Soul Revisited: Remembering Wilton Felder

In the wake of the very sad news that founding member of The Crusaders Wilton Felder had passed away, we took a look back at his life and career, picking out some of our favourite Wilton Felder songs. 

Sadly so many great artists have passed away this year, and we’re sorry to report that jazz-funk legend Wilton Felder has died at the age 75 on September 27th. While he may not have been a household name for many, his legacy is pretty impressive having played saxophone and bass on some of the greatest soul, jazz and funk recordings released. Born in Houston, Texas in 1940 Felder, along with Joe Sample, Wayne Henderson and Stix Hooper formed a group called the Jazz Crusaders, beginning their career playing straight-up jazz music. In 1971 however they dropped the ‘Jazz’ from their group name and became known simply as The Crusaders, and began to pioneer mixing jazz with funk, leading the jazz-funk movement of the seventies. They achieved this by using electric bass and electric guitar into their music, adding new members Larry Carlton and Robert Popwell to the mix.

In 1979 The Crusaders released ‘Street Life’, a song that has become one the most played songs from that era. The album was the group’s biggest, hitting the US Pop Chart at #18 and #1 on Jazz Charts. They continued to record through the eighties but by the nineties the group has mostly split up, with only Sample and Felder recording as The Crusaders on their album Healing the Wounds. Henderson would go on to use the name ‘Jazz Crusaders’ later on, while Sample, Felder and Hooper (along with Ray Parker Jr.) recorded an album in 2003. In 2010 Sample, Felder and Henderson reunited without Hooper. Sadly, both Sample and Henderson died last year.

In addition to his work with The Crusaders Felder was also a sought after session musician, famously playing bass at Motown on the Jackson 5’s breakout singles ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘The Love You Save’, as well as on Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’. He would also release some epic solo works, such as his work with Bobby Womack on his album Secrets, but most famously on their 1980 collaboration ‘Inherit The Wind’, arguably the finest jazz-funk song ever recorded. His last solo album, Let’s Spend Some Time Together, was recorded in 2006 and proved that the great musician still had it.

Felder will be sorely missed by fans and by other musicians: the outpouring of love from his contemporaries and the newer generation of jazz-funk musicians have been heartfelt, and demonstrate his influence on the jazz, funk and soul music scene. Fortunately for us his music lives on, and as usual we’ve taken a look back at some of his finest work.

I Want You Back, The Jacksons, 1971

Every man, woman, child, dog, cat and US Presidential candidate (if the right-wing Republicans aren’t listening to country and/or western) know this song. What they probably don’t know is that although the newly signed Jackson 5 played their own instruments, at least Jermaine and Tito did (on bass and guitar respectively), Motown refused to let them play on the record. Instead they brought in session musicians, and that is when Wilton Felder comes onto the scene. His tasty bass playing and the bass hook have gone down in music history as an important part of the song that launched the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson. Even today, the song remains as fresh and as overplayed as ever, in no small part to the incredible bass-playing of Felder. Below is the original mix of the song, but thankfully someone has isolated Felder’s bass allowing us to hear the magic he created.

Chain Reaction, The Crusaders – Chain Reaction, 1975

This is the title song of their 1975 instrumental album Chain Reaction, and it finds The Crusaders in a pioneering moment: combining their classic jazz sound with soul and funk elements. Larry Carlton’s tasty guitar trades wonderfully with Felder on saxophone. Felder also holds the groove with his equally incredible bass-playing, which is really prominent on this track. Joe Sample on the keys is also a delight. Simply put, The Crusaders are on top form here.

I Felt The Love – The Crusaders, Free As The Wind, 1977

This is pure funky goodness. Felder’s saxophone is smoking hot, leading the Crusaders to the promised land of jazz-funk, with Joe Sample tickling his keyboards like only he could. The rhythm arrangement is equally tasty, all combining to create a really delightful number.

Street Life – The Crusaders, Street Life, 1978

A particular favourite in the UK, this song has become a staple of groove and soul compilations that have flooded the market over the past decade or so, and it is easy to understand why. Now, whilst there is a single edit of the song (and a faster version that Rand Crawford would later re-record), the 12 minute album version is the one you need. The two-minute intro with Crawford on vocals leads into the classic infectious groove of the song; demonstrating the jazz-funk ability of The Crusaders as well as introducing Randy Crawford as a very talented singer.

Someday We’ll All Be FreeInherit The Wind, 1980

Taken from the 1980 solo album Inherit The Wind, this cover of the Donny Hathaway classic is slowed down from the original somewhat, featuring an incredible solo from Felder from the start. His saxophone is simply beautiful, backed by a choir-like vocal arrangement before Bobby Womack is once again brought in to handle the lead vocals. Safe to say, Womack smashes his part; his voice and Felder’s saxophone once again combining to great soulful magic.

Inherit The Wind, Inherit The Wind, 1980

This song is one of our favourites here at TFSR because it is so perfect. Released in 1980 the song pairs Felder and the last great soul man Bobby Womack together in musical bliss: Womack is vocally in his prime, and Felder’s saxophone playing is simply sublime. The song itself is fairly simple yet very catchy; it’s infectious melody, driven by Felder’s saxophone playing, is irresistible. In fact everything about this song is a real delight: the bass-line, the simple yet worthwhile. We guarantee that you could play this song every day during your lifetime and never get bored with it. Felder along with Wayne Henderson recorded a live instrumental version of this as well, and is available below on Spotify.

Soul Shadows – The Crusaders, Rhapsody in Blues, 1980

The Rhapsody in Blues album was the follow up to the smash Street Life album; in terms of commercial success the album was a bit of a disappointment and in the history of The Crusaders goes largely unmentioned. That said this album, as the title suggests, has a more bluesy feel, particularly ‘Soul Shadows’. The group enlisted the help of Bill Withers to handle the vocal on this one, which marked a slight change of direction from Withers’ more acoustic soul. It’s a pretty good song, and one that has sadly got a little lost with time.

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – The Crusaders, Healing The Wounds, 1991

Taken from the aforementioned Crusaders that featured just Felder and Joe Sample, this song is one of the better ones on the album. It does sound slightly more like a smooth jazz song, but is nonetheless still enjoyable despite the rather nineties sound the track has. As ever, Felder is delightful on sax and the slap-bass is also brings a slightly different element to the track than on older Crusaders songs.

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2 years ago
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George Haffenden
Written by George Haffenden
Brought up on a healthy diet of soul and funk, Haff's dream was to become the first British member of The Temptations. Realising that this dream could never be realised, he is now the curator of The Funk & Soul Revue.