Crawford: Help Me Make it Through the Night
of the first artists signed by Creed Taylor for the Kudu label, Hank
Crawford suffered violent criticism during the period (1971-1978) he
for the label, being accused to make mellow and commercial
albums. On the other hand, Hank achieved a new level of popularity
during his Kudu years. Some of the eight albums he cut for the label
sold over 100,000 copies with almost no promotion. And his Kudu debut,
Help Me Make It Through The Night, now for the first time
reissued on CD, was the first step in this process of unprecedented
fame. It is really a cult album for many saxophonists – among them,
David Sanborn, Hank’s most famous fan and disciple!
on December 21, 1934, in Memphis, Tennessee, Bernie Ross Crawford
remains one of the most distinctive alto saxophone stylists in the
music history. He began studying piano at age nine, and was soon
playing for his church choir. As a teenager, he took up alto sax in
his high school band, influenced by Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker,
Louis Jordan and Earl Bostic. At school, he hang out with Phineas
Newborn, Jr., Booker Little, George Coleman and Harold Mabern.
Although their after-school hours were devoted to studying bebop, they
cut their professional teeth on the blues.
he had finishing high school, Crawford was playing in bands led by Ben
Branch, Tuff Green and Ike Turner, backing B.B. King, Bobby Bland and
Junior Parker in several Memphis venues. In 1953, he went away to
Tennessee State College in Nashville, where he developed his arranging
skills as leader of the school’s dance band.
big break came in 1958, when Ray Charles passed through Nashville.
Baritone saxophonist Leroy Cooper had just left the band, and Charles
offered Crawford the baritone choir. In 1959, when Cooper returned to
the fold, Crawford switched to alto sax. Two years later, Charles
expanded to full big-band size and appointed Crawford musical
director. By the time Crawford left Charles in 1963 to form his own
seven-piece combo, he had already established himself with several
solo albums on Atlantic, for whom he would cut a total of twelve
to CTI/Kudu in 1971, Hank Crawford appeared on Johnny Hammond’s Breakout
(recorded on June 1971), the first album issued by the new CTI
subsidiary company. Soon he was called by Creed, in August, to work on
his debut solo album for the label. But he could not attend the second
record session, scheduled for September, and the famous producer
offered to Grover Washington, Jr. (who had been hired as one of the
members in the horn section assembled for Crawford’s album) the
chance to lead the session. The result was the Inner City Blues
album, which launched Grover’s hugely successful solo career.
Crawford’s first official live appearance as a CTI/Kudu artist was
on July 18, 1971, in the memorable California Concert album,
cut live at the Hollywood Palladium. But, although playing in several
songs, his main solo performance, a beautiful rendition of Never Can
Say Goodbye (one of the songs he had recorded for Johnny Hammond’s Breakout),
was not included in the original 2-LP set, remaining unreleased up to
month later, Hank Crawford finally went to Van Gelder’s Studio, in
New Jersey, to start the recording of the Help Me Make it Through
the Night album. However, from the first session they did that
August, Creed Taylor decided to use only one track, a tune composed
and arranged by Alfred Pee Wee Ellis with a strong brass section on
the backing. As aforementioned told, Hank failed to show up for the
September session. Then, on January 1972, Creed decided to complete
the album following a completely different musical direction, inviting
different musicians (Cornell Dupree and Bernard Purdie were called to
replace Eric Gale and Idris Muhammad), and inviting Don Sebesky to
write the string arrangements.
for Pee Wee Ellis’ Ham, and Crawford’s own Uncle Funky (later
retitled Bowl Full O’Blues on the CTI Summer Jazz At The Hollywood
Bowl concert, recorded on July 30, 1972, but released only in
1977), all other tracks are pop favorites. The title track, a song
from country singer and future Hollywood star Kris Kristofferson’s
self-titled debut album in 1970, had been also a Top 10 pop hit thanks
to a recording by songstress Sammi Smith. Crawford transforms that
erotic ballad into a bouncy funky-soul piece, which features inspired
performances by Cornell Dupree on guitar and by the late Richard Tee,
who plays organ on his unmistakable style.
ballad department includes the John Lennon peaceful hymn Imagine,
Michel Legrand’s movie theme Brian’s Song (sub-titled The Hands of
Time after the couple Alan & Marilyn Bergman added lyrics), and
the title tune of Frank Sinatra’s first 12-inch LP for Capitol, In
the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, arranged by Nelson Riddle in 1954,
and recently rediscovered by pop (Carly Simon) and jazz (Keith
soulful renditions of hits by Carole King (Go Away Littlle Girl, a gem
from her creative heyday in partnership with Gerry Goffin, then
Carole’s husband) and Ray Charles (The Sun Died, aka Il Est Mort Le
Soleil, a jazz singer’s favorite since covered by Betty Carter in
1969, and recreated by Shirley Horn on her 1993 tribute to Charles,
Light Out of Darkness).
the album, there are many details to be savored: the spicy groove
provided by drummer Bernard Pretty Purdie on Go Away Little Girl, the
subtle comments by vibes player Phil Kraus on In the Wee Small Hours,
Cornell Dupree’s bluesy guitar solo on Uncle Funky, Margaret Ross’
sophisticated harp embellishments on Brian’s Song. But, above all,
Crawford’s touching sound, melted with Sebesky’s sensitive
arrangements. Romantic soul music at its best, showing the reason why
David Sanborn, who idolizes Crawford as his main influence, loves Help
Me Make It Through the Night so much!
DeSouteiro is Brazil’s top jazz producer and CTI historian.