Born: December 12, 1943, Buffalo, New York, U.S.
Died: December 17, 1999, Manhattan, New York, U.S. (Age 56)

This year marks 22-years since the sudden passing of Grover Washington Jr. I’ve written many times about Grover in the past[1]Grover Washington Jr. – Creed Taylor Produced (ctproduced.com), especially my 2020 remembrance tribute and story of how Grover met and got started with Creed Taylor[2]Happy Born Day: Grover Washington, Jr. – Creed Taylor Produced (ctproduced.com).

This year I have Robert Palmer(no not that Robert Plamer) writer for King Features Syndication[3]King Features Syndicate | Comic Strips, Columns, Puzzles, Editorial Cartoons, Licensing, September 1979 article that was published in Rolling Stone and syndicated in many US newspapers.

Among other things, Grover is quoted in the article about his breakup with CTI and Motown. It’s a somewhat superficial description, but in his own words.

All Washington Wanted Was to Play Music

Writing about Grover Washington Jr. in “Radio Free Jazz,” Ron Welburn, the widely respected jazz critic, said that “Grover is perhaps the strongest young fusion reedman in the tradition of Hal Singer, Gatortail Jackson and Junior Walker. That which is predictable about his music can be excused because of the power and, I think it will be agreed, the sincerity of his projections.”

Washington does come out of the R&B-jazz tradition; he spent most of the first 10 years of his career playing in tenor-and-organ combos, the fusion groups of their day. And there’s no doubting his sincerity or his power. The former is evident even on his recordings, which are atmospheric, gently melodic instrumental excursions set to tropical and disco rhythms, but which always include some committed saxophone playing.

The power comes through in live performances, which make it clear that whatever his commercial proclivities,
Washington knows his soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. On soprano and alto especially, his sound is
attractively personal; he combines liquid grace with an understated residue of R&B grit.

Furious

A couple of hours before he was scheduled to appear at the Newport- New York Jazz Festival, Washington was sincerely, powerfully furious. His road manager had missed a train from Philadelphia and didn’t make the afternoon sound check.

The festival had more or less forced its own sound system down his throat, and he knew after playing the first note that his electric band was going to sound muddled. When the bearded reedman arrived for dinner downstairs in the posh hotel where he was staying, he was still seething. His wife, Christine, who has been a crucial factor in Washington’s success, seemed bemused. “I haven’t seen you throw ashtrays in a long time,” she remarked as we sat down at a corner table.

The mood became convivial as we discussed his background over a bottle of wine. “I’m originally from Buffalo. I started taking music lessons at age 9 and played professionally at 12. When I was 16, I left Buffalo, playing behind a singer who had been with James Brown. Then in ’65 I was drafted and spent two years in the service. That was when I met Christine. When I got out, we settled in Philadelphia. I worked a lot of jobs — security guard, record salesman. But all that was secondary, because all I wanted to do from the time I was about 10 years old was play music.”

Variety

“He could play just about any kind of music when I met him,” Christine said, “from big-band things to very funky kinds of blues. But generally he was working with organ trios. I encouraged him to listen to more pop. His intent was to play jazz, but he started listening to both, and at one point he told me he just wanted to be able to play what he felt, without giving it a label.”

Backing organists and guitarists, Washington began recording as a sideman, first for Prestige and then for CTl’s Kudu subsidiary. His entry into the big leagues was pure chance. On the eve of a Kudu recording date, alto saxophonist Hank Crawford was arrested “on a two-year-old driving charge” Washington recalls with a chuckle. CTl’s mastermind, producer Creed Taylor, who’d been impressed with Washington’s playing, had him come in the next day and play all the alto parts.

The album, “Inner City Blues,” was issued under Washington’s name. From there his career skyrocketed, with LPs like “Mr. Magic,” “Feels So Good,” “Live at the Bijou” and “Reed Seed” selling in the gold-to-platinum range. But Washington felt regimented. “Creed Taylor is a master of what he does,” Washington said, “but he wants to stay right in his little niche, in the middle ground of the music.” For a while, Washington went along, not wanting to argue with such strong sales, but then CTI, in a financial bind, did something unusual.

Foreclosed

“They borrowed some money from Motown and put my whole catalog and contract up as collateral. And then Motown sort of foreclosed. Meanwhile, I was out on the road doing all my promotion, because neither company would take any responsibility. But even when I was dissatisfied, I always had quality product on the market.” Nevertheless it was with considerable relief that Washington finally signed with Elektra in 1978.

Even with an inadequate sound system, Washington played an intense and generous set at the festival. “I’ve learned another lesson the hard way. No more of these festivals unless it’s my sound and my people all the way.”

Robert Palmer, King Feature Syndication, September 1979.


Postscript

In November 1977, Grover Washington, Jr filed for a preliminary injunction again CTI, Three Brothers Music, Inc. and Motown.

The suit sought $5 million damages for improper accounting, payment of recording and music publication royalties; lost record sales and a decline in the number of personal appearances. a decline in the quality of record performances and personal performances damage to Washington’s career and career potential, and his loss of prestige within the music and recording industry while Washington was used as a pawn in a battle between Taylor/CTI & Motown. Washington’s own publishing affiliate, G. W. Jr. Music. Inc.. based here, is joined with the jazz star as plaintiff in the suit. Washington is also asking the Federal Court for a declaratory Judgment that agreements have been breached so he and his masters can be released from the existing contract.

Generally, Washington’s masters are now owned by Sony Music Inc. through their acquisition of Columbia. Confusingly, some of Washington’s KUDU albums have been reissued by UMG though typically on license through re-issue labels like Hip-O and Rhino Records. In 2021, Warner Music Group issued a new single edit of “Winelight”, presumably via their acquisition of Elektra and their Washinton catalog.

Togethering

If you are looking for a different kind of Grover Washington Jr. album, I can highly recommend “Togethering” a Kenny Burrell, Grover Washington, Jr. album from 1985, featuring Ron Carter, Steve Gadd, and Ralph McDonald[4]https://www.discogs.com/master/68191-Kenny-Burrell-Grover-Washington-Jr-Togethering. It was released on both vinyl and CD here in the USA, and mint copies can be had for $10 or less. It’s also available on Spotify and other streaming services.

Also, for his later work, including the “Aria” album which wasn’t released until after his death, the box set “The Complete Columbia Years”[5]https://www.discogs.com/release/12061952-Grover-Washington-Jr-The-Complete-Columbia-Albums-Collection which contains 9x CD’s can be found for less than $50 and includes some terrific pictures and an interview, each CD is individually packaged with a replica LP cover card sleeve.

One Reply to “Born Day: Grover Washington, Jr.”

  1. Mark, thanks for this great tribute to Grover Washington Jr. In honor of the anniversary of his birth and death this week (Born: 12/12/1943, Died: 12/17/1999, Age 56), I posted this excellent concert. This show features Grover playing for an exuberant hometown crowd in June 1981 at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, PA: https://archive.org/details/grover-washington-jr.-1981-merriam-theater-pa-wrti. I hope you and your readers enjoy hearing Grover at his best! Thanks, Kim Paris – FM Radio Archive

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