William L. “Chico” Crawford Jr.

07/21/1943 – 06/22/2022

Obituary for William L. “Chico” Crawford Jr.

William “Chico” Crawford Jr.

The community is heartbroken to know that William “Chico” Crawford, one of Knoxville’s most gifted musicians has passed away at age 78. Condolences and prayers go out to Chico’s family, friends, and to Chico’s music family, members of the Soul Connection Band, (Charlie Satterwhite, Phil Senseny, Jamie Cameron, Alonzo Lewis, Gregory Willis, Stewart Cox, Rodney Satterfield, Kaley Farmer, Chelsea Samples and Dan McGrew), all of whom Chico had been performing with in recent times.

Chico was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on July 21, 1943. As a young teen, he worked in the kitchen at Regas Restaurant, that was located at 318 N Gay St., in Knoxville. The Regas was on the ground floor of the Watauga Hotel building, now known as The Regas Building. Setting sight on expanding horizons and fulfilling a desire to play music, Chico began his life-long journey in music during the late 1950s.

The first musical instrument Chico chose to play was the guitar. During his early years of performing, he played his guitar in nightclubs that were known as a part of, “the chitlin circuit”. That was a derogatory name used as a label for nightclubs or venues owned by, and that catered to, primarily African American people. It wasn’t long before he eventually gave up playing the guitar and bought an organ after being inspired by James Cole, a musician who played Hammond B3 organ in a band in Cincinnati, Ohio. Chico stayed with Cole’s family for a brief period, where little by little, Mr. Cole was teaching Chico to play the organ. After Chico’s experimentation with rock-n-roll, Mr. Cole unlocked a boundless universe of music exploration for Chico, introducing him to jazz and complex chords.

Chico began traveling back and forth from Knoxville, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. Indianapolis was a major jazz city during the 40s, 50s and 60s, and it was there he lay the foundation for solidifying himself as a jazz organist. Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis, is very well known for producing some of the finest jazz musicians in American history, including Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, Pookie Johnson, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Coe, David Baker, and Russell Webster. Not to mention countless others including William “Chico” Crawford. During the halcyon days of the Indiana Avenue jazz scene, organists such as Melvin Rhyne and Don Patterson, began earning their reputations and fame. These musicians have left a wonderful legacy of music to the fans of jazz around the world.

The Indianapolis jazz scene provided serious musical growth and opportunities for Chico. It was not long before he was jamming with and backing up major jazz recording artists on his organ. One of his big debuts was being asked to sub for Big Don Patterson on organ, backing up renowned jazz saxophonist, Houston Person. Chico played organ with quite a few big names in jazz in Indianapolis, and beyond for that matter. Chico said he wasn’t musically there yet but the musicians in Indianapolis were truly kind, and they encouraged him to practice and stay with the instrument. He conveyed many times how the musical community in Indianapolis was kind to people coming up through the ranks if they were honestly working on their craft.

According to Chico, the Tennessee cities of Nashville and Clarksville had a strong jazz and rhythm-and-blues scene in the 1960s. Many of the big names in jazz came there or worked out of there, and he would frequent those cities to perform, and to absorb more knowledge in his playing and jazz. Band featuring Clifford Curry. playing for hit Dial/Atlantic Records artist Joe Tex (Skinny Legs & All, I Gotcha), and Atlantic Records recording artist, Wilson Pickett (Midnight Hour, 634-5789, Land of A Thousand Dances), among others.

Chico conveyed that he had some very tough times as a person and a musician related to segregation and black and white relations in the south during the 1960s. Yet, he stressed not as much over it as one would think or expect. Despite color or philosophy differences, he had his own distinct way of transcending those barriers and making friends. In the 1960s, he booked his band at a nightclub adorning a confederate flag in Selma, Alabama, near the Edmund Pettus Bridge. His fellow band members and friends advised him to bow out of that engagement – owing to its anti-black reputation. Despite that, Chico beat the odds and became friends with the manager and the patrons. Part of the reason he was accepted is because he was not afraid, he did not let it change his personality or attitude, and knew “good music” can calm and tame even the wildest of beasts. Not an ideal situation for him to play an engagement such as that, but with Chico’s demeanor and happy personality, he soon had them “wrapped around his finger”.

