Musician-Arranger Collaborated With Ray Charles

Mr. Crawford had a distinctive sound.
Mr. Crawford had a distinctive sound. "You can honk or squeal on a tenor sax and get away with it," he said, "but an alto sax was meant to sing." (1986 Washington Post Photo)
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By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hank Crawford, 74, an influential alto saxophonist and arranger who toured with rhythm and blues innovator Ray Charles and jazz organist Jimmy McGriff, died Jan. 29 at his home in Memphis. He had been in declining health after suffering a stroke in 2000.

Mr. Crawford was best known for the plaintive, bluesy quality he brought to the alto saxophone. Critics regarded Mr. Crawford as one of the best exponents of soul-jazz, a style that explored the connections of jazz to its roots in gospel music and the blues.

"You can honk or squeal on a tenor sax and get away with it," he once told jazz writer Cam Miller, "but an alto sax was meant to sing. . . . When I pick up my horn, I'm never far away from voices in the church choir I grew up with."

Mr. Crawford wrote several instrumentals for the Charles band, including "Sherry," recorded for the live album "Ray Charles at Newport" (1959). Backed by the Charles group, he recorded his first album, "The Art of Hank Crawford" (1960), the first of several he made for Atlantic Records.

Mr. Crawford left the Charles band to form his own septet in 1963 and continued to record as a leader for the next three decades. He was also in demand for recording sessions by such artists as Etta James and Lou Rawls as both an accompanist and arranger.

Bennie Ross Crawford Jr. was born Dec. 21, 1934, in Memphis. He started taking piano lessons at 9 and within a year was playing for a church choir.

Mr. Crawford took up alto saxophone while in his high school jazz band, where classmates included jazz notables such as pianist Harold Mabern and tenor saxophonist George Coleman. By graduation, Mr. Crawford was working professionally with local Memphis performers Ike Turner, B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland.

While majoring in music theory and composition at Tennessee State University in Nashville, he also led a quartet he called Little Hank and the Rhythm Kings. The group recorded a jump blues single for a small local label in 1956, with Mr. Crawford on vocals.

Mr. Crawford joined the Charles band in 1958 as a substitute for baritone saxophonist Leroy Cooper. Two years later, Charles expanded his ensemble to a big band and made Mr. Crawford its band director. On alto sax, Mr. Crawford shared the solo spotlight with tenor saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, who died Jan. 20.

"Ray was tough, a real general, but the only thing he really demanded is that you get it right," Mr. Crawford said of Charles. "And sometimes that meant playing it so slowly, it had no tempo at all . . . no beat at all, yet it was always in time. . . . I already knew how to write [arrangements] when I was hired by Ray, but I had no idea such a natural feeling would exist between us."

His nine-year association with Atlantic Records yielded a bluesy hit that crossed over to rhythm and blues radio, "The Peeper" (1962). In an entirely different vein, he recorded an easy-listening album of standards and recent pop hits, "The Soul of the Ballad" (1963).

In the 1970s he recorded extensively for producer Creed Taylor's Kudu label and allowed others to arrange his material. Taylor, who brought guitarist George Benson and saxophonist Grover Washington to a wider audience, combined Mr. Crawford's earthy sax with layers of horns, keyboard synthesizers, strings and background voices. Jazz critics dismissed the records as commercial, and the sales proved them right.

Mr. Crawford returned to soul-jazz in later years, co-leading groups with Newman and organist Jimmy McGriff.

His wife, the former Gladys Brooks, died in the late 1990s. Survivors include two children; six siblings; and a granddaughter. Mr. Crawford said he took pride in his commercial success and his way with an audience.

"I found out as a young musician in Memphis that if you weren't reaching people, and having them pat their foot, then there was nothing happening," he told the Los Angeles Times. "So I've always played for the average listener, rather than the jazz die-hard."

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