Wilton Felder dies at 75; recorded with Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell

Bass and saxophone player Wilton Felder, who was an original member of the Crusaders and performed on hundreds of recordings with artists such as Joni Mitchell and Michael Jackson, has died at his home in Whittier. He was 75.

The cause of his death Sunday was complications from cancer, said his son, Wilton Felder Jr.

Felder was in high demand for recording sessions; it’s him on bass for the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” album and numerous tracks by Mitchell.

“She’s a phenomenal composer and person,” Felder said of Mitchell in a 2006 interview with the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. “Her music is just fun to play.”

Felder also recorded with B.B. King, Randy Newman, Nancy Wilson, Steely Dan, Barry White, Cat Stevens and many others, on saxophone as well as electric bass.

But for much of his career, he preferred playing live dates only with the Crusaders, a band he help found in junior high in Houston. Though it had only one top-40 hit -- “Street Life,” with vocalist Randy Crawford in 1979 -- the group toured with the Rolling Stones in the mid-1970s and its jazz-funk sound was highly regarded.

He was especially known for his saxophone playing with the group, which ranged from smooth jazz to bebop edgy.

“I really feel the sound of the Crusaders is unique,” he told The Times in 1992, “and for quite some time I felt I didn’t want my horn heard in other contexts.”

It’s a sound, he said, that had its eclectic roots in the streets where he and his band mates grew up.

Felder was born Aug. 31, 1940, in Houston. Growing up in the city’s predominantly African American Fifth Ward district, he got together in the mid-1950s with schoolmates Joe Sample on piano, Wayne Henderson on trombone and Nesbert “Stix” Hooper on drums to form the core of a group called the Swingsters.

“Because we came up on the streets and not in the studios,” he said in a biographical essay on the Verve Music Group site, “our music was live. The Texas streets were rich with the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins. We grew up on all the deep country sounds. We ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“At the same time, we had ears for modern jazz — Miles and Monk — and never saw a contradiction between the old and new.”

The group played through high school and while some members attended Texas Southern University. In the late 1950s they moved to Los Angeles to play jazz, but because work was tough to find, they ended up as a house band for several months in Las Vegas, where they were known as the Nite Hawks.

Tiring of that gig, they returned to L.A. and eventually got a record deal and a new name -- the Jazz Crusaders. Eventually they shortened the name because they didn’t want to be strictly thought of as a jazz group. But they didn’t want to be purely pop either, which made the “Street Life” hit a double-edged victory.

“It did so well, the record company said, ‘Give us more,’ ” Felder said in a 1986 Miami Herald interview. “They wanted more vocals, more hits. ‘Street Life’ was good for us, because it was still a Crusader melody. It gave us the room to play.

“But we can’t really go for a commercial sound. We found that out.”

Some members of the original group dropped out and in the early 1990s the Crusaders disbanded. After initial reluctance, Felder played live gigs with several different ensembles in addition to his studio work. And in 2003, three of the four original members got together for a reunion album.

“I remember the way each of us played and made our sound unique,” Felder said in the Virginia-Pilot interview. “There was individual playing within the context of a band. We were a unit with each piece of the puzzle standing out.”

Of the original Crusaders, the sole survivor now is Hooper.

Felder’s survivors in addition to his son include his wife of 56 years, Geraldine; daughters Michelle LeBlanc and Deborah Clark; sisters Jean Foster, Clara Walker and Rozelia Gilliam; and seven grandchildren.

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