Remembering Joe Sample

On September 12, 2014, we were surprised and saddened to learn of the death of Joe Sample, a founding member of seminal jazz-funk fusion combo the Crusaders. What follows is an expanded and largely unedited version of the remembrance page that appeared in our December 2014 print issue.

On September 12, 2014, we were surprised and saddened to learn of the death of Joe Sample, a founding member of seminal jazz-funk fusion combo the Crusaders. We’d had the privilege of interviewing him in 2010 during a tour with the original Jazz Crusaders, plus seeing him perform with Casio at the past couple of NAMM shows, and were always struck by not only his stellar musicianship and unique style, but his generosity of time and spirit as well. The shorter list would be one of keyboardists he didn’t influence, so we put out a call to music’s best and brightest for remembrances. What follows is an expanded and largely unedited version of the remembrance page that appeared in our December 2014 print issue. We’ll miss you terribly, Joe! --Ed.

I had the pleasure of working with Joe Sample on many occasions. His prolific songwriting, chord structures and clusters and soloing will always be a mainstay and inspiration to me. But mostly I will remember his company. Joe will always be a dear friend, musical brother and mentor. Rest well Joe, for we will meet again. - Ricky Peterson

The Crusaders, powered by Joe Sample’s funky and harmonically rich writing were a huge influence on the early Jeff Lorber Fusion when I started the band in Portland, Oregon in 1975. At that time you could hear the sound of Southern Comfort, Scratch, and later, Chain Reaction coming out of speakers wherever you went. I even hired the studio (Hollywood Sound) and their engineer to record a couple of my albums because I was such a big fan of their sound. I had a chance to talk to Joe a few times at length and found him to be charming and very serious about his music. From those conversations, I could tell how important his Houston roots were to him, authentic soul and funk were paramount. - Jeff Lorber

Joe Sample was an inspiration and a groundbreaking musician who helped bridge the distance between jazz and funk music at a time when both styles were expanding. I first saw him in New York with the Crusaders in the early 1970’s, and I later came to admire his acoustic piano work tremendously. It was in 2004 when Joe and I finally met, and I found him to be a very nice and humble man. I will miss both his amazing music and his kind spirit. - Richard Hilton

I was so sad to hear about the passing of one of the baddest pianists, Joe Sample. I very much admired how he didn't take any BS and just spoke his mind. I also learned a lot about music just by listening to his stories as he was an incredible story teller...and so funny. With that instantly recognizable staccato and percussive style that still flowed so smoothly, thank you for inspiring us to groove harder Joe! RIP. - Brian Culbertson

Joe Sample was a friend, a mentor and a musical hero to me. His philosophy on music and life had a great effect on me in so many ways that I will never forget it. His songs and playing had a uniqueness to them that personified him and his personality. RIP Joe. We're missing you already. - Jason Miles

Joe Sample, what a soul machine. He was huge influence on me as a teenager. I devoured the Crusaders I (1972) and Scratch and Southern Comfort (both 1974). Even today, if I'm playing something funky or soulful on the Rhodes, it's got some Joe Sample in it. I owe him a lot. - Charlie Peacock

As I was just getting into jazz in my late teens, around 1973-74, I loved the Crusaders. Great grooves, accessible improvs and generally a lot of fun! He had a great career. A loss for sure. - Fred Hersch

My father had the Crusaders' Southern Comfort record on heavy rotation at our home when I was growing up. It was the perfect blend of funk, jazz, rock and R&B, all served with a perfect dose of taste. Joe's masterful Fender Rhodes was the centerpiece. Later I discovered his Swing Street Cafe traditional blues/jazz/R&B record co-led with David T. Walker, and I lifted every lick and note I could. One of the best live music nights I ever experienced in Los Angeles was sitting two feet in front of Joe Sample’s Rhodes at the Baked Potato. I am truly glad I got that close to greatness. What class. - Jeff Babko

