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Ray Charles' heavenly trio: Leroy 'Hog' Cooper, David 'Fathead' Newman and Hank Crawford


February 22, 2009|David Ritz | Ritz has collaborated on the autobiographies of, among others, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and B.B. King.

In summer 1957, I was a teenager who had just moved to Texas from the East Coast. One Sunday afternoon, I happened to walk into a large social hall in South Dallas where a jam session was underway. On the bandstand were three saxophonists: Leroy "Hog" Cooper on baritone, David "Fathead" Newman on tenor and Hank Crawford on alto.

Their playing shook me to my very core. Through their horns, they shouted out a blues with the ferocity of a Blind Lemon Jefferson or a Bessie Smith. Beyond that, their facility with high-flying modern jazz was breathtaking. Whatever thin line separated tight-and-right rhythm-and-blues from burning post-Bird bebop suddenly evaporated in a flash of brilliance.

As it turned out, these men were the nucleus of the newly formed Ray Charles small combo. Along with their leader, they radically rearranged the sound of popular music.

For the next 50 years, they grew as musicians and, apart from their role in Ray's career, carved important artistic identities of their own. They remained close to each other, often touring and recording together. They also became lifelong friends of mine.

Then, in January of this year, within two weeks, all three died -- first Leroy, of heart failure; then David, of pancreatic cancer; then Hank, of a stroke.

The timing was both sad and eerie. Their harmonies had knit them together as a single unit. Three men who seemed to have played as one, suddenly seemed to have died as one.

Leroy was the least known and least ambitious of the three. He was a rotund man, a hip version of Shakespeare's Falstaff, and a witty, lovable guy who struck a hilarious balance between Munchkin and mensch. He led Ray's groups off and on from the '50s through the '70s, from small combo to big band.

Ray once compared Leroy's skills to two other baritone virtuosos -- Harry Carney, a mainstay of the Duke Ellington band, and Gerry Mulligan: "Hog has a bigger sound than Harry and he's got quicker hands than Gerry. I'd put him up against anyone."

After leaving Ray, Leroy lived out a happy life in Orlando, Fla., where he played in the Disney band.

Ray saw the gentle-mannered David as his alter ego. "If I had focused on sax instead of singing and playing piano," Ray told me, "I would have wanted to sound like Fathead." He and David were as close as blood brothers.

Ray was responsible for David's first solo album, which included the classic that became Fathead's signature, "Hard Times." The Ray-David collaboration had overtones of Billie Holiday-Lester Young and Thelonious Monk-Charlie Rouse, twin sensibilities that fit together like yin and yang.

On his own, David earned a sacred and secure place among the romantic giants of the tenor sax, men like Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis.

Hank was a shy man who used silence, rather than words, to convey his feelings. As Ray's chief arranger in the '50s, he gave that little band a big-band voice.

Then in the early '60s, Hank emerged as a solo star, becoming one of the most influential alto players after Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter and Charlie Parker.

His cry was piercing; his deep soul, singer-styled sound had blues lovers waving their arms like worshipers in church. With a poignancy that bordered on pain, he breathed forth ballads with the drama of Etta James and Little Jimmy Scott. Hank could make you weep.

Leroy, David and Hank each had the dialect; they each had the skill, the passion and the craft. They served -- and elevated -- an artist who rose to fabulous heights. But in no way should we underestimate their own importance. No three saxophonists have ever played in closer harmony. No three have had their distinct and vital voices.

Leroy Cooper, gone at age 80. David Newman, 75. Hank Crawford, 74.

Three friends, three beautiful men, three masters.

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