As referenced above, when Chico was a young teen during the 1950s, he worked at Regas Restaurant. A finger-chopping event happened while working in the kitchen. He cut off the tip of his middle finger on the fret hand for playing his guitar. Restaurant owner, Bill Regas, arranged for Chico to have the best doctor and care available. The tip could not be saved, so they pulled the skin up and around so that it healed where he could still play guitar.

Fast forward a few decades later, Chico came full circle working at the Regas Restaurant again, but this time around using his fingers and hands in quite a different manner. Awing the patrons with musical prowess on the organ, along with premier guitarist, Kerry Hodge, and soulful vocalist, Hal Hardy.

He lost part of another finger in a car mechanic accident where his helper started the engine while his hand was too near the fan belt. He had torn up working-man hands, but a person surely would not know that by the way he played and his musical sound.

Speaking of cars, Chico was a huge NASCAR fan. He loved the cars, the skills of the drivers, the human scenery, the buzz, the speed, the pit crews, the sheer adrenaline rush and excitement of the races. He loved working on hot rods too, a hobby he acquired from his father. A local musician told of first meeting Chico, and when not playing music together, often cruised around east Knoxville in his hotrod sedan that was primed to be painted and had dark tinted windows. I had never ridden in, nor seen a car with tinted windows prior to that.

It is hard to encapsulate everything that Chico did for and was for the Knoxville music community. For over sixty years, he performed thousands of gigs entertaining and playing music straight from his heart and soul. His commitment was to always give 100 percent. His artistry on the Hammond B3 organ was a magical fusion of blues, soul, funk and jazz. He maintained a sanguine outlook, had his own musical style, sound, vibe, flair and look with his signature hats and eye wear, radiating a larger-than-life presence. Whether onstage or off, a person knew he or she was in the space of someone special.

Chico appreciated all styles of music, but blues and jazz music were at the core of his soul, and his personal preference to perform. Chico was an original.

Chico always had a vision of music for the future and knew just how he was going to build it. And his enthusiasm was so immense that he just swept everyone along with him when putting a band together. Not that anyone could honestly say they knew where he was going, they just wanted to be there and a part of his next move in music. Because wherever or whatever with Chico Crawford, it was going to something great, something exceptional.

A legend in the Knoxville music scene, he was one of the most respected keyboard players in the area. A few bands and artists that Chico performed with are; his own bands, Crawford & Company, and Chico & The Men; Clifford Curry; Jazz Funk All-Stars featuring Lancelot “Lance” Owens; Hector Qirko; Daddy-O; Mighty Blue featuring ‘Detriot’ Dave Meer; and the Soul Connection Band. Chico performed often at the Knoxville Museum of Art for its “Alive After Five” series, that showcases incredible, diverse musical talent from all over the Southeastern United States.

Always thinking of others, he sought out new bands and players; he had an excellent ear and feel for new talent. He was a supporter of other musicians, male and female. It was not important to him whether someone was well known or just starting out, Chico would chat, discuss and pass on his formidable knowledge to anyone who had a genuine interest. He would sit and play with beginners or experienced musos; he didn’t care, he just loved playing and generously giving of himself and of his time to others.

Not only was he a brilliant musician inspiring more than one generation of musicians with his talent and genius, but he was also an admirable man who had an extraordinary capacity for kindness and friendship. A mentor to many musicians throughout his life and musical journey, he was respected, appreciated, and loved by his peers and friends. Chico reciprocated, because he respected, appreciated, and loved his peers and friends.

William Crawford didn’t just play music, he resided inside of it. He understood the significance of placement, of one note, of one bend, or a twist, or a multitude of notes and bends. Regardless of the genre he was playing, every note was underpinned by his massive command and inherent understanding of jazz and blues.

Chico and his organ graced a veritable who’s who list of musicians from the Knoxville area over his career in a variety of genres. Besides those named above, some of those individuals were; Kerry Hodge, Keith Brown, Fred Logan, Rocky Wynder, Marcel Holman, Donald Brown, Paul Lomax, Rick Lomax, Eddie Davidson, Tom Norris, Jon Schwabe, Erin Davidson, Scott Campbell, Hal Hardy, Will Boyd, Kelle Jolly, Dwight Hardin, Nolan Nevills, Paul McQuade, Scott Fugate, Bluesman Richard Bryant, Jen Wolery, Traci Cochran, Doug Shanklin, Marcy Mills, Gary Moulden, Kenneth Robinson, Mark Boling, Van Abbott, Burton Akers, Bobby Brown, Bill “Sweet William” Sauls, Lonnie Carver, Randy Rogers, John Brown, Donnie Bunch, Dirk Wedington, and Chuck McCroskey. The list of names is much longer is a comprehensive list were to be made

