In 1954, pianist Joe Sample, saxophonist Wilton Felder and drummer Stix Hooper formed The Swingsters in Houston, Texas. They were soon joined by trombonist Wayne Henderson, flutist Hubert Laws and bassist Henry Wilson. The band’s sound was initially rooted in hard bop and R&B. In the ’60s, they moved to Los Angeles, California, and became a popular attraction there. By then, they had changed their name to The Jazz Crusaders, but in the ’70s, they decided to drop the “jazz” part of their name.
A number of lineup changes – especially Henderson’s departure to pursue a full-time career as a record producer – prompted The Crusaders to embrace the jazz-funk idiom. Their 1979 hit song, “Street Life” marks the culmination of their success from this period. It also marked a peak in the heyday of the songwriting team of Sample with lyricist Will Jennings.
The groovy vibes of “Street Life” are immediately contrasted by the dramatic edge of the lyrics, introduced by the famous opening lines “I play the street life because there’s no place I can go / Street life, it’s the only life I know.” Here, the street is portrayed as a place where people become trapped. Some fall apart as they begin to indulge in debilitating behaviors, while others make it by using the experiences acquired to grow a tough skin, becoming stronger and more responsible.
“Street Life” was a Top 40 hit in the U.S. and the album of the same name on which it was introduced made the Top 20 Billboard chart. In the U.K., the song peaked at number 5 in the Singles Chart. But this was also somewhat of a swan song for The Crusaders, who began to fade away shortly thereafter. Scott Yanow writes: “Although the Crusaders could not have known it at the time, their recording of ‘Street Life’ … was a last hurrah for the 20-year old group. Their recordings of the next few years would decline in interest until the band gradually faded away in the ’80s.”
While “Street Life” marked the beginning of the end for The Crusaders, it also effectively marked the beginning of the career of its lead vocalist, Randy Crawford. Although she had released her first solo album in 1976 and received no name credit on the label of “Street Life,” everyone seemed to agree that a star was born. A year later, she would release a new solo LP, Now We May Begin. It featured her international hit “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” a dynamic blend of jazz, soul and pop, also written by Sample and Jennings.
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