Hank Crawford

Yesterday was Hank Crawford’s 80th birthday anniversary. The Memphis native came to prominence with Ray Charles, joining Ray in 1958 and spending several years on the band as a saxophonist and trusted assistant. Like Ray, Crawford was right at home in the American vernacular, and whether the form was blues, ballads, bebop, or gospel, his sound was drenched in soul.

Crawford’s given name was Bennie Ross Crawford, Jr. Like Sonny Criss, another alto great from Memphis who was seven years his senior, Crawford had an affinity for the sound of local legend Hank O’Day. Criss described O’Day’s sound as “very beautiful and very powerful.” Crawford’s devotion to O’Day earned him the nickname Hank before he was out of Manassas High School. He went on to study at Tennessee State University and lead his own group, Little Hank and the Rhythm Kings, an appellation inspired by another local legend, Ike Turner, leader of the Kings of Rhythm. Crawford’s opportunity with Ray Charles came when Leroy “Hog” Cooper, Ray’s baritone saxophonist, was unavailable for a job in Nashville. Two of Crawford’s Memphis friends on Ray’s band, John Hunt and Milt Turner, recommended him, and he played the gig on a borrowed baritone. Cooper left Ray for good a few weeks later, and Crawford joined the band in St. Louis on January 10, 1958. He stayed on for six years, and like his colleague David “Fathead” Newman, his name will forever be associated with Brother Ray.

Crawford enjoyed a substantial freelance career and recorded prolifically for Atlantic and Milestone Records. His own sessions often featured and other members of the Ray Charles Orchestra, and he also teamed with the organist Jimmy McGriff. We’ll hear Crawford playing “Stardust,” “Misty,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Hard Times,” and a handful of his own blues grooves in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode. Here he is with McGriff, guitarist Bob DeVos, drummer Jimmie Smith playing the Count Basie-Joe Williams classic, “Everyday I Have the Blues.”

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