Having started their career as The Jazz Crusaders and releasing their debut album Freedom Sound in 1961, it took a change in name and sound before their music became commercially popular. This transformation occurred in 1971, with The Jazz Crusaders becoming The Crusaders. They released their “debut” album as The Crusaders in 1971 with Pass the Plate. After this, The Crusaders would release eleven more albums during the seventies, and in the process, becoming one of the biggest jazz fusion groups of the seventies. By 1979, The Crusaders were at the height of commercial popularity, with their music becoming more jazz funk in style. Then in 1979, The Crusaders would release their most successful album Street Life. It featured their most successful single, the title-track Street Life, which features Randy Crawford on lead vocal. Street Life reached number thirty-six in the US Billboard 100 and number seventeen in the US R&B Charts. They’d come a long way from their early days as The Jazz Crusaders, but the success of Street Life was helped no end by the success of the single Street Life, which since then, has become a classic track. However, apart from Street Life which everyone knows, what do the other tracks on Street Life Sound like? Before I tell you about the music on Street Life, I’ll tell you about the background to the album.

The Crusaders had been one of the most prolific artists of the seventies when they set about recording their twelfth and final album of the seventies. Bassist Wilton Felder, drummer and percussionist Stix Hooper and keyboard player Joe Sample had six tracks to record. Wilton and Joe had written two tracks apiece while Stix had written just one track. The other track Street Life was a collaboration between Joe Sample and Will Jennings. For that track, a female vocalist was required, so Randy Crawford was brought in to add her vocal prowess. Little did they know the effect Street Life would have on their career. Randy Crawford wasn’t the only guest artist on what become Street Life. A number of high-profile musicians would play on the album. 

Among the guest artists were percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, guitarist Paul Jackson, bassist Alphonso Johnson and William Green. They joined The Crusaders and guest vocalist Randy Crawford at Hollywood Sound Recorders in Los Angeles. Producing Street Life were Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper and Joe Sample. With the six tracks that became Street Life recorded, The Crusaders’ twelfth album was set for release. Little did they know that Street Life and one track in particular, Street Life would surpass the success they’d previously enjoyed.

Before the release of Street Life in 1979, the title-track Street Life featuring Randy Crawford was released as a single. It reached number thirty-six in the US Billboard 100 and number seventeen in the US R&B Charts. Then when Street Life was released, it became their most successful album reaching number eighteen in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts. Although sales of Street Life were helped no end by the success of the single Street Life, there was more to the album than one track, as you’ll realize when I tell you about the music on Street Life. 

Keyboards and that slow, sultry saxophone solo open Street Life, as an eleven minute epic unfolds. This version is very different from the single version. Here, you hear the track in all its glory. Randy Crawford’s vocal is full of emotion and passion, growing in power before the track reveals its secrets and charms. The rhythm section, guitars, keyboards and Randy’s vocal combine as a sumptuous slice of jazz funk unfolds. Lush strings, percussion and punchy blazing horns are added, as The Crusaders tease and tantalize. One minute the arrangement is wistful and melancholy, then exploding into an uplifting, melodic and infectiously catchy jazz funk sound. With keyboards, rhythm section, sweeping strings, percussion and growling horns providing a backdrop, Randy Crawford delivers a career defining vocal, stealing the show. If another vocalist had been chosen, they wouldn’t have been able to bring out the subtleties and nuances in the lyrics. Not only that, but maybe Randy’s career would’ve been very different. Of all the songs she’d record, Street Life is without doubt one of the best and one that’s become synonymous with her.

For anyone expecting the rest of Street Life to be similar to the opening track, then they’re in for a surprise. There’s no more Randy Crawford, with The Crusaders delivering their own brand of jazz funk on My Lady. It’s a mid-tempo track, where the rhythm section, guitars and percussion combine, before a rasping tenor saxophone played by Wilton Felder enters. Paulinho Da Costa adds percussion, while Stix Hooper provides the track’s thoughtful heartbeat. Key to the track’s sound is Joe Sample’s keyboards. They’ve a similar pleasing, melodic sound to those on Street Life. Once the saxophone drops out, they take centre-stage, providing a contrast to the rasping tenor saxophone. However, both the saxophone and keyboards play important role in what’s a quite beautiful, uplifting track, that shows there’s more to Street Life than just one track. 

