Every other week this column highlights lost treasures or unjustly overlooked artists. In my opinion, they don't get more overlooked than soul and jazz chanteuse Randy Crawford. Crawford possesses the rare gift of versatility—her voice can adapt to various musical styles, ranging from blues to jazz to rock and even to folk. She also takes risks in covering standards that many artists would be afraid to touch. Yet she remains unappreciated in the United States, finding more success in Europe. A recent career resurgence will hopefully garner the recognition she deserves.
According to the All Music Guide, Crawford grew up in Cincinnati, developing her vocal talent in clubs. After singing in a group led by P-Funk's Bootsy Collins, she toured as George Benson's opening act in 1972. Blues legend Cannonball Adderley invited her to sing on his album Big Man. But her greatest musical collaboration turned out to be with jazz pianist Joe Sample, who recruited her to sing lead on his group The Crusaders's single “Street Life.” The 1979 hit deftly combined jazz and disco, and Crawford's memorable lead vocal propelled the song into the top 40 charts as well as the top 20 in the R&B charts. The video below shows Sample and Crawford giving the track a jazz makeover in 2007.
Despite “Street Life's” success and her subsequent tour with The Crusaders, Crawford was unable to score another hit in the United States. The Crusaders even produced her 1980 album Now We May Begin, which spawned classics such as “One Day I'll Fly Away” and “Same Old Story (Same Old Song),” but it experienced only modest success. However, she found fame in Europe, charting with her soulful cover of Bob Dylan's “Knocking on Heaven's Door,” her interpretation of “Rainy Night in Georgia,” and the catchy “Last Night at Danceland.” While she has recorded steadily since 1976, her albums and overall work have gained little airplay in America, although she released a Best of compilation in 1996.
Crawford attracted my attention several years ago. While aimlessly flipping through radio stations, I landed on Chicago's smooth jazz station WNUA. Normally I'd skip over the station, but the song currently playing captured my ear: “Rio de Janiero Blue,” a beautiful samba that allowed her to display her range and ease with various genres. Her distinctive vocals sounded fresh, and her obvious ability to sing jazz as well as R&B greatly impressed me. Subsequently I purchased her Best of collection, and have been hooked ever since.
While her catalog contains many covers, the range of artists amazes: Dylan, Journey, Massive Attack, John Lennon, Benson, and Quincy Jones, to name a few. It takes nerve to record such beloved standards as “Imagine” and “Everything Must Change,” but she does so with aplomb. Crawford turns “Who's Crying Now” into an unlikely sexy ballad, and she and Al Jarreau charmingly update Ashford & Simpson's “Your Precious Love.” Her soaring delivery of J. J. Cale's “Cajun Moon” captures the mystery of the lyrics and highlights the song's beautiful chord changes. Despite these incredible recordings, only “Street Life” and “Rio de Janiero Blue” still receive radio airplay in the U.S.
However, Crawford is currently experiencing an artistic renaissance. In 2007 she reunited with her favorite collaborator, Joe Sample, to produce Feeling Good, a collection of jazz and R&B standards (along with covers of Leo Sayer's “When I Need You” and Harry Nilsson's “Everybody's Talking”). Sample's elegant piano perfectly compliments Crawford's lovely vocals, and she once again showed how she can sing virtually any type of music. The album received a Grammy nomination and peaked at number three on the jazz charts. Capitalizing on the album's acclaim, the duo performed at several jazz festivals and clubs, proving that their chemistry extends to the live arena. Due to Feeling Good's success, Sample and Crawford recorded a follow-up, No Regrets, which continues the jazz vibe of the previous release. Perhaps these two albums will finally gain Crawford more recognition and exposure to a wider audience.
Many fans will recognize “Street Life” and think, “oh yeah, that singer who sang the disco song.” But her extensive catalog reveals more than just a one-hit wonder artist. Her supple, emotional voice ranks with some of the best R&B vocalists, and her minimalist style should be emulated by more R&B divas today. Begin with a Best of compilation, and then further explore Crawford's other albums. I guarantee that you'll be instantly hooked.