Veteran singer/songwriter/guitarist JAMES HOLVAY’S latest recording is a wonderful 5 track EP, ‘Sweet Soul Song’. The music is an unashamed homage to the Golden Age of Chicago soul, to the craft of people like Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Gene Chandler and Tyrone Davis. The mini album is already winning plenty of support, so what better time to find out more. We hooked up with James (virtually, of course – so no problems with social distancing!) and began by asking about his Chicago background….
My parents were both from the north side of Chicago. My dad grew up across from Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. During the 50’s & 60’s, Chicago was alive with music. There seemed to be a ton of places a musician could play. A bar or a tavern on every corner. Mostly jazz and blues. In the 50’s and the very early 60’s – rock n’ roll groups hadn’t quite started yet. The British Invasion ignited the flame for that.
… and how did you get interested in music?
My early exposure to music that really impacted me, came when I was 9 years old. Once a month, on a Saturday or Sunday, my dad would take me and my brother down to Maxwell Street, an open-air market, which later became known as the birthplace of the Chicago Blues. It was a 3 or 4 block area just south of the city where everything was for sale… fake “solid gold” watches, tools, even companionship! In the alleys and on street corners, blues musicians would perform. They’d sit on an apple crate playing the Mississippi blues, later coined “Chicago Blues”. I’d never heard anything like that! My only exposure at that age was big band music from the 40’s that my parents would play at home or on the car radio. I heard that Muddy Waters along with other Chess and Vee-Jay recording artists, had early beginnings on Maxwell Street that made them some extra cash. So, I may have seen them perform without even realizing it. Just to hear and see that music was electrifying! I guess that’s why they call it Electric Blues. Then at 12 years old, I’d started to play guitar when my older brother Dennis, who was a blues fan, took me to see Howlin’ Wolf (pctured right). It was at a tavern in Chicago under the “L Tracks” (Chicago’s famed elevated railway). We went on a weeknight, I think it cost us $1.00 at the door, there were maybe 20 people in the entire place including us. I met Hubert Sumlin there and asked him if I could play his guitar. The strings were so high off the neck, I couldn’t even press them down. He was very encouraging and told me to “keep on practicin’. Little did I know that these same folks would soon become famous.
Did you get to see any of the great Chicago soul artist play live? Did you even get to play on any of the records?
In ’63, I went to the Regal Theatre a few times and saw Gene Chandler, Chuck Jackson, The Drifters, all the soul stars of the day. Red Foxx was the MC. I saw James Brown in 1963 in an Armory outside of Toledo, Ohio. That was during his “Live at The Apollo” LP era and long before his success of “I Feel Good”. What a show! Until James Brown came along, the only entertainer that moved like that was Jackie Wilson. James Brown took it to another level.
Did you ever get to play on any of the classic Chicago recordings?
I’ve never played on any tracks for “soul artists of the day”. But I asked Johnny Pate, (pictured left) the producer/arranger for all of The Impressions hits, to arrange a few songs I had written. They were for an artist that my manager and I were producing. That’s how I met Johnny and the top studio musicians in Chicago that were playing on all of the hits that came out of Chess and Vee-Jay. Later my band (The MOB) also asked Johnny Pate to oversee some of our early recording sessions we did in NY at Mirasound Studios.
I believe that you once met Curtis Mayfield… tell us about that.
The first time I met Curtis was in the office at Vee-Jay Records. I had written a song and was making the rounds on what was called “Record Row” in Chicago. It was located on south Michigan Avenue, where all the indie R&B record labels like Chess, King, Vee-Jay, Constellation and One-der-ful Records were. The only major label in Chicago was Mercury, which was in a 40-story building on Wacker Drive. You couldn’t get in to see anybody there. On the other hand, you didn’t really want to because the only hit R&B artist they had were The Platters and that was in the 50’s. Now on this particular day I was able to get into Vee-Jay and speak with Calvin Carter, who was the A&R man for the label. As I sat across from him at his desk, I noticed a plaque on the wall behind him. It was a BMI Award for writing the hit “He Will Break Your Heart”. Listed under the title was his name along with Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield. I mentioned to Calvin of how I was a big fan of Curtis Mayfield. He responded with, “Would like to meet him?”
I was nervous as hell. Curtis happened to be in the office that day. Calvin returned after a second with Curtis and introduced him. He was very humble and soft spoken. How very thoughtful of Calvin to make our acquaintance. That simple gesture changed my life! The second time I met Curtis was outside of my music attorney’s office in downtown Chicago on Monroe Street. Curtis had the same attorney that I did. I was walking into the building for an appointment, and he was walking out. I recognized him because he was dressed immaculately, like a successful recording star. I mean he stood out in the crowd. At least to me he did. He had this beautiful, stylish topcoat on and a stingy brim hat. It looked like he’d bought it in England. I said, “Hey Curtis! I met you at Vee-Jay Records ….”. It had been a few years later, so I don’t think he remembered me. I recall he turned around and had kind of a startled look on his face. Like, “Who is this white boy? He’s not supposed to know me or my music”. Keep in mind, this was in 1963. The last time I met Curtis was when my group The MOB was performing at PJ’s out in Los Angeles. At the time that was one of the most popular clubs to perform in, besides The Whiskey A Go Go. I knew Curtis’ manager (Marv Stuart) from back in Chicago. Prior to Marv becoming a manager, he was a drummer in his brother’s wedding band. Curtis had started Curtom Records and was looking for acts to produce. Marv & Curtis were out in LA conducting business and stopped in to see The MOB perform. He came backstage and we talked for a little bit. We had just signed with Jerry Ross (Colossus Records), so having Curtis produce us was not going to happen. I believe this was at the same time he signed, Baby Huey & The Babysitters. Baby Huey was popular in the college circuit.
