*When I first met Wilton Felder one afternoon in 1977, I didn’t know which Wilton Felder to be more excited about meeting.
You see, the Houston, Texas-born Felder, who passed away September 27 at age 75, had played a pivotal role in two songs equally seminal to my musical development.
As saxophonist/songwriter for the original Jazz Crusaders—-the band he co-founded in 1960 with keyboardist/songwriter Joe Sample, trombonist/writer Wayne Henderson and drummer/songwriter “Stix” Hooper–Felder played sax, his primary instrument in the Crusaders, on 1961’s “Freedom Sound,” title track of the band’s first album on the Los Angeles-based Pacific Jazz label.
“Freedom Sound” was my first taste of jazz. I’ve been humming that melody since I was six, when my brother Gerald used to turn it up on his portable Frequency Modulation or “FM” radio, technology that was all the rage in the early ‘60s.
Eight years later in October of 1969, seventeen days before my fifteenth birthday, this new young R&B group called the Jackson 5 came along with their debut Motown single, “I Want You Back.”
Remarkably, Felder was playing on that song, too, this time as a studio session bass guitarist (Motown didn’t allow Jermaine or Tito to play on J5 recordings). That’s also his bass playing on my absolute favorite J5 song during the family group’s initial hit run, the exuberant, rollicking “The Love You Save.”
As a kid, I didn’t know who Wilton Felder was during “Freedom Sound” or “I Want You Back.” But when I interviewed him, Sample and bassist Robert “Pop” Popwell that day in ‘77—at the time they were promoting the Crusaders Blue Thumb album, Free As The Wind, (they dropped the “Jazz” moniker at the beginning of the ‘70s)–I was well aware and in awe of Felder’s double musical life.
Because the Crusaders played instrumental R&B with a jazz edge, critics often called them “fusion.” “That label I always hated,” Felder said back then. “The music we make-—music, period—-is all about feel. They can call it what they want; it’s just feeling.”
In subsequent interviews, both Felder and Sample would get plenty practice making that musical argument on behalf of 1979’s Street Life, for that album, its bold, impassioned title track sung by Randy Crawford, changed everything.
Street Life was a hit on jazz, R&B, pop, even disco charts concurrently. At least commercially, the album would epitomize what the Crusaders had been doing ever since they dropped the word jazz from their name—artfully melding soul and jazz styles into a sound all their own. Depending on how the notion was presented to them, the Crusaders didn’t always care for the idea that they helped create the so-called Smooth Jazz genre.
While much of the Crusaders’ writing was done by Sample, Felder composed one of the band’s most enduring tunes, the sentimental 1970 instrumental, “Way Back Home.”
As a saxophonist, Felder said he loved John Coltrane, but cited legendary alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderly as a chief influence. “As successful as he was in his short time (Adderly passed away in 1975 at 46 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage), he didn’t always get credit for being a player who could [musically] take you places ” said Felder. “But he was.”
When Felder wasn’t making Crusaders records–recording and touring with various line-ups of the band that at various times included guitarists Roland Bautista and Larry Carlton–he made eight solo albums. His 1985 LP Secrets featured his biggest hit, the soul ballad “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still be Looking Up to You,” a duet between his friend Bobby Womack (who wrote the song) and singer Alltrinna Grayson.
But even if you’re not familiar with that tune or a Crusaders track, you’ve unwittingly heard Felder’s prolific work as an electric bassist. Particularly in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was one of a handful of west coast studio session players that producers and artists called first when they wanted a solid and imaginative bass line.
Felder played on all genres of recordings from soul to rock, including Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” any number of Steely Dan tracks, Billy Joel recordings, works by America, Seals and Crofts and Randy Newman, among many others.
Armed usually with a Fender brand Precision bass, Felder did a ton of ‘70s Motown sessions, a flurry contrasted by his playing on two of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs, the whimsical “Free Man In Paris” from her 1974 album, Court And Spark and the dark “Edith And The Kingpin” on 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns.
A disciple of the great Motown bassist James Jamerson, Felder was a melodic, behind-the-beat player. He believed the job of the bass was exclusively to hold down the bottom. “All that soloing is fine,” he said, “but my thing is to give the track a strong foundation that the rest of the players can depend on.”
The musicians weren’t the only dependents: today I write about the departed Felder out of honor and immense respect. He was a great musician, skilled and inventive, who, through his work both with the Crusaders and as a session player, quietly helped shaped popular music as we know it today.
As I write this, I’m listening to Felder’s bass work on a track he cut (unbeknownst to me then) the very year that I sat before him, all goo-goo eyes—-from Minnie Riperton’s 1977 Epic album Stay In Love, the dreamy, sultry Leon Ware composition, “Can You Feel What I’m Saying.”
Indeed, I do feel it, Mr. Felder. And I am in awe.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]