Born December 21st, 1934. Died January 29th, 2009 (Age 74)

I posted a longer look at Hank, and how he got involved with Creed Taylor last year[1], it included the follow mix. This year I also have a 3-page interview publish in Black Stars magazine in 1980, written by Arnold Jay Smith.

Feeling is my thing and playing is feeling,” Crawford says.

by Arnold Jay Smith, Black Stars – Volume 29, Issue 4 – February 1980

IT has become cliché to state that an artist “just wants to play.” What with the legal profession finding new homes in the record industry every day, and mothers ad- monishing their children to become accountants so they can get free tickets to see Cheap Trick, or The Who, not only is it unpopular to “just play” it has become downright unprofitable and simply untrue. Besides, it’s old hat.

Yet, in the case of Hank Crawford, to see him perform is a joy. He is usually attired in a suit and tie —more likely in formal wear — he is polite and introduces ALL of his tunes and sidemen. But, in truth, HE JUST PLAYS ! He plays pop, rock, jazz and it comes out soulfully as the blues. He plays electric piano so it sounds like an after hours organ in some ribs and beans joint in Detroit, or Harlem. His alto sax soars to the point where audiences squirm, and squeal with delight.

Bennie Ross Crawford: born 1934, Memphis, Tennessee. Those are the basics. He rose to international fame with the Ray Charles band of the mid to late ’50s. His first instrument with Charles was baritone sax, but soon he was writing, arranging and playing lead alto with the band. Later he became its musical director and featured alto soloist.

In short, Hank Crawford has become one of the leading proponents of a particular school of sax playing, a school which numbers among its students reed luminaries such as Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson, Red Prysock, Sam (The Man) Taylor and Red Holloway. “Yeah. It’s a school all right,” Crawford says. “A school of the street. You learn as you go.”

It was at Manassas High School in Memphis that Bennie got his “Hank” handle because he resembled local alto player Hank O’Day.

“In Memphis you could hear it all. You woke up to gospel. Then on its heels you heard Eddy Arnold with no break in between. Jazz musicians had to play rhythm and blues because those were the only kind of jobs. Besides, people in Memphis really like the blues.”


“When B. B. King was a deejay and Bobby Blue Bland and Junior Parker were first starting out spell that scuffling—Hank was listening. Later he would share billing with some of those great blues players. Memphis has had its share of jazz stars as well. To name a few : George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Harold Mabern, Phineas Newborn, Jr., and brother Calvin. Calvin remains as the Crawford guitarist today and Hank still talks of Phineas’s influence upon him. Others who garner the Crawford respect are Charles Lloyd and Booker Little, also of Memphis stock. Crawford came naturally to music. He played piano at nine and various brass insruments in elementary school. He played with the Manassas Rhythm Bombers, a 16-piece affair with charts of the band sounds of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton.

Hank attended Jackson State and later Tennessee State College and was noticed by Ray Charles. Charles had a nine-piece unit at the time (1955) featuring David (Fathead) Newman on tenor sax. Hank was to remain with that band for eight years.

“I’m one of those loyal folks,” he explained. He was referring to the fact that his professional recording career has spanned all of two count ’em, two—record companies : Atlantic— where he started with Charles and later on his own —and CTI/Kudu, a total of 20 years as a recording artist. There are others out there who have long standing records with one label. Horace Silver (Blue Note) and Nancy Wilson (Capitol) are among them, but it’s rare.

The Charles band expanded to 17 pieces with Crawford at its helm and traveled extensively. “We went all over and it wasn’t all easy. There were the grits and gravy circuits in the South, but there were also the concerts. We (the band) had our own sets during the concerts and Ray allowed good solo space.” They also spent time in Europe where at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Charles reunited Newman, Crawford and others in a concert which was televised on Public networks all over the world.

Crawford left Charles when his own recordings started to get into the public’s ears with such items as Misty, Peeper, Whispering Grass and Angel Eyes. He formed a seven-piece jump band, the type of which played a significant role in the development of rhythm and blues as the immediate antecedent of rock ’n’ roll. His examples for this unit included Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Earl Bostic and Louis Jordan.

Based in Los Angeles, the band became successful. To this day Hank holds a warm place in his heart for that city and his welcome there is immense.

In 1967 payrolls got too high and the small band disbanded allowing Hank to form smaller units with more improvisation, playing the kinds of tunes that allow room for ideas from each of his men.

“I favor smallness, familiarity, close relationships. That’s one of the reasons I joined Atlantic and also why I left. The company just got too big.” And, we might add, too divergent from their blues/jazz ethic.

“I’ve played everything from Basin Street Blues to Blue Suede Shoes,” he told Porter. “What I record is generally what I do best. I have always found that people like to hear the earlier things, so I play some of them, mixing up a set with new and old.”

Crawford expresses the idea that “feeling is my thing and playing is feeling.” The influences he most likes to refer to include Louis Jordan, Charlie Parker and Eddie Vin- son. “They are loaded with stories, both musical and otherwise, that have to be told.” Hank especially reveres James Moody. (“He sings on alto.”) And the late Gene Ammons. (“Jug was a big inspiration.”)

Hank still eyes a bigger band along the lines of Quincy Jones’ early aggregations. “Q did those great arrangements for the Ray Charles Genius + Soul = Jazz album, But in the meantime I have one of the best groups of my career. I can reach them on a moment’s notice and they will travel from Los Angeles, Memphis, or New York to wherever we are playing.”

Which brings us back to where we started. The group plays and plays, from the Pacific —“Still my favorite place to hangout”—to the South — “It’s home, baby!” —the Midwest —“They love us in Detroit and Chi-town” —and the East—“DC is fun.”



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