Such are the dimensions of his double crossover that Washington, 37, basically a jazz artist, would be known as the new George Benson except for one thing. George Benson was actually the new Grover Washington. One year before Benson's 1976 sensation This Masquerade, Washington cut a jazz-pop fusion hit single called Mr. Magic. Says keyboardist Bob James: "Grover was one of the main people to make this crossover movement happen. We had people intrigued by jazz, but a lot of it was so complex they didn't relate to it. Grover maintained a very high level of musicianship and yet his playing was very melodic and direct."
Some colleagues disagree. At a forum in New York a couple of years ago, bassist Percy Heath accused co-panelist Washington of "bastardizing" jazz. Rebuts Grover: "My music is for the everyday person—people music. There's no pretense. It's honest. It transmits feelings and moods. That's about all you can hope to achieve."
Twelve years ago Washington was playing purer jazz in small clubs around Philadelphia for $10 to $40 a night and commuting to New York as a session player. Then at one CTI recording date, he was asked to sit in for his mentor, jazz sax veteran Hank Crawford, who was jailed in Memphis on an old traffic charge. "My big break was blind luck," Washington marvels.
That 1971 LP, Inner City Blues, got Washington a CTI contract. It also lent a new twist to his clerk's job at a Philadelphia record store. "Here I was unloading records with my name on them," he laughs. Mr. Magic was followed by four other gold albums, including Winelight, which recently turned platinum and features his first gold single, Just the Two of Us.
Washington was raised in Buffalo, N.Y. His dad still works at a steel plant but had been a big-band saxophonist. Grover received a sax for his ninth Christmas, but practicing turned him off. "It became a duel between basketball and music," he recalls. "At 12, I knew I was going to play jazz. Besides, I stopped growing at 5'8½"."
After finishing high school at 16, he played with a number of groups, including one that backed up female impersonators in dingy Northeastern dives. Then Grover was drafted into the Army at Fort Dix, N.J. and was bound for Vietnam until he talked his way onto the base band. At an off-post gig, he met wife Christine, an editorial assistant at the time. Recalls Chris, now 36: "We met on a Saturday and he moved in on Thursday." They married in 1967.
Six years ago they settled into a 15-room house in a Philadelphia suburb with their children, Grover III, 12, and Shana, 5. (Chris' son by a previous marriage, Loran, 17, is retarded and lives in a private institution.) The focal point of the household is the basketball hoop out back. For the past two years Grover has played the national anthem at Philadelphia 76ers home games, and Grover III assists the ball boys. Says Washington, "Most athletes are frustrated musicians and most musicians are frustrated athletes." One track on Winelight is titled Let It Flow ("For Dr. J."), after the 76ers' Julius Erving.
Last year Grover began a new crossover, applying for a doctoral program in music composition at Temple University, hoping to ultimately compose film scores. He was told he had to audition. "The next day," he smiles, "I came back with a stack of my albums and told them to listen and let me know if they thought I could play." He was admitted.
For much of the last two months, saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. has been simultaneously among the top five sellers on five record charts: Soul Singles and LPs, Pop Singles and LPs and Jazz LPs, where his Winelight has hung in at No. 1 for 20 weeks.