Retro Reprint: Backstage with Joe Sample

Joe Sample interview from Keyboard magazine's first issue

Joe Sample is the keyboard player with the crusaders, A group he helped form in Texas in 1954. The Crusaders have recorded many albums for the Blue Thumb, Pacific Jazz, and Motown labels. Sample has also done extensive studio work in the Los Angeles area.

Above is a scan of this interview with now-legend Joe Sample as it looked in our inaugural September/October 1975 issue. Given Mr. Sample’s passing in September 2014, just a year before we finalized this 40thanniversary special, we thought it right to include it here, unedited except for being re-typeset. A few years ago, your group, the Crusaders, shortened the name from the Jazz Crusaders. If you had not changed the name band then, would you still eliminate the word “jazz” today?

I think so. As a young kid, I was listening to all of the jazz pianists—Oscar Peterson, and everyone. I found I was playing like these people, and I kept wondering if I had a style of my own. As the years passed, I found I did have a style, and it was based upon a love of jazz, blues, and gospel music. That’s what I had inside me, so I felt I couldn’t use the word “jazz” to completely describe my music.

What equipment do you use in your usual stage setup?

A Fender Rhodes 73, two Acoustic 240’s or 270’s, a Leslie speaker, a Hohner Clavinet, and the ARP Odyssey.

On the recent Arthur Adams release, How Brew [Fantasy, F-9479], you play something called a phase Clavinet. Could you explain what that is?

A phase shifter was switched on to the Clavinet; it’s not a new kind of instrument.

Do you use any special wiring in your setup?

No. But I’m in the process of developing a new keyboard system with improved access to all the instruments. It will be a component system of some sort, but I don’t want to get involved with too many controls; the more buttons I have to press, the more it detracts from my playing.

In the studio, do you use the same basic configuration of instruments?

Yes, plus the addition of an acoustic piano.

How do you mike the acoustic piano in the studio? I notice you get a “realistic” acoustic sound, rather than an ultra pure sound on the Crusader releases.

The piano is recorded in stereo. One mike is put on the bass, another on the treble end, about three inches off the strings. I don’t like the real clean sound; if the hammer noise and so on is picked up, it’s fine with me.

What are some of the performance differences you’re aware of between electric and acoustic pianos?

The range of the acoustic piano can be heard consistently from the highest to the lowest pitch, and the percussive attack is the same for each note. The Fender Rhodes, on the other hand, I find lacks the power to do certain things. If I boost the highs on the Fender, I lose something in the bass. The acoustic has more evenness of attack, while the electric has more impact in a limited range.

Do you have any particular warm-up routines?

Not really. I just make sure I hold my drink in my left hand, so I don’t get out on the stage with cold fingers on my right!

Most of the time, of course, you’re involved with The Crusaders, an instrumental group. But you’ve had experience backing up singers. What are some of the things you need to know to work effectively with vocalists?

The first thing is that I have to know the song, otherwise I can’t really accompany the melody with downbeat chords, and so on. I follow the singer harmonically at all times; I am supporting the singer, and they must have the freedom to do whatever they wish.

Compared to an instrumental group, is there a difference in how you voice chords for a vocalist?

Yes, there can be points in a song where I have to voice a chord a specific way so I won’t throw the vocalist off. Take a turnaround: If I play a chord on the first beat, and the singer comes in on the second beat, I voice my chord so it won’t detract from the singer’s melodic line. There is always a certain point where I must play a simple chord devoid of complex color tones.