Jazz Sides: 10 Questions for Red Holloway
by Bob Putignano
Goldmine Magazine 08/04

James "Red" Holloway has had a star-studded career -- performing with Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Jack McDuff, Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, and Lester Young. He's best known for his partnership with Sonny Stitt and at a youthful 77 years young, Red is still one of the busiest musicians on the international stage.

After completing his military service, Red returned to Chicago and played with Yusef Lateef and Dexter Gordon, amongst others. In 1948 he was asked by blues vocalist Roosevelt Sykes to join Sykes' U.S. Road Tour. During this time, other bluesmen heard him and subsequently hired him, including Willie Dixon, Junior Parker, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Lloyd Price, John Mayall, and B.B. King.

During the Fifties, Red continued playing in the Chicago area with such notables as Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Ben Webster, Jimmy Rushing, Arthur Prysock, Dakota Staton, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Wardell Gray, Sonny Rollins, Red Rodney, Lester Young, Joe Williams, Redd Foxx, Otis Rush, Aretha Franklin, and many others. During this same period, he also played road tours with Sonny Stitt.

Holloway's big break in the jazz world came in 1963 when his friend Jack McDuff brought him to New York City to play on the now-classic Prestige album Live!. He remained a member of the organist's combo, which also featured guitarist George Benson, for four years and recorded a series of albums of his own for Prestige.

Red moved to Los Angeles in 1967 and began a 15-year stint as musical director for the Parisian Room. It was while working at the fabled nightclub that Holloway formed a musical partnership with the great Sonny Stitt which lasted from 1977 until the saxophonist's death in 1982. "He loved to challenge horn players," Holloway says of Stitt. "He'd let 'em all come up on the stand. Then, if they were pretty good, he'd switch keys on 'em." Holloway continued recording regularly, including several albums of his own for Concord Jazz, and with such artists as the Ernestine Anderson, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Carmen McRae, and Joe Williams.

Recent 2000 recordings on the Milestone label, (both produced by Bob Porter) include the 2001 “Keep that groove going!” with Plas Johnson, Melvin Sparks, Gene Ludwig, and Kenny Washington, and the 2003 “Coast to Coast” with special guest Frank Wess, along with Melvin Sparks, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Paul Humphrey. It should be noted that “Coast to Coast” reached #5 on the jazz charts, Dec. ‘03, and I had the good fortune to attend those recording sessions which took place at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder recording studios in New Jersey.

I caught with Red on the phone at his home in California this May as he was preparing to go on the road to Europe.

BobP: You have recorded and toured with a long list of diverse musicians and singers, I am sure you have some great stories to tell?

Red: Ha, I have had the good fortune of sharing the bandstand with many greats, and I am very proud of the fact that I have been able to make a living all my life doing what I enjoy most, that being playing my horn.

BobP: You played with an unusual amount of Blues musicians for a performer who is mostly classified as a jazz artitst?

Red: There are two types of music, good and bad, and I enjoy playing all kinds of music where I can have time to get to know and feel members of a band, and they get to know me as well. Sometimes recording sessions are put together where we really don’t know each others playing that well, and I prefer to be on the road with the players I will record with, whether that is on my own recordings or someone else’s. Recording with BB & Bobby “Blue” Bland, Etta James with McDuff & Cleanhead in the 80’s, Junior Parker, Aretha, John Mayall with Blue Mitchell and Freddie Robinson, were all top caliber bands, where I had the space to show my stuff and get some stretch out time. And I really believe that musicians got to know each other pretty well for the music to reach a high level.

BobP: Who gave you your first big break in the music business?

Red: Right after World War 2 in 1948, I was asked to join Roosevelt Sykes band. My Mom knew Sykes, and he heard me playing one day when he was visiting our home, and he said, “you sound great, and I need a sax player, come on the road with me.” I was thrilled, and that was my first professional gig.

BobP: You did a lot of jam sessions in the early 40’s right?