Your first big break in the music biz was with the pop group, Buckinghams… would you like to say more?
It was totally unexpected. I had releases out by Dee Clark, Brian Hyland, Mousie & The Traps and more. I never expected anything to happen after I had given their manager Carl Bonafede the song “Kind of A Drag”. (the song became a huge hit) As Lou Rawls once told me in his dressing room regarding what makes a record a hit, he said, “James, all the stars in the universe have to line up just right.” And that’s basically what happened.
Then I think you went on the road with the Dick Clark Show…. We’re not familiar with that. What was it and what was it like…who did you get to play with?
Dick Clark had a television dance show, which was out of Philadelphia that became the # 1 music show in the country. I believe he went on the air in the late 50’s. He parlayed that into becoming a rock n’ roll tour promoter. He called it “The Dick Clark Caravan of Stars Tour”. He would hire 10 – 12 acts, of the top recording artists, put them all on two Greyhound Busses with a band and travelled across the US. The tours would last 30 days, all one-nighters. We played small theatres and venues. The average audience size was around 1,500, tickets were $2. I was the guitar player in one of the back-up bands. I did it for about a year. I backed up most of acts of that era, such as The Supremes, Major Lance, Del Shannon, The Velvelettes, Brian Hyland, Dee Sharp, the Ad Libs and a variety of others.
You eventually formed your own band, The MOB. (below) Tell us about that part of your career.
When the US waged war on Vietnam, my mother urged me to register for college to avoid being drafted. Both of my older brothers had served in the military and were lucky they were not injured. That January of ’66, the musicians of one of the back-up bands on the Dick Clark tour, decided to form a group and play on the weekends to make extra cash. That band became The MOB. At that time there was not a single band that played R&B or had a full horn section. It seemed every band was mimicking The Beatles, which consisted of two guitars, bass, drums and possibly a Farfisa organ.
Why did The MOB pack it all in?
We were on the road, grinding it out for 15 years. We were on several labels throughout the years and although we were the first band to have a full horn section, we were considered just another BS&T or CHICAGO. The music was changing, we were all eventually married with children and decided to pack it in. That was the lowest point of my life.
I believe that you then turned your back on music – why? Disillusioned? You followed a career in sales… what was that like? Did you miss the music biz?
Music changes every 10 years or so and by the time we had logged in 15 years we were considered “old guys” and the music we played was not relevant. We started out playing stuff by Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Brown and Otis Redding. By the time 1980 came, we were trying to stay current and playing disco type music. Even The Stones were playing “I Miss You”. It was the summer of 1980 and we were performing at a beautiful new club in Memphis, right on the Mississippi. I’d sent a demo tape with the latest batch of songs I’d written back to LA, to one of the A&R guys at a record label. I called from a phone booth outside in the motel parking lot. I didn’t want the guys in the band to hear the conversation if it was going to be bad. This was their livelihood. I got the A&R guy on the phone and he said he liked some of the songs. And then he said, “James. How old are you guys now?” I thought to myself, what the hell does that have to do with the music? I mumbled something back and I said, “Why?” He said, “Well you guys have been around, awhile right? The demographics for record buyers are between the ages of 12 and 21. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think any label is going to want to sign you at this point.” Talk about a stab in the heart! He went on to sugar coat the conversation a little and said, “Hey, any time we’re in Vegas you guys are the act we want to see. You always put on a great show. Take care and good luck to you.” I hung up the phone and was devastated. I knew it was over. I called my wife back in LA and told her it was over. She panicked and said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know but I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to end up playing the Top 40 in a bowling alley.”
That was June of 1980 and it took me until October to get up enough courage to tell the guys I was leaving. That and leaving my wife (see below) was the toughest thing I ever had to do. I called a band meeting and told the guys that I was going to leave the music biz and that they could hire another guitar player and keep going. They all decided not to go on. We had contracts booked until the end of December. Our last gig was 3 weeks at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. They had a beautiful, small showroom, similar to ones in Las Vegas. 12/31/1980 was our last performance. I cannot tell you how hard it was to perform our shows that night. It was all a blur. I don’t remember a thing. The first week in January 1981, I started to look in the paper for a sales job. Someone suggested to me that maybe I could pursue that as an occupation. It took me a few months to find a job and got hired by an insurance company, no salary, commission only. I HATED IT. It lasted about a month. Then I got hired by an office equipment company called Pitney Bowes. While I was in training, my marriage imploded and I moved out. I’d lost my identity/career in music and my family. I hit rock bottom. To this day, I don’t know how I made it through. I sold all of my instruments and equipment and could not bear to listen to the radio. We’re in the 80’s now and it was a long way from Windy City Soul.
