Back in March, when I was interviewing artists for my Wall Street Journal "Anatomy of a Song" column on Rock the Boat, I called Joe Sample, who played keyboard and led the rhythm section on what is widely considered the first pure disco single. Joe had just finished undergoing chemotherapy when I called, which had miraculously pushed his lung cancer cancer into remission. Sadly, the treatment's postive effects didn't last. Joe died September 12. He was 75.
Like many superb musicians in the 1960s and beyond, Joe played a dual role in the business. He was a co-founder with Stix Hooper (drums), Wilton Felder (saxophone) and Wayne Henderson (trombone) of the Jazz Crusaders, which united hard bop with R&B and soul. But Joe—along with Felder and Hooper—also was one of the most sought-after soul studio sections in Los Angeles in the 1970s and beyond, largely because Joe, as a musician, leader and arranger, could bring jazzy funk and soul to any session. [Pictured above, from left, Joe Sample, Stix Hooper and Wilton Felder]
At the time, we spoke about Rock the Boat and the Crusaders (the band shortened its name in 1971 to reflect its widening sound), and I asked Joe about one of my favorite songs—Street Life, a soul-disco hit in 1979. Late last week, when I heard that Joe had passed away late last week, I went back to my tape of our conversation. Here's what Joe told me about Street Life's unlikely origin and how it came together:
JazzWax: How did you come up with the song's title and melody?
Joe Sample: Back in the 1970s, I had built a house in the Mammoth Lakes, Calif., in the Eastern Sierra Mountains. I was dividing my time between Houston—my hometown—Santa Monica, Calif., and my house in the mountains. I loved to ski. To gain access to the mountain, I had to walk two blocks to a chairlift that took me over the beginners' slopes. One day I was riding up the lift. It must have been a holiday, because the beginner’s slopes below were crowded. Looking down between my skis, I saw all these skiers crashing into each other. It was chaos. I’m thinking, that’s dangerous down there—people who can’t ski crashing into each other. [Pictured above, a ski lift at Mammoth Lakes, Calif.]
Right then and there, the title “Street Life” jumped into my mind. I went home that evening and began writing it. I wrote it on a Yamaha studio piano. I had a Fender Rhodes at home, but I seldom touched it. It’s still in mint condition. Street Life took me a couple of hours to write. The melody just unfolded.
JW: Did you play it for Wilton Felder?
JS: Yes. Wilton [above] made two great suggestions: He thought that once we got down to the end of the song, we should keep repeating “street life” (sings) and to have it change keys to add drama. He also suggested I write an old-time verse at the beginning to set the mood and create a bit of surprise, a contrast, when the song kicks in and picks up.
JW: How did the lyrics come together?
JS: I gave the melody to lyricist Will Jennings [above], who's from Texas. He came up with lyrics. That combination of Will and me and Wilton and Stix was a phenomenal thing. Will was one of those rare guys who could take a melody and write the words note for note. He's truly a legend.
JW: Why did you choose Randy Crawford to sing it?
JS: I had been performing with Randy and recording behind her on her albums for Warner Bros. I recognized that, finally, here’s a singer I liked who I could write a melody for, who could actually express it the way I imagined. I knew given what I was doing with the song, the average singer would not be able to get around it.
JW: What happened in the studio?
JS: First we got in with the rhythm section. We brought in a bunch of guitar players, and Wilton [Felder] was always instrumental in working with the guitar parts and what they should be playing. But when we got ready to record the track, we recorded first with just the three of us—me, Wilton and Stix. I handled the bass in my left hand. We always recorded that way—just the keyboard, sax and drums. Adding anyone else at that point only made it confusing. So on Street Life, we asked the guitar players to sit out until we had recorded the rhythm track. We already knew what they were going to play, so we had a good idea what the song was going to feel like once they were added.
JW: How was the song's loping rhythm set?
