Very few people can play an instrument like the saxophone at the level that Wilton Felder did. But Felder wasn’t just proficient on sax, he was an amazing bass player too. That kind of talent is rare, and when it is gone it cannot be replaced.
Felder was from Houston. He was still in high school there when he got together with Wayne Henderson (trombone), Joe Sample (keyboards), and Stix Hooper (drums) to form a group that they called the Jazz Crusaders. Felder was on sax and the group played jazz with a little bit of rock fusion. But running through all of their music was a deep vein of soul. The original group stayed together for more than 30 years, shortening their name to the Crusaders along the way.
Felder’s legacy doesn’t end there however. While working his main job as a Crusader, he became a respected west coast session musician. When Motown Records decamped from Detroit and moved to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, Felder worked as an in-house bass player for the label. That’s him on bass for the immortal Jackson 5 smashes “I Want You Back” and “The Love You Save.” He also played bass for Marvin Gaye and Grant Green, and contributed to records by America and Seals & Croft.
Felder’s credits also include John Cale’s album Paris, 1919, Billy Joel’s Piano Man and Streetlife Serenade, and Randy Newman’s Sail Away. Of all of these major credits, it was his innovative bass work on the Joni Mitchell album The Hissing of Summer Lawns (one of three he worked on with her) that most stuck with me over the years.
The great multi-instrumentalist also recorded eight albums under his own name including one called Secrets, which was released in 1985. Secrets contained the single “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Looking Up To You,” which featured powerful vocal performances by Bobby Womack and Alltrinna Grayson. The song was written by Womack and Paul Kish, and the single was produced by Womack along with Felder, Sample, Leon Ndugu Chancler, and James Gadson. “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Looking Up To You” wasn’t a big hit, but the passionate performances and powerful message resonated with me then, and still does today.
A light went out in the music world when Wilton Felder passed away this week. In the last 18 months we have also lost Wayne Henderson and Joe Sample, leaving Stix Hooper as the only living member of the original Crusaders. Felder’s was a life and career filled with a wide variety of music and the joy of collaborating with great artists. He was 75 years-old when he died, leaving behind a musical legacy that will prove hard to match.