Among the inspired who bear witness to his giving of himself, and his time is Stevie Hawkins. His career as a professional musician began with William “Chico” Crawford. Steve recounted the story of that matchup recently:

At age 15, his mother Peggy Hawkins, got him into a summer job as a short order cook working for Jim Friedman, at The Shed (a kosher deli by day, a smoky jazz/blues nightclub by night). The Shed was located at the top end of Cumberland Avenue near downtown Knoxville, in the same complex as a package store and two other nightclubs, Sound Showcase, and the defunct Mad Mexican (later known as Bradley Station). Friedman owned the complex at the time and rented a former restaurant space out to bands as a rehearsal space.

Steve worked during the day, primarily preparing sandwiches. Being aware that he was an aspiring drummer, after the workday was finished, Jim Friedman allowed Steve to stay late to take in the music and the nightclub atmosphere. He once stated, “taking it all in is part of his formal education as musician”. Jim was a latin/jazz drummer.

A couple of weeks into the job, Chico Crawford played several nights in a row as a duo, with a drummer and himself playing Hammond B3 organ and bass pedals. My Peggy Hawkins happened there one of those nights, and asked Chico if he would let Steve sit in to play a couple of songs. He allowed it; they played a couple of funky tunes that went quite well. He liked the funk groove Steve played. At that point Steve had already begun developing what Chico termed as a locomotive funk and soul drumming style that he thought was unique, and he was impressed by that. He asked if I could come back the next day and jam with him. I was working the next day so I would be there anyway. Friedman let Steve have a break during the afternoon, locked the front door, sat, and listened as Chico and I jammed for a half hour or so.

That afternoon, Chico taught Steve how to play my first blues shuffle. After us jamming a few various tempo funky tunes, he began playing something that to me, had kind of a swing/be-bop feel. I fell in playing a quasi be-bop groove, then he stopped playing and said: “Whoaaaaa,,,,,Whoaaaaa,,,,, don’t play that bumpity-bump “stuff”, play me a shuffle!” In Steve’s words:

“I didn’t know what he meant, so he explained what I was supposed to articulate. We played a couple of 16 bar rounds then it began making sense to me, Chico was smiling, so I knew I was on the right track. After the jam, Chico asked if I would be interested in playing some nightclub dates with him. I was extremely excited about the prospect. Thank goodness my mother allowed it. And no place better for the Chico train to start rolling than at The Shed. Bear in mind, it was not uncommon for teens below legal drinking age to be performing in nightclubs in those days.

I can’t recall what happened with the drummer he was working with. What I remember is that I started playing with Chico immediately at The Shed. That is clear in my mind by association of remembrance of Harold “Daddy Boom Boom” Stringfield borrowing my spare Ludwig Suprasonic snare from me on a night Chico and I were playing at The Shed. Larry was the drummer for the great funk/soul/R&B band, The Stringfield Family. They were performing a show next door at the Sound Showcase, where Larry had busted the head on his snare, and didn’t have a spare. There I was hired by Chico as his drummer, Daddy Boom Boom borrowing my snare, the 15-year-old me felt like he was in the midst of the big guys in town! There was no turning back from that point forward, the music seed was firmly planted ready to be nurtured.

Chico took me under his wing to work with me, offering advice on drumming and vocal techniques, and teaching me several variations of backbeats and blues shuffle beats including, boot shuffle, back-alley shuffle, flat tire shuffle, Chicago shuffle, St Louis shuffle, Texas shuffle. He also turned me on to mind and body separation to be able to play jazz swing articulations and polyrhythms on the ride and/or hi-hat cymbal against a straight funky 4/4 or 7/4 time signature groove. Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett’s drummer, Willie Steele, was a pioneer of that approach to playing. Steele could often be seen and heard playing jazz swing cymbal articulations on top of a straight 4/4 funky groove such as Wolf’s “Shake for Me” and “Killing Floor”. Elvis’ drummer, DJ Fontana would do the reverse, playing straight 1/8th notes on the ride cymbal while playing a blues shuffle on the snare.