Rodeo Drive (High Steppin’) sees the tempo quicken, with the rhythm section and horns driving the track along. Soon, gentle strings are added, before Barry Finnerty unleashes a peerless jazzy guitar solo. You’re spellbound by his virtuoso skills. This is the best guitar playing on Street Life. The rest of the band are reduced to playing supporting roles. Later, it’s the horns turn to take centre-stage, with sizzling, blazing horn solos drifting across the arrangement. Again, The Crusaders are content to allow their guest musicians to share and sometimes, steal the limelight. Mind you, given the guitar and horn solos are key to the sound and success of the track, maybe that’s why.

There’s a Latin sound and influence apparent when Carnival of the Night begins. This is thanks to Paulinho Da Costa adding percussion. He combines with keyboards, a funky rhythm section, chiming guitars and Wilton Felder’s tenor saxophone. Later, Barry Finnerty is called upon to lay down another guitar solo. He’s one of four guitar players on the track, but contributes the most. His fingers race up and down the fretboard, mixing elements of jazz, funk and rock. When his solo is over, Joe Sample steps up, adding an equally impressive keyboard solo, fusing jazz and funk. This is just the finishing touch to a track where The Crusaders fuse jazz funk, Latin and even elements of rock music.

There’s a dramatic sound to The Hustler, with drummer Stix Hooper, Joe Sample’s keyboards and the rest of the rhythm section combining. You thing that The Crusaders are about to kick loose, with the track more funk than jazz. That’s not the case. When Wilton Felder switches to alto sax, the sense of drama is lost. It’s only when Stix Hooper returns that the drama is built back up. Later, the momentum builds, with Wilton delivering an impassioned, growling alto saxophone solo. However, neither that, nor Stix’s interventions on drums help the track live up to its early promise. Instead, The Crusaders head for safe territory, resisting the temptation to unleash their combined talents and create something dramatic and dynamic. This is disappointing, as the track neither lives up to its early promise, nor offers anything new.

Closing Street Life is Night Faces, another mid-tempo track. It’s just the rhythm section that accompanies Wilton Felder on alto sax. His playing is slow, heartfelt and quite beautiful. Later, Joe Sample takes charge, laying down one of his trademark keyboard solos. He improvises, exploring the subtleties and nuances of the track, with just the rhythm section for company. After that, Wilton Felder on alto sax returns taking his turn to improvise, never overplaying, instead playing his part in what’s a beautiful track to close Street Life.

Not only was Street Life the twelfth album of The Crusaders’ career, but marked the commercial peak of The Crusaders’ career. It also helped launch Randy Crawford’s career solo career. Street Life is also an album of two differing styles. The title-track and most successful single of The Crusaders’ career, saw them fuse the soul supplied by Randy Crawford with their own unique brand of jazz funk. After that, the other five tracks are very different. They’re much more jazz funk in sound and style. Most of these tracks feature some quality jazz funk, although one track disappoints. The Hustler promises drama and energy but ultimately fails to deliver. You think that at last, The Crusaders are about to kick loose. Sadly, that’s the case. Instead. The Crusaders stick with the jazz funk of the three previous tracks, and after a while, this becomes slightly repetitive. This is the case with The Hustler. Night Faces which closes the album, bookmarks the album nicely. It’s a quite beautiful track, with Wilton Felder on alto sax and Joe Sample on keyboards key to the track’s sound and success. For anyone yet to discover the music of The Crusaders, then this is a good starting point. Their earlier albums were much more jazz fusion in style, whereas this Street Life is much more laid back jazz funk sound. This isn’t the heavy jazz funk of other jazz funk group. Instead, it’s a much more laid-back sounding album. If anyone buying Street Life thinking that it’s an album full of tracks like Street Life, then this isn’t the case. What they’ll find on Street Life is an album full of some quality jazz funk, from the triumvirate of jazz giants Wilton Felder, Joe Sample and Stix Hooper. Standout Tracks: Street Life, My Lady, Carnival of the Night and Night Faces.


Street Life

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