Since 2004, Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the secret history of Chicago music to shine a light on valuable artists with Chicago ties who were overlooked, underappreciated, or never noticed in the first place.
Most musicians use their first professional efforts to find a voice and develop their chops. So I love it when artists “transform” into new sounds, even if they’re breaking up beloved bands to do so. Both Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler left the Impressions to follow their own soulful muses, and the jazz-funk ensemble the Pharaohs planted the seeds of Earth, Wind & Fire. Terry Kath, Walter Parazaider and Danny Seraphine played together in two popular garage bands (Jimmy Ford & the Executives and The Missing Links) before forming The Big Thing, which would become Chicago. Today, the subjects of Chicago’s secret music history are drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt and bassist Eldee Young, who also left a big gig to form their own famous band, Young-Holt Unlimited.
Eldee Devon Young was born in Chicago on January 7, 1936. Her stagehand father also played the mandolin, and her mother spent most of her time raising the family’s eight children. Young learned guitar from a brother when he was ten years old, but switched to double bass at age 13 and soon began playing professionally. He played at an after-hours club on Sunday evening from 2:30 a.m. until dawn, then came home for breakfast and left for school. Isaac “Redd” Holt was born May 16, 1932 in Rosedale, Mississippi, and grew up in the Windy City. He started on drums while attending Crane High School.
While Young was in high school himself, he met Holt and pianist Ramsey Lewis, then at Wells High (where future students would include Mayfield and Butler). During these years, Young had the good fortune to attend performances by Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington, which further solidified his desire to become a full-time musician. He played with Holt and Lewis in the jazz band “The Cleffs”, until he graduated in 1953. In fact, it was Holt who broke up the band when he joined the army after university in 1955 (he was stationed in Germany, where he played in a military band).
Young was only five feet tall, but as a bassist he was a towering figure and an accomplished performer. In the early 1950s, he played with trumpeter and bandleader King Kolax (trained by famed Chicago music teacher Captain Walter Dyett), then moved on to play with R&B rocker Chuck Willis. He hopped from band to band for years, touring the south with blues artists such as T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner, but eventually got tired of the road and returned to Chicago to play again. jazz.
Holt, Young and Lewis had worked together a lot before, of course, but in the fateful year of 1956 they made their debut as the legendary future Ramsey Lewis Trio. Their first album, Ramsey Lewis and his gentlemen of swing, was released on the Chicago label Argo, where this line-up would remain for most of their ten years together. In 1958, the album Lem Winchester and the Ramsey Lewis Trio pay tribute to Clifford Brown augmented the band’s evocative soul-jazz vibe with literal vibes, courtesy of vibraphone player and policeman Winchester (who died in a gun accident in 1961).
The incredibly prolific trio released over 20 LPs over the next decade (including two Christmas albums), but it wasn’t until 1965 that they had their first hit – a cover of the Billy Page song. “The ‘In’ Crowd”, which had been a hit for Dobie Gray earlier that year. The trio’s gritty, jazzy, instrumental version (recorded live at Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC) reached No. 5 on the chart. Billboard Hot 100 in October 1965 and peaked at number two for three weeks on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart.
The Scrapbook The crowd, released the same year, became the trio’s first gold record, but sadly it would also be the band’s last along with Young and Holt. The pressures of fame may have caused internal friction that caused them to leave, but it was not an easy choice. “We had worked so hard on this music together, and when the band broke up, it was like a family breakup,” Young told the Chicago Grandstand in 1996. “I took it very badly.” The two were soon replaced by Cleveland Eaton and future Earth, Wind & Fire drummer Maurice White.
The Ramsey Lewis Trio had never been the only gig for either musician, however, and by 1965 Young and Holt had both recorded albums under their own names – Young released Just for the adrenaline in 1962 (with a band that included Holt and pianist Mal Waldron), and Holt dropped out Attention!! Attention!! in 1963 (with Lewis and Young in the backing band).
In 1966 they formed the Young Holt Trio with Hysear pianist Don Walker, although they only released one album under that name: wack wack, published by Brunswick the same year and produced by the legendary Carl Davis. The title track reached number 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, but when Walker left that ended the trio. Young and Holt recorded an LP under both their names in 1967, Featured, with Lewis on the keys. Then, finally, after adding groovy electric organist Ken Chaney, they dubbed themselves Young-Holt Unlimited.
Under their new name, the group signed with Brunswick and made their LP debut in 1967 with The rhythm continues, which included several covers, including Sonny & Cher (the title track) and the Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations”). They hit it big with their third LP (fourth if you count a live album), the 1968 release soulful crotch. They scored an international hit with the title cut, which was originally the instrumental backing they recorded for Barbara Acklin’s “Am I the Same Girl”. The groovy single went gold in less than three months, selling over a million copies, and soared to number three on the Hot 100.
Young-Holt Unlimited could not match this success with their subsequent albums, those of 1969 just a melody1970s sweet dream (which sometimes borders on smooth jazz), and the years 1971 born again. But in 1973 they released an LP that has since become a minor classic. Play Super Flyreleased on Paula Records, has been a favorite of this author for many years – the cover shows the duo decked out in flashy and funky misses, and the grooves do plenty of slamming funk moves too.
Only half of the album is made up of covers of the famous super fly soundtrack, but they might top the originals – Young and Holt’s radically different versions accentuate the music’s danceable, jazzy elements, as well as its weird, wah-wah side. In other hands, it might have been a sloppy cash-in, but Young and Holt transform and even add to the super fly mythos. The Liberation Hall label reissued the album last June for Record Store Day.
Play Super Fly did not reverse the waning fortunes of Young-Holt Unlimited, however, and they broke up in 1974. In 1983, they reunited with Lewis for Columbia Records’ single LP. Meetingcredited to the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Holt continued with a band called Redd Holt Unlimited, and although they didn’t record beyond the 1970s, he performed under that name in the 90s. He began working teaching jazz in Illinois and in 1988 he played at the Montreux Jazz Festival. More recently, Holt hosted a weekly trio gig at the East Bank Club in Chicago, which led to his first recorded release in over four decades, the 2018 LP release. It’s a catch! on the Treehouse label.
Young also kept busy as a musician, and in the 1980s he began performing regularly in Asia, including Vietnam, India, Malaysia, and especially Singapore. he died of a heart attack on February 12, 2007, aged 71, while touring Thailand.
Holt and Young won’t be forgotten anytime soon, not least because Young-Holt Unlimited has been sampled over 200 times for hip-hop tracks by Kendrick Lamar, the Beastie Boys, Eric B. & Rakim and Gang Starr. Reissues also continue to come out in stores and the legend of the musicians continues to grow. Chicago scholar and Reader contributor Aaron Cohen interviewed Holt for an upcoming Ramsey Lewis biography, and Holt and Young will surely be celebrated for more than just their work with Lewis — their own vision deserves immortality, too.
The radio version of Secret History of Chicago Music airs on outside the loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 a.m. with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.