One thing that sticks out in my mind, is I distinctly remember Chico saying, the most important beat of all is, “The Money Beat”! He said, “that’s the beat that everyone wants to hear and dance to. That’s beat that brings home the money to feed you and pay the bills, keeps you working”. How true that beat turned out to be. As relates to the beat, on several occasions I heard him say how much he loved to watch people dance and have a good time.

Chico and I played as a duo at The Diplomat, Smoky Mountain Club, and several other other venues around the Knoxville area that I can’t recall the names. Lastly, during late fall of 1972, we played a happy hour gig together at the “La Cantina”, located in the heart of the University of Tennessee campus.

School had resumed at Young High in south Knoxville, but my excursions with Chico continued. I began leaving campus early, skipping my last class of the day which was gym. I would meet him in the parking lot where David Marcum’s “The Guitar Shop” music store was located on Chapman Hwy, literally about 150 to 200 yards from the school. Now bear in mind Chico was completely unaware that I was actually leaving school early, so don’t judge him! He would pick me up and off we went to play the gig at La Cantina, other times we would grab a pig burger at Brother Jack’s barbecue on University Avenue, or just cruise around Knoxville while he professed philosophies on life and playing music, and how the two melded as one.

After a couple of weeks getting away with leaving school to play the La Cantina gig, one early evening Chico and I are onstage playing and I see my mother walk through the door! She stands there in the doorway with the old proverbial, “come here” finger motion. Chico didn’t know that she didn’t know I was playing there with him! Unfortunately, one of mom’s friends had seen me playing there and told her about how good Chico and I sounded together. That did not sound good to mom! She didn’t have a clue what I was up to.

That period in time playing music with him and being with him was a blessing all in. He took the time to nurture me musically for several months because he saw I was truly invested in learning to sing and play drums, and possessed natural abilities and grooves that impressed him. Just those few months with him greatly helped to shape my approach to playing and knowledge of being an entertainer from there forward. I feel I owe him a big debt of gratitude. He was kind, caring, and a father figure in some ways too, because he genuinely cared, offering sound advise outside of music.

I had fun creating music with him, and will always be grateful to William Crawford for being so good to and for the young teen that was me, for looking after me, being a mentor, a teacher, having faith in my abilities, instilling confidence, expanding my musical horizons, introducing me to the world of blues music, and nevertheless, the introduction to Brother Jack’s barbecue. Not once did he try to influence me in a negative manner. While in his presence, the vibe and attitude was always on the positive side of the things.

Now 50 years later, a strong connection to him remains, a bond that I know will never leave me. I’m sure there are others who have the same connection or bond to him. I was blessed to have had the opportunity and honor to know him, and to share the stage with Chico Crawford at such an early age playing drums, singing and learning from an artist that in my opinion was in the same league as his Hammond organ counterparts, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Shirley Scott, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, Richard “Groove” Holmes and Jimmy McGriff.

A while back, Stevie stated that he would love to play at least one more gig with Crawford before one of them crosses over. The dream was nearly realized in February 2022 at a reunion jam in Greenville, Tennessee, but Chico became infected with COVID-19 the weekend before the jam. His health had been up and down since then, until he passed on June 22, 2022.

Chico was fortunate to be able to live life fulfilling his ultimate love and passion, playing music. Only a few days ago while he was in the hospital, he spoke optimistically about getting well and reforming his old band, Chico & The Men, and “taking it up the country”. Gotta love his confident spirit!

He will be very greatly missed and leaves a gaping hole in the Knoxville music community. “There is no replacing Chico Crawford…”, said Charlie Satterwhite, saxophonist, very dear and close friend to Chico. Charlie’s summation is correct.

Fly Free, Chico.


(Thanks to musicians Stevie Hawkins and Charlie Satterwhite for their input and writing.)

William L. (Chico) Crawford Jr. went to be with the Lord on June 22, 2022. He leaves sons Tony and Eric Harshaw; and loyal friends including Charlie Satterwhite, Barbara Majors, and Fred Crawley. Mr. Crawford was a respected musician who was well known regionally and performed extensively including in Africa.

A memorial will be held at the The Concourse 4328 N. Broadway Ave. Knoxville, TN 37917 on July 8, 2022. The evening will include remembrances as well musical performances by the Soul Connection and other musicians from his extended musical family. Doors open at 5:30. Musical performances begin at 6:30.

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Memorial Service

Friday, July 8, 2022
The Concourse
4328 N. Broadway Ave.,
Knoxville, TN 37917