Navigating the harmonic twists and turns of "In All My Wildest Dreams" was a rite of passage, like Captain Kirk's Kobayashi Maru scenario. You just can't win! - Andy Burton

I got to know Joe Sample’s work by discovering the Crusaders right in the “sweet spot” in the 1970’s with the albums Chain Reaction, Southern Comfort and Southern Knights. His work is inexorably tied to the Crusaders, with the perfect combination of groove, melody and jazzy hipness. That sound is indelibly printed in my brain. His style was the perfect foil to the other profound fuzoid electronic jazz that was happening then; they bridged the gap between the old school, funky hard bop style, and the new sound of fusion and jazz rock. They were just commercial enough to sell and be popular, but also hip enough to be respected in the music community. Plus they were funky as hell! Beyond the Crusaders’ music, Sample had a command of straight-ahead jazz and funk, and he played his butt off around the world for decades. Plus, his intro riff on “Put it Where You Want It” is instant jam session magic. How many artists can you say that about? We will miss you Joe Sample! - Scott Healy

Joe Sample was such a gifted musician that not only did he do fantastic solo and work with the Crusaders, but he’s on the freaking Steely Dan album AJA! And Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, and Court and Spark with Joni Mitchell. Come on! Some of the best music by the best musicians ever - period. To call him just a studio musician would be an understatement - he was a studio giant. He will be missed but luckily his work will live on for a long long time. - David Baron

Joe Sample was such a huge influence for me; especially his work with the Crusaders. He was one of the pioneers of that funky electric piano sound. - Brian Charette

Joe was one of my very first heroes. In 1979, I called in six times to be the 10th caller to my local radio station to win Rainbow Seeker. And that beautiful touch and phrasing and time has stuck with me ever since. - George Whitty

I remember first hearing "Street Life" as a kid and being filled with the kind of joy and inspiration that comes on discovering a truly great record. It was my introduction to Randy Lewis, the Jazz Crusaders and the late great Joe Sample who co-wrote that song, and it remains one of my all time favorites to this day. - Judith Owen

I didn't know Joe well but I met him several times. He always made me feel welcomed and accepted, and always had something encouraging and supportive to say about my playing. Joe played who he was: that clear unmistakeable touch, his economical approach, the rich and detailed voicings, the warmth, the accessibility, the groove...All that is who he was. He was regal, but moreover, super "down" and always "representing". We are lacking those kind of cats (George Duke was the same), those who have the intellect and technique but understand the music has to feel good. . He epitomized what we all should aspire to be: a great musician but a human being first. From my few encounters with him I saw a cat that was genuine, witty, supportive, warm and compassionate. Joe was a King AND a regular guy. Few people can genuinely pull that off, but that is who he truly was. He's going to be missed - Federico Gonzalez Peña 

When I think of Joe Sample the first thing that comes to mind is his elegant articulation and funky touch at the keyboard. I once had the great pleasure of performing an improvised late-night Duo pianos concert with him at the Montreux Jazz Festival and his playing was just superb and always full of creative spirit. - Michel Camilo

In any event, working with Jo alongside Al Jarreau, Marcus Miller, Eric Gayle and Steve Gadd have been some of the highlights of my musical career. Jo's sense of harmony particularly and clean non-legato right hand were what attracted me to his playing. A very demanding soloist, he was particularly demanding to any guitarist or second keyboardist!!! I learned to stay out of his way while accompanying him during his solos. I am proud to say he never gave me THAT look!!!;) That's my fondest memory of Jo.... We will all miss him! - Philippe Saisse

When I was in college, most of the Joe Sample I checked out was straight-ahead jazz – I had vinyl copies of two early Crusaders albums (from back when they were playing acoustic, swinging music with great authority) and Bobby Hutcherson’s “San Francisco” album, featuring Joe’s classic tune “Goin’ Down South.” I have loved his more popular, funky work ever since and look to him as one of the exemplars of how a real jazz pedigree can add depth without interfering an iota with the soulfulness. - Noah Baerman