Bass and saxophone player Wilton Felder, who was an original member of the Crusaders and performed on hundreds of recordings with artists including Joni Mitchell and Michael Jackson, died Sept. 27 at his home in Whittier, Calif. He was 75.
The cause was complications from cancer, said his son, Wilton Felder Jr.
Mr. Felder was in high demand for recording sessions and played bass for the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” album and numerous tracks by Mitchell.
He also recorded with B.B. King, Randy Newman, Nancy Wilson, Steely Dan, Barry White, Cat Stevens and many others, on saxophone as well as electric bass.
But for much of his career, he preferred playing live with the Crusaders, a band he help found in junior high in Houston. Though the group had only one top-40 hit — “Street Life,” with vocalist Randy Crawford in 1979 — the Crusaders toured with the Rolling Stones in the mid-1970s, and their jazz-funk sound was highly regarded.
Mr. Felder was especially known for his saxophone playing with the group, which ranged from smooth jazz to an edgier bebop style.
“I really feel the sound of the Crusaders is unique,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992, “and for quite some time I felt I didn’t want my horn heard in other contexts.”
It’s a sound, he said, that had its eclectic roots in the streets where he and his bandmates grew up.
Wilton Lewis Felder was born Aug. 31, 1940, in Houston. Growing up in the city’s predominantly African American Fifth Ward, he got together in the mid-1950s with schoolmates Joe Sample on piano, Wayne Henderson on trombone and Nesbert “Stix” Hooper on drums to form the core of a group called the Swingsters.
“Because we came up on the streets and not in the studios,” he said in a biographical essay on the Verve Music Group site, “our music was live. The Texas streets were rich with the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins. We grew up on all the deep country sounds. We ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“At the same time, we had ears for modern jazz — Miles [Davis] and [Thelonious] Monk — and never saw a contradiction between the old and new.”
The group played through high school and while some members attended Texas Southern University. In the late 1950s, they moved to Los Angeles to play jazz, but because work was tough to find, they ended up as a house band for several months in Las Vegas, where they were known as the Nite Hawks.
Tiring of that gig, they returned to Los Angeles and eventually got a record deal and a new name: the Jazz Crusaders. Eventually, they shortened the name because they didn’t want to be strictly thought of as a jazz group.
“Street Life,” the band’s biggest hit, “did so well, the record company said, ‘Give us more,’ ” Mr. Felder said in a 1986 Miami Herald interview. “They wanted more vocals, more hits. ‘Street Life’ was good for us, because it was still a Crusader melody. It gave us the room to play.
“But we can’t really go for a commercial sound. We found that out.”
Some members of the original group dropped out, and in the early 1990s, the Crusaders disbanded. After initial reluctance, Mr. Felder played with several different ensembles in addition to his studio work. In 2003, three of the four original members of the Crusaders got together for a reunion album.
Of the original Crusaders, the sole survivor is Hooper.
In addition to his son, Mr. Felder’s survivors include his wife of 56 years, Geraldine; two daughters; three sisters; and seven grandchildren.