How did you cope?
It was tough. That first year, one day I was in the field driving my 1966, blue VW Bug and making cold calls on companies. I was trying to sell them a copier. After an appointment, I got in my car and accidentally turned on the radio. “Kind of A Drag” came on. The tears started streaming down my face and I had to pull the car over to the curb. I broke down and cried. What had I become? Day by day, month-by-month, year-by-year, I slowly re-invented myself. I learned to accept this new identify I had to take on in order to survive. I still had a son I was responsible for. I couldn’t relate to the music that was popular and didn’t want any part of it.
When and why did you decide to make a comeback? And when it came to the crunch why did you decide to resurrect the Chicago soul sound of the 60s?
I didn’t really think about making a comeback. When Amy Winehouse came on the scene, I became hopeful that there was still an audience out there that would appreciate classic soul music from the 60’s. She led me to Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, because Amy had recorded in their studio in Brooklyn. I started to write songs again but not thinking anything would happen. Five years ago, I did an interview on a local public radio station for a show called “Rock n’ Roll Stories”. Tom Waldman ,(left) the creator and writer of the show, interviewed song writers every week. His guests were, Charles Wright from Watts 103rd Street Band, Lonnie Jordan from WAR, etc. After I did the show, he told me that he’d written a 1960’s musical called “East Side Heartbeats” and would I be interested in writing a song for the play? I ended up writing all the songs for the play. The play had two very successful SOLD-OUT runs. That little success lit the fire under me to write songs again. I learned that a writer should only write what he knows. I knew the music I grew up with. I lived and breathed Windy City Soul. Listening to the music of the vintage soul artists that are out there, I didn’t really hear a lot of Chicago influenced soul music. I do hear a lot of southern soul, Stax/Volt, James Brown, funk and a little Philly Soul. I thought this is a niche that nobody has tapped into.
So, briefly how did you put the EP together. Writing, recording, finding the right players etc…
I found a small studio in North Hollywood, which I had been referred to by someone I worked with. It turns out the engineer/owner (Steven Cohen) was from Chicago and very familiar with Chicago Soul music. As a young man, he’d played a few gigs with Donny Hathaway and The Chi-Lites. So, when I told him what my vision was, he was all in. I started to search the night clubs, looking for musicians that could play my music authentically and in-the-pocket. I went through quite a few musicians, before I found the ones that I was happy with.
There are just five songs on the EP. Three are clearly based around Curtis Mayfield – two though sound a little like Tyrone Davis’s early work. Was that conscious?
Yes. I also pay tribute to Gene Chandler in “Still The Fool”, although Curtis did write most of his material. So, you are Right On in your observation.
What’s your favourite track- or what’s the one that best sums up what you were hoping to achieve?
I would say “Sweet Soul Song”. I love the way the ballad came out. I wanted to capture the Chicago soul sound of the early 60’s in both the melody and the arrangement.
Why did you choose Gene Chandler’s ‘Just Be True’ as the reference point for the record’s artwork? It’s very clever.
Thank you. “Just Be True” was and is one of my favourite Mayfield written and Chandler performed songs. I was trying to come up with an idea for the cover and didn’t want something typical looking. I don’t remember how I stumbled on the idea. I may have been looking through my LP collection and the light bulb came on. It’s a perfect cover for the music, the artists and the musicians that I am paying tribute to.
I believe that you contacted Johnny Pate about the project. Apart from his enthusiasm what other reactions have there been?
All have been great. The reviews continue to come in every day, all very supportive. I have to say other than getting Johnny’s blessing, the musicians that I use are not folks For Hire, if they don’t like the music. I knew I was on the right track when after I would play the song for them, they’d say, “James. That’s a great tune. Let’s do it.”
Given we’re in pandemic, how will you be promoting the record and what are your hope for it?
I’ve updated my website at www.jamesholvay.com with information and links to my social media channels. With all the new social media platforms, and new ways people discover music, I’m looking forward to building my audience and teaming up with new media partners who promote music.
It’s a great comeback, so what next for James Holvay?
I am always writing and going into the studio. I hope to continue to release music until I can’t do it anymore. It’s what I do. It would be fun to perform LIVE!
Finally, can I put you on the spot and ask you to name your three favourite Chicago recordings – maybe the ones you think best sum up that classic Windy City soul sound?
That’s a tough question, when you think of all of the great Chicago Soul artists that existed. I would say, “It’s All Right” – The Impressions, “Just Be True” – Gene Chandler and “I Do Love You” – Billy Stewart. I’d like to list all the hits by: Major Lance, The Dells, Barbara Acklin, The Chi-Lites, I could go on and on.