. On the other hand, Hank achieved a new level of popularity during his Kudu years. Some of the eight albums he cut for the label sold over 100,000 copies with almost no promotion. And his Kudu debut, Help Me Make It Through The Night, now for the first time reissued on CD, was the first step in this process of unprecedented fame. It is really a cult album for many saxophonists – among them, David Sanborn, Hank’s most famous fan and disciple!  

Born on December 21, 1934, in Memphis, Tennessee, Bernie Ross Crawford remains one of the most distinctive alto saxophone stylists in the music history. He began studying piano at age nine, and was soon playing for his church choir. As a teenager, he took up alto sax in his high school band, influenced by Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Louis Jordan and Earl Bostic. At school, he hang out with Phineas Newborn, Jr., Booker Little, George Coleman and Harold Mabern. Although their after-school hours were devoted to studying bebop, they cut their professional teeth on the blues.

Before he had finishing high school, Crawford was playing in bands led by Ben Branch, Tuff Green and Ike Turner, backing B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Junior Parker in several Memphis venues. In 1953, he went away to Tennessee State College in Nashville, where he developed his arranging skills as leader of the school’s dance band.

His big break came in 1958, when Ray Charles passed through Nashville. Baritone saxophonist Leroy Cooper had just left the band, and Charles offered Crawford the baritone choir. In 1959, when Cooper returned to the fold, Crawford switched to alto sax. Two years later, Charles expanded to full big-band size and appointed Crawford musical director. By the time Crawford left Charles in 1963 to form his own seven-piece combo, he had already established himself with several solo albums on Atlantic, for whom he would cut a total of twelve albums.

Signed to CTI/Kudu in 1971, Hank Crawford appeared on Johnny Hammond’s Breakout (recorded on June 1971), the first album issued by the new CTI subsidiary company. Soon he was called by Creed, in August, to work on his debut solo album for the label. But he could not attend the second record session, scheduled for September, and the famous producer offered to Grover Washington, Jr. (who had been hired as one of the members in the horn section assembled for Crawford’s album) the chance to lead the session. The result was the Inner City Blues album, which launched Grover’s hugely successful solo career.  

Actually, Crawford’s first official live appearance as a CTI/Kudu artist was on July 18, 1971, in the memorable California Concert album, cut live at the Hollywood Palladium. But, although playing in several songs, his main solo performance, a beautiful rendition of Never Can Say Goodbye (one of the songs he had recorded for Johnny Hammond’s Breakout), was not included in the original 2-LP set, remaining unreleased up to this date.

One month later, Hank Crawford finally went to Van Gelder’s Studio, in New Jersey, to start the recording of the Help Me Make it Through the Night album. However, from the first session they did that August, Creed Taylor decided to use only one track, a tune composed and arranged by Alfred Pee Wee Ellis with a strong brass section on the backing. As aforementioned told, Hank failed to show up for the September session. Then, on January 1972, Creed decided to complete the album following a completely different musical direction, inviting different musicians (Cornell Dupree and Bernard Purdie were called to replace Eric Gale and Idris Muhammad), and inviting Don Sebesky to write the string arrangements.

Except for Pee Wee Ellis’ Ham, and Crawford’s own Uncle Funky (later retitled Bowl Full O’Blues on the CTI Summer Jazz At The Hollywood Bowl concert, recorded on July 30, 1972, but released only in 1977), all other tracks are pop favorites. The title track, a song from country singer and future Hollywood star Kris Kristofferson’s self-titled debut album in 1970, had been also a Top 10 pop hit thanks to a recording by songstress Sammi Smith. Crawford transforms that erotic ballad into a bouncy funky-soul piece, which features inspired performances by Cornell Dupree on guitar and by the late Richard Tee, who plays organ on his unmistakable style.

The ballad department includes the John Lennon peaceful hymn Imagine, Michel Legrand’s movie theme Brian’s Song (sub-titled The Hands of Time after the couple Alan & Marilyn Bergman added lyrics), and the title tune of Frank Sinatra’s first 12-inch LP for Capitol, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, arranged by Nelson Riddle in 1954, and recently rediscovered by pop (Carly Simon) and jazz (Keith Jarrett) heavyweights.

Plus: soulful renditions of hits by Carole King (Go Away Littlle Girl, a gem from her creative heyday in partnership with Gerry Goffin, then Carole’s husband) and Ray Charles (The Sun Died, aka Il Est Mort Le Soleil, a jazz singer’s favorite since covered by Betty Carter in 1969, and recreated by Shirley Horn on her 1993 tribute to Charles, Light Out of Darkness).

Throughout the album, there are many details to be savored: the spicy groove provided by drummer Bernard Pretty Purdie on Go Away Little Girl, the subtle comments by vibes player Phil Kraus on In the Wee Small Hours, Cornell Dupree’s bluesy guitar solo on Uncle Funky, Margaret Ross’ sophisticated harp embellishments on Brian’s Song. But, above all, Crawford’s touching sound, melted with Sebesky’s sensitive arrangements. Romantic soul music at its best, showing the reason why David Sanborn, who idolizes Crawford as his main influence, loves Help Me Make It Through the Night so much!

Arnaldo DeSouteiro
May 14, 2001

Mr. DeSouteiro is Brazil’s top jazz producer and CTI historian.