Joe Sample, a soft-spoken keyboard player and composer whose blending of funk, blues, jazz, gospel and the Zydeco music of his childhood lent a distinctive sound to his well-known group, the Crusaders, has died. He was 75.
Sample died Friday at a Houston hospital of lung cancer, his manager, Patrick Rains, told the Associated Press.
The musician had struggled with serious health problems over the years, suffering two heart attacks and a lengthy bout with Epstein-Barr virus, a condition that results in crippling fatigue.
Even so, he took his recently formed Creole Joe Band on tour last year and was planning a musical based on the life of Henriette DeLille, founder of an African American nuns’ order that started orphanages and schools, including one attended by Sample in Houston’s Fifth Ward.
Sample also was an advocate for her canonization.
As a teenager, Sample co-founded the Jazz Crusaders with trombonist Wayne Henderson, bassist and saxophonist Wilton Felder and drummer Nesbert “Stix” Hooper. The childhood pals played bebop at bars and strip clubs before heading to Los Angeles in 1958.
Within a few years, they produced their first album, “Looking Ahead.”
“In the Sixties, we had emotion, passion and feeling in our music and I wrote a composition to support the sit-inners and marchers in the civil rights struggle,” Sample told the Jazz Times in 2012. “The Freedom Sound” swiftly made its way into the Top 40 pop charts.
As jazz grew discordant and more challenging for many listeners the group became, simply, the Crusaders. They also added various electronic instruments, including keyboards for Sample.
One of the Crusaders’ pieces — Felder’s “Way Back Home” — became notorious. When the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst in 1974, the radical group’s ransom demand was on a tape recording that started with “Way Back Home” — which, it turned out, the SLA had adopted as its anthem.
“The FBI definitely contacted us and wanted to know what was our connection to the Army or Patty Hearst,” Sample told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “I had no idea what they were talking about.”
His band frequently performed at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach where, he said, it seemed “like every activist group loved the Crusaders and they were always trying to indoctrinate me to become a Black Panther or this or that.”
After he parted ways with the Crusaders in the late 1980s, he recorded a solo album, “Ashes to Ashes,” a collection focused on African Americans struggling to save their communities.
Born in Houston on Feb. 1, 1939, Sample grew up with music. An older brother played piano in a Navy band and Sample loved it when his mother prepared big Creole meals for the visiting musicians. Sample, who started music lessons when he was 6, attended Texas Southern University in Houston, where he studied piano.
In Los Angeles, Sample and his group backed up another Houston friend, bluesman Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
As the Crusaders gained traction, they attained national renown. They were among the groups playing at a 1974 Zaire music festival celebrating the historic Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle.” They were the first instrumental band to open for the Rolling Stones on tour.
As a composer, Sample wrote many popular songs, including “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” and “Street Life,” both collaborations with lyricist Will Jennings.
An afternoon on the beginners slope at Mammoth Mountain gave rise to “Street Life.”
“I saw people falling, running into each other,” Sample told the Reuters press agency. “It was absolute chaos. It looked like a boulevard of madness. And I said, ‘That’s what street life is.’”
Sample had homes in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and Santa Monica but moved back to Houston in 2001.
He is survived by his wife, Yolanda, and his son, Nicklas, a bass player who performed with his father in the Creole Joe Band.