Red: Oh, those were great days in Chicago, where on any given night I could get to jam with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Arnett Cobb, Ben Webster, Yusef Lateef, Lester Young, and so many others, I really soaked up a lot of knowledge during those jam sessions, and I was learning it from my heroes.

BobP: It must have been a blast playing with McDuff, with George Benson, and Joe Dukes. Did you hear about the new recording just released on McDuff, “The Prestige Years”?

Red: We had a great time with that band. McDuff was a total perfectionist, a near genious I would say, and everyone in his band always had to be at the top of their game, I think that is why all of McDuff’s recordings sounded so good, he put a lot into writing charts and arrangements, and there was no question who the bandleader was, ha! Yes, I was contacted by Prestige and told about the new McDuff recording.

BobP: You must have gone a roll when “Rock Candy” broke and became a international hit?

Red: I was already out of the band, and needed to come home when “Rock Candy” was released. Funny story is that I did not even know that it came out and heard it on the radio, and said to myself, man that sax player sounds a lot like me. It was, laughs.

BobP: Please tell me what it was like hanging and jamming with a very young George Benson at this time?

Red: We stayed together from 1963-66, George was really something, and always had a good feel for the blues, and fit McDuff and all of us like a glove. You know he always wanted to sing in McDuff’s band even back then, and McDuff told him, “if I want a singer, I will hire a singer, just play your guitar”, more laughs.

BobP: You had Pat Martino in some of your bands in the 60’s too, right?

Red: I took Martino on the road when I was with Lloyd Price, and then with me. A little later he got the gig with McDuff, and Willis Jackson too, as we all now know he went on his own later, and has a had a great career. Back around 1964, I was asked to make a recording with Pat and a drummer named Larry Wrice, for Berry Gordy, we did the recording and it was never released, as we were never paid for the sessions. I was told we would be paid when the record hit the stores, so I went to the union and got a release, and God knows what happened to those sessions, and at that time I got signed to Prestige, a little later Pat was signed to Prestige as well.

BobP: You had great years with Sonny Stitt, how long were you guys together?

Red: They were great years with Stitt, we were together from 1977 until the time of his passing in 1982. I got the gig with Sonny when Gene Ammons passed, as we already knew each other, and became great friends. Except for one night, when Stitt asked me to pick up a alto and on the first tune we played he got into cutting heads and really blew me away on his tenor. Not only is it difficult to keep pace with a tenor when you are playing alto, but this was Sonny Stitt, ha! So after the show I walked right up to his face, man I wanted to punch him, and I asked Stitt, “why did you do this to me, I thought we were friends?”, Sonny just smiled at me and said, “Red there is no friendship on the bandstand”. Somehow that just broke the bad mood I was in, and we both laughed and forgot about what happened. But, I never played alto with him again, ha!

BobP: What was your favorite times in the music, and who influenced you the most?

Red: The 40’s were so exciting for me as I was learning so much and around so many greats at those Chicago Jam sessions we spoke about. I had a ball in the 50’s especially doing those Burlesque shows, more laughs. All the decades have been quite special and very kind to me. The guy who had the biggest influence on me was and still to this day is Clark Terry, both musically and personally. Clark is a great man, he taught me so much about the music business, and I have so much respect for him, I still talk to him regularly, and see him out on the road a lot too, he always looks out for me for gigs and referrals as well. We spent along time playing together from 1989-2001.

It has been a great experience for me to know, meet in person, and chat with Red Holloway, he laughed at me when I told him that Goldmine was interested in doing a article about him, so when I asked him I wanted to talk about his rich musical past. Red said: “rich at what? You don’t get rich playing in this business, ha”, but he was just having fun, and not bitter at all. Red is just a joy to talk to and be around, very humble and thankful, it truly was a honor to talk about Red’s legacy.

Bob Putignano
Radio Host WFDU’s “Sounds of Blue”
President of the NY Blues and Jazz Society