Welcome back to Dollar World! Always nice to see our season pass holders around the park. Lots has changed since your last visit-- truthfully, lots has changed since my last visit, hot damn, I haven't touched this series in a while. In any case, welcome and welcome back! For our newcomers here at Dollar World, we try to blend the best and the worst with the eclectic and the enigmatic. But tucked away between the physically unplayable and the perpetually unsellable, Dollar World fosters those miraculous little moments in music history, the diminutive details you'd pass right over for your comfort classics, the diamonds defining the rough that might permanently alter your tastes in tunes forever. As always, my hope for this series is to pass on to you, my unsupervised music junkies, the best and the worst of everything that the Dollar World has to offer. And now, ladies and gentlemen... The Crusaders!
Collecting records is a tough hobby, one, because it costs money and sometimes more than I realize or just more than I care to acknowledge. That's why we started raiding the dollar crates, now the single dollar shelf, at Repo Records-- the only place to shop for the best used and new plastic money and a smile can buy. But buying music is different in this Great Golden Age of Streaming we find ourselves in.
More often than not, when we're buying a record, we usually look for the albums we know. It doesn't make any sense anymore to buy the print edition for an album we've never heard if we can just listen to it on streaming first. An album cover might catch our eye but why spend the money if you don't even know what it sounds like? That's just how the game is played in this great digital age, but that's get us into this episode's story-lesson-moral-thing: how judging a record by it's cover helped me discover the greatest band of all time.
The singles bins are a disorganized and overgrown jungle of music, live comedy recordings, scripture tapes and the complete extensive works of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (more on them in another episode). But from time to time, some familiar favorites pop up; a single disc from a two-disc copy of Led Zeppelin IV, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, the empty cover sleeve for what would've been ELO's Out of the Blue-- lot's of fun stuff has shown up over my many visits to the crates. But like any hobby or sport or what-have-you, once you get the essentials down, the need arises to set yourself apart, to develop your own style.
But that's when it showed up-- stashed away behind a justifiably dusty collection of Bill Cosby records (hmm, wonder why those were there, amirite?), was a faded, bubblegum pink sleeve held together by a long stretch of masking tape along the left spine, depicting a curious unmarked bottle of pink, with SCRATCH*THE CRUSADERS plastered on. How eery, how mysterious, something completely and totally brand new! Even the master himself, my old man, had never heard of it before. We both agreed is worth every bit of a buck just to satisfy our curiosity.
It was the first play when we got back, the curiosity was too much. 40 minutes and five songs later, Scratch had become an instant favorite. Between each impossible groove and a 13-minute rendition of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," we agreed this may be one of the greatest albums we'd ever heard; 40 minutes of unparalleled finesse and style, and some of the most illustrious sax solos ever played on stage. All this and only only five words spoken across the entire record, "Ladies and gentlemen... The Crusaders!"
Little did we know, this would mark the beginning of the second largest second in our collection-- second only to the entire half shelf of Rolling Stones LP's. I am thrilled to admit that I am the proud owner of six Crusaders albums; five LPs and a Greatest Hits collection. But what you're probably wondering now is "who are these guys?"
The legend goes that high school friends Joe Sample, the pianist, Wilton Felder, on tenor saxophone, and Nesbert "Stix" Hooper, the drummer, formed their first band together, The Swingsters, in Houston, Texas in 1954. They would get their start playing jazz and R&B before adding trombonist Wayne Henderson, flautist Hubert Laws, and bassist Henry Wilson to their roster, changing their name to the Modern Jazz Sextet and switching to a hard bop sound. They would also start recording R&B tracks as the Nighthawks, or Nite Hawks.
In the 60's, Sample, Felder, Hooper, and Henderson would make their way out to Los Angeles, California and reform as the Jazz Crusaders, a quintet with a dynamic rotation of bass players. They would sign with Pacific Jazz in 1961 and release 16 albums over the next years. They would explode onto the scene their first of many hits, "The Young Rabbits." They would also record five live albums that decade alone, and receive their first Billboard chart entry for their version of Stevie Wonder's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" in 1966, peaking at No. 95 on the Hot 100. Their 1969 album, Powerhouse, would be their first full-length LP to reach the Billboard 200 album chart, reaching No. 184 on the list, and would also be their last record with Pacific Jazz before signing to the Chisa label, where they would officially change their name for the final time, and forever be known as The Crusaders.
The newly christened Crusaders would record for a slew of labels over the next several years, and found themselves regularly in the top 100 on the Billbaord Albums charts throughout the 70's, including their single "Put It Where You Want It" (No. 52 pop, 1972), and the albums The 2nd Crusade (No. 45 album, 1973), Southern Comfort (No. 31 album, 1974), Chain Reaction (No. 26 album, 1975), Those Southern Knights (No. 38 album, 1976), and Images (No. 34 album, 1978). The original lineup would reach their commercial peak in 1979 with the release of Street Life; the album peaking at No. 18 on the pop album charts, and the title track featuring Randy Crawford made the Top 10 on the R&B chart, No. 36 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, and No. 5 in the UK.
In between their successes, Henderson would exit the group in 1975 to become a record producer. The group's success dwindled after Street Life, and in 1983, Styx Hooper would formally leave the band, leaving Felder and Sample to pick up the pieces and keep the train moving through the 80's before The Crusaders finally parted ways. Felder and Henderson reunited in the mid-1990s once again as the Crusaders. Henderson later led a band for a brief period called the Jazz Crusaders with Felder and former Crusaders and Steely Dan guitarist Larry Carlton. Felder and Sample would also reunite as the Crusaders in 2003 before their's and Henderson's untimely passing in 2014 and 2015. Stix Hooper is now the only living member of the orignal Crusaders lineup.
So, where does that leave us? In the wake of their massive catalog and live mastery, The Crusaders cemented themselves as pioneers of jazz fusion and the faces of a multitude of genres; pop, hard bop, funk, even gospel and the blues. The band collectively had their hands in the production of decade defining sounds, such as The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and Randy Newman. They found themselves recording and playing alongside some of the most influential voices of the day; Bill Withers, Tina Turner, Bobby Womack, Joe Cocker, even Nancy Wilson! They recorded en entire live album alongside the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chairman of the Board himself, B.B. King!
There are very few bands like The Crusaders, fewer still with such layered connections to so many corners and formative moments in music history, even fewer still that could have pulled it all off with the same style, class, and good ol' fashioned passion that they did. There will probably never be another band like The Crusaders, but there are still so many unacknowledged giants to be rediscovered, so many megas lost to the rusty, unforgiving gears of the Hit Machine. I would have never found half of my recent spins had I not given Scratch a chance. I could have just said "hmm, wack cover" and put The Crusaders disgracefully back behind those unmentionables, but then I would have never struck gold. If you take away anything from this long-winded episode, always judge your albums by their covers. You'll almost always find a favorite here at Dollar World.
Recommended Listening for New Fans of The Crusaders: