Hank Crawford, Memphis Rhythm King Saxophonist Hank Crawford died Jan. 29 at the age of 74. The Memphis-born musician backed B.B. King and Ray Charles before going solo. He later became the musical director for Charles' band. Fresh Air remembers Crawford with a 1998 interview.
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Hank Crawford, Memphis Rhythm King

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Hank Crawford, Memphis Rhythm King

Hank Crawford, Memphis Rhythm King

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We're going to listen back to an interview with the soulful alto saxophonist Hank Crawford. He died Thursday at the age of 74. He had been in declining health for the past year, dealing with the long-term effects of the stroke he suffered in 2000.

Crawford was born in Memphis. The musical turning point in his life came in 1958 when Ray Charles asked him to play baritone in his band. Crawford eventually switched to alto and in 1960 became the band's music director. Three years later, he left Ray Charles to lead his own band.

I spoke with Hank Crawford in 1998, after four of his Atlantic albums from the '60s were re-issued. We started with one of the tracks, "Angel Eyes."

(Soundbite of song "Angel Eyes")

(Soundbite of saxophone playing)

GROSS: Hank Crawford, welcome to Fresh Air.

Mr. HANK CRAWFORD (Saxophonist and Musician): Thank you very much.

GROSS: Would you talk a little bit about playing ballads in your style, the kind of big, soulful sound, the kind of cry that you bring to a ballad like this?

Mr. CRAWFORD: Some artists are technical players, you know, they play a lot of notes. And then there are some that play, you know, a few notes. Like Dizzy Gillespie once said, it's not how much you play. It's how much you leave out, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRAWFORD: So I just naturally play like that. I've never been one that played a lot of notes, although I come up in an era where a lot of notes was being played, and that was the bebop(ph) era, you know. That's really the music that I studied. But when it comes time to play, I'm just more of a natural melodic player than a technical player.

GROSS: Now, I think when you started backing up blues and rhythm, blues musicians, you were still underage, yet you were probably playing at bars. What was that like? Did you have to lie about your age?

Mr. CRAWFORD: We never had any problem about getting in. They would let us go in, and we'd be wall flowers, you know, and sit or stand and listen because usually - well, actually, most of the players, at 14 they were playing club dates then. I mean, I was playing actually in a nightclub at 14, and we didn't have any problems. The management just wouldn't allow us to do certain things like, you know, alcohol and smoking. I mean, they took care of us, but we were there. We were there actually playing at a young age.

GROSS: Did you ever walk the bar when you were playing?

Mr. CRAWFORD: Sure. Sure.

GROSS: Describe what that's like for listeners who don't know the expression.

Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, walking the bars, you know, like bandstands used to be - at that time, a lot of bandstands were behind the bar, you know, where they served the liquor. There was a big stand out behind the bar, and that's where a lot of artists used to play. And there were dances, like at that time there were shake dancers, and we played for them, and it was entertainment.

GROSS: So you'd actually get up on the bar and walk the bar while playing a solo?

Mr. CRAWFORD: Right. You'd get on your bar and lay on your back and people would be standing over you, you know, dropping quarters. Like you see on the street sometimes, you know, a street musician?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRAWFORD: People come by and drop money in their, you know, basket or their hat or whatever. But it was, you know, that was part of the business. You know, saxophone players walking with the saxophone behind their shoulders, you know. It was a big show, and it wasn't a drag to do that, you know.

GROSS: It wasn't a drag to do that. You liked that.

Mr. CRAWFORD: No. It was part of the learning experience. It was show business.

GROSS: But I mean, how did you walk around without knocking everything all over?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRAWFORD: Oh, well, you know, like on the bar - well then, from the bar you would leave the bar go out into the audience, you know, between the tables, and you know, and just walk between tables. And they would make room for you, you know. And sometimes, you know, you just made room for yourself. It was no problem. They enjoyed the show, and they would just stand back, and it was just whatever - whatever came natural.

GROSS: You became Ray Charles' music director in the late '50s and early '60s. How did you first play with Ray Charles?

Mr. CRAWFORD: Ray needed a baritone saxophone, and he was coming through Nashville because the main player on baritone, Leroy Cooper, was taking a leave of absence. And so my buddies recommended that I play the job that night in Nashville. So I went to the campus - I was a student, like I said - I went to the campus. I never played baritone in my life, but I was excited because it was Ray Charles, and I had heard a couple of his records. I think it was "Drown In My Own Tears" and "Hallelujah I Love Her So."

So I jumped at the opportunity, even if it had to be on baritone saxophone, an instrument which is bigger than me. I'm not such a large person, you know. But I did get the saxophone. I went down, and I played the job that night.

(Soundbite of concert)

Mr. RAY CHARLES: (Singing) It brings a tear, To my eyes. When I begin, To realize, You know I cried so much, Well, since you've been gone, I know I've almost drownin', I didn't know till now. And I said I'm gonna sit cryin' now...

GROSS: So Ray Charles eventually appointed you music director. What did that mean? What were your responsibilities?

Mr. CRAWFORD: I was in charge of the band. I was arranger. And just arranging music, making notations for Ray. And it was just like a - it was 16 guys now, this was the big band, and most of the guys, actually, were my senior. You know, a lot of those guys - because I think I was about maybe 23, 24 when I joined the band - and these guys were ex-Bay City members and Ellington members, you know, and Ray appointed me leader of the band.

I think I got the job because I had majored in music theory and composition, so I was doing a bit of writing and composing at the time and working with Ray because he was writing - he's a heck of an arranger himself.

GROSS: When you were arranging music with Ray Charles, what would he communicate to you about what he wanted to hear?

Mr. CRAWFORD: Oh, well, he would just call me when he wanted to do some arranging, and like I say, he would arrange the music himself, his music, his music. And he would just walk around. I'd go to his house, you know, at his home, and we'd go down into the den, and he'd say, we're going to write this today and tell me how many sheets of paper and what instruments we were going to write for. And I would prepare that. And he would come in and he'd say, well, we gonna do the first trumpet part. And he would call the notes, you know, and I would write things down. Like I say, he would dictate the notes, and I would, you know, notate them.

GROSS: Music dictating. Would he like play it at the piano, is that the kind of dictation it was?

Mr. CRAWFORD: You know, he never used the piano doing this like most arrangers do. But he would just walk around and call the notes, you know. I guess he...

GROSS: You mean, he'd hum it. You mean, he'd say, A flat?

Mr. CRAWFORD: No, he would - yeah, he would say, quarter rest, two sixteenth notes, B and C, you know, then half rest. And he'd say, that should end the bar. I'd say yes. And he'd say, next bar, two 30 seconds or whatever, you know, it would go like that. And he'd call the notes. Oh, yeah, he'd write - he just didn't notate it, but he called it.

GROSS: Did you ever want to do anything to make your part more interesting?

Mr. CRAWFORD: Oh, yeah. You know, after we did this for about, I guess, six or seven months, he would come in and he'd start an arrangement, and after we got familiar with each others' style - because he was a listening to the way, you know, I would write some of the tunes that I was composing, and there was a great similarity into the feeling of the music that I would write and his music, although different, but quite similar. And he would say, well, finish the next four bars. You know, he would leave me out there.

But really, he was gonna, you know, OK it at the end, you know. But he started giving me that liberty when he figured that I had a good sense of how he would write it.

GROSS: Well, Hank Crawford, it's been a pleasure to talk to you, and I really want to thank you a lot.

Mr. CRAWFORD: It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Saxophonist Hank Crawford recorded in 1998. He died Thursday at the age of 74. This is his 1962 recording, "But On The Other Hand."

(Soundbite of song "But On The Other Hand")

(Soundbite of saxophone playing)

GROSS: Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new French film, "The Class," which is nominated for a foreign language Oscar. This is Fresh Air.

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