Joe Sample & Randy Crawford
Joe Sample is recalling the impact that Randy Crawford’s voice made on him, inspiring him to write the song that gave Crawford her major breakthrough, Street Life.
"I just fell in love with that instrument she has," says Sample. "After she asked me to work on her first two albums for Warner Brothers, whenever I met her I’d tell her, ‘Girl, I love you.’ And she’d tell me, ‘Boy, you’re crazy, you’re a married man.’ And I’d tell her that that didn’t mean I couldn’t like her singing."
Down the phone line comes the sound of those scenes being re-enacted. Randy, Sample tells me with the restraining manner of someone holding a restless puppy and a conversation simultaneously, is just off a transatlantic flight and is jetlagged.
Thus, leaving aside uncharitable thoughts about whether newts suffer from jetlag, it appears that Randy’s contribution today will be restricted to what might best be described as backing vocals. Except, that is, when she takes the lead on a suitably Crawfordesque, personal rendition of Frankie Valli's My Eyes Adored You as Sample continues his tale of artistic admiration.
By the time Sample got the call to appear on Crawford’s Warners debut, Everything Must Change, in 1976, the Georgia-born former Cincinnati church choir girl had already worked with production Svengali, Quincy Jones. She’d also recorded with alto saxophone star Cannonball Adderley and toured with George Benson.
Sample, who had been on an upward sales curve with the Crusaders for the previous few years, felt that there was a big star waiting to emerge from the shadows, though.
"I thought about it a lot, how I was going to present a song that would do Randy justice and that would fit naturally into the Crusaders’ style, too," he says. "And eventually, by 1979, I was ready. I had something I felt confident about."
Street Life, he says, was a monster to organise and record. For a band that was used to setting up a groove and producing the goods quickly in the studio – and a band whose individual musicians were also prominent members of the LA session mafia – the Crusaders were taking an inordinate amount of time getting the song right, Frustrations set in. Bassist Wilton Felder just couldn’t seem to settle on a suitable part and was reduced almost to tears.
Crawford adds, with some Southern belle sassiness, that she thought they had her hanging around in the studio for ten hours waiting to sing because they liked the way she looked.
"Finally, everything clicked," says Sample. "Which is just as well because Randy was about to walk out on us. We added some strings and it was one of those moments of creating music when everything we thought of worked, and I felt instantly when I heard the playback that we’d nailed it."
The first confirmation of this for him was when he heard Street Life on the radio for the first time and the deejay described it as an epic piece of music.
"I was driving along and I just said ‘Whaaaaat!’," he says. "Then a bit later I pulled up at a red light and it was playing again, and the guy in the car next to me had the same station on and actually leaned over to turn up the volume. I tell you, that was a tremendous feeling, seeing a complete stranger respond to your music that way at close quarters."
Sample wrote further songs for Crawford, including the seductive One Day I’ll Fly Away, a not inappropriate sentiment since Street Life launched her as the star he had foreseen. With busy careers individually, they followed their own paths. Until, that is, Sample came up with another career-changing idea for Crawford.
"Throughout the 1990s I’d hear Randy from time to time singing at festivals and concerts where we were both appearing, and I could tell she wasn’t happy, just from the way she was singing," says Sample. "She had these backing musicians who were playing far too loud and she was fighting to overcome the volume, which just wasn’t right. I mean, she’s the star – it’s her people have come to hear."
Having reverted to acoustic piano and encountered similar volume problems, Sample sympathised and suggested that Crawford work with his jazz trio. The title of their first album together, Feeling Good, says Sample, tells it like it is.
"Number one, we enjoy working together," he says. "Number two, we’re friends – and you have to be friends on a tour like this European trek we’re on or else it becomes a war zone. And number three, I just see my role as giving Randy all the space she needs to utilise that voice. As her accompanist, I try to make her very, very happy – because that’s when she sings her ass off."
Crawford agrees, adding that Sample sets things up for her so that all she has to do is, indeed, "sing my pretty l’il ass off." And as anyone who caught her on Later with Jools Holland, recorded later that same day, will have noted, that’s exactly what she does.
From The Herald, Friday, December 1, 2006