JS: I recognized from the start that the song was going to be powerful. After I played it for Wilton and Stix, we sat there and they agreed with me that we shouldn’t use a disco drum rhythm, which was so popular then. Instead, I wanted to utilize the Southeast Texas rhythm style, which was more of a shuffle. So we made a conscious effort not to emulate the disco rhythms of that period.
JW: Who wrote the arrangement?
JS: I did. I could hear it all in my head.
JW: Did everyting go smoothly?
JS: At first, Wilton kept trying to come up with a line that went counter to what we were trying to do. He kept at it for hours. I thought, “Are we going to lose this thing?” Wilton finally said, “Joe, what are you playing in your left hand?" I had been urging him for hours to just play what I had been playing in my left hand. He finally got it and we had a take [sings the left-hand part]. I have no idea why he resisted, but that's the beauty of the creative process.
JW: Why wasn't there a followup song?
JS: People kept saying, “Write another one like that, Joe.” But you can’t do that. It was just something that happened at that particular moment, which is very, very, very wonderful.
JW: The song's rhythm was unusual—sort of funky and soulful, with a swing feel. How would you describe it?
JS: For some reason, the Crusaders had a unique sense of rhythm. I don’t know where it came from or how it came. It’s a Houston thing. There’s a unique sense of rhythm there that came from the dance culture here. New Orleans guys had their own sense of rhythm and that infiltrated over here also. I heard a lot of New Orleans music over here, but we had our own unique way of doing things.
I usually wonder where swing came from. Hugh Masakela [above] came into a recording session I was on in the early '70s in Los Angeles. He brought in a percussion section from South Africa. I had arranged something or there was something to add to a song of mine. But I was concerned about what the percussionists were playing. I began to realize that no matter what I said to them and how I tried to trick them into playing it the way I needed it, they couldn't feel 8th notes. Everything they played was based on a feeling of 3.
Then it occurred to me that these African guys' rhythm was based on three. And when you think about a shuffle beat [sings the pattern], that’s where America’s music came from—the concept of 3/8, 6/8 and 12/8—even 9/8, which is honky-tonk. That's when I realized that swing feel started with that African sense of three. A lot of musicians don’t know that. They can’t feel the three. When I try to explain it to them, they’ll do a stiff version of it and that feels like crap to me. It has always been a mystery. Playing in three it always feels so natural to me. Guys from Southeast Texas like me, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Roy Gaines and everyone else has that sense of three. New Orleans musicians do, too. That’s where all of those rhythms come from. It comes from the African feel.
JW: But rhythm isn't everyting, is it? You need that same feel in the notes.
JW: [Producer] Tommy LiPuma [above] once said something to me when he was working with Miles [Davis] in early ‘70s. One day I was with Tommy at a great restaurant in New York and he said, "You know, Miles Davis is really a blues musician.” When he said that, it hit me. When you hear Miles Davis play a whole note, a lone tone, he sounds like a gospel singer, like a soul musician holding a note. He had this quality of playing blue notes with a lot of emotion. I have a sense of that where I come from in Houston to New Orleans to Atlanta, to Kansas City to Memphis. All the New York bands wanted musicians out of that territory for this reason. That jazz sense of music was filtered through gospel and blues. It was moaning. That's what I wanted on Street Life.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Jazz Crusaders' 1960s studio recordings on The Jazz Crusaders: The Pacific Jazz Quintet Studio Sessions (Mosaic). But hurry. I hear this limited edition box set is going fast. Go here.
Joe Sample also can be heard on Harold Land's The Peace-Maker (1968), Bobby Hutcherson's San Francisco (1970) and Blue Mitchell's Blue's Blues (1972), among many others. His last album was Randy Crawford & Joe Sample: Live (go here), recorded in 2010, which includes a great version of Street Life.
JazzWax clips: Here's Joe with Harold Land on The Peace-Maker...
Here's Joe with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne on The Three (1975), courtesy of Jimi Mentis in Athens...
Here's Joe and the Crusaders playing Keep That Same Old Feeling...
And here's Joe and the Crusaders playing Street Life...