Saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. was a crossover artist who did have hits in the pop and R&B charts, due to his willingness to play over light funk arrangements and use vocalists. He can be credited with virtually inventing the style of smooth jazz that later became so prevalent, and in that way he has been highly influential.
Grover Washington, Jr.'s love of music began a a child growing up in Buffalo, New York; his mother (who sang in church choirs) and father (collector of jazz 78s) bought him a saxophone at age ten. "After I started playing," Grover says, “I'd sneak into clubs to watch guys like Jack McDuff, Harold Vick and Charles Lloyd. My professional life began at age twelve. I played a lot of R&B, blues, and what we used to call 'gut-bucket'.
Grover left Buffalo to play in the Midwest with a group called the Four Clefs. Soon afterward, he was drafted into the Army; during that time he made some important connections. Drummer Billie Cobham, who was in the Army band with Grover, introduced him to several prominent New York musicians, and he soon began freelancing in New York and Philadelphia.
After playing in organist Charles Earland's band, and recording as a sideman for the CTI and Prestige labels, Grover recorded Breakout with Johnny Hammond. The album was a bestseller, and it established Grover as a major new voice on saxophone.
So impressed was Creed Taylor, Hammond's producer and head of CTI, that he signed Grover to a contract as a leader. His debut as a leader, Inner City Blues, was released in 1971. This album was a big crossover hit, and began his successful run up the charts.
Grover's soulful, sophisticated sound developed through the 1970s and the success of his next three albums—All the King's Horses, Soul Box and especially Mister Magic,—landed him as a headliner in the concert halls, and opened the door to session work with the likes of Bob James, Randy Weston, Eric Gale, and Dave Grusin.
With the release of Winelight in 1980, Grover earned recognition as a leading instrumental master. The LP earned two Grammy Awards, for "Best Jazz Fusion Recording" and "Best R&B Song" for "Just the Two of Us" Perhaps the greatest recognition came through record distributors. Winelight was certified gold in 1981; to date, it has sold over two million copies.
Grover's subsequent albums extended his reputation even further. Come Morning (1981) featured Ralph MacDonald, Steve Gadd, Eric Gale, Richard Tee, Marcus Miller, and vocals by Grady Tate; it earned Grover his fourth Gold recording. The Best is Yet to Come (1982) earned a Grammy nomination for vocalist Patti Labelle on the title track. Inside Moves (1984) featured vocals from Jon Lucien. For Strawberry Moon (1987), Grover was joined by legendary blues guitarists B.B. King, as well as by jazz/R&bB vocalist Jean Carne. For Then and Now (1988), Grover explored the many facets of his musical expression, aided by jazz starts Tommy Flanagan, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Marvin "Smitty" Smith. On Time Out of Mind (1990), Grover scored another hit with vocalist Phyllis Hyman with 'Sacred kind of Love.' And on Next Exit (1992), Grover explored several musical avenues, reinventing a classic Paul Desmond tune, "Take Five," as his own "Take Another Five," teaming up with The Four Tops and Lalah Hathaway, even dipping into rap.