GOLDMINE: Congratulations on your new five song EP Sweet Soul Song which captures the classic sound of Chicago soul music. I enjoy it. It’s so fun. You have been playing guitar a long time.
JAMES HOLVAY: Thank you. I’m glad that you like it. Yes, in the early 1960s, I played guitar at record hops with stars who were visiting Chicago for appearances on WGN television during my junior and senior years of high school, backing up Brian Hyland, Lesley Gore, Johnny Tillotson, Freddie Cannon and others. I began songwriting, too. The local singer Ral Donner ended up recording two of my songs, which came out on the Red Bird label, but didn’t chart.
GM: The first time you charted as a performer was in 1971, so now we celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Mob being in the Top 100, of which producer Jerry Ross’ daughter and our mutual friend Cheri Ross Dorwart reminded me.
JH: I didn’t even realize it is the 50th anniversary. Wow! Cheri is wonderful and I loved her father. I was a record trivia guy when I was a kid and would read the record labels on the 45s, which I know you did too. I can picture seeing Jerry Ross’ name on the Mercury record label for Jerry Butler’s “Mr. Dream Merchant.” He was doing so well with Spanky and Our Gang, Keith, Bobby Hebb, and Jay and The Techniques, too. I kept seeing Jerry Ross’ name show up on the labels and I thought he was a hot producer in the 1960s. Near the end of the decade, our group, The Mob, was headlining in the lounge at The Americana in Puerto Rico, which was a big hotel. In the main room was Shirley Bassey with a big orchestra and we were in the lounge, playing for a month, seven days a week, doing two shows a night. After the very last show of the last night we were there, this guy came up to me and said, “Hey, you guys were great, my name is Jerry Ross, and I would like to produce you.” I just about fell on the floor. None of the other guys in the band knew who he was. I shouted, “You are THEE Jerry Ross!” Then I rattled off everything that guy ever produced, “Sunny,” “98.6,” “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie,” and more. So, I sat down with him and his wife April Young, who was a singer he met and produced, who was like a Lesley Gore type, and got to know them. Prior to meeting Jerry, we had singles out on a variety of labels, Cameo, Mercury, U.S.A., and more, but no album. I gave Jerry the name of our manager, Ed Leffler, and told Jerry that we would love for him to produce us, and I immediately called Ed, who was managing us, Petula Clark, Mac Davis and others. We were the only act he managed who wasn’t a big star. Ed and Jerry worked out an agreement and we flew to New York with a reel to reel tape of about twenty songs that Gary Beisbier and I had written. We played the tape in Jerry’s office and picked out the songs that he liked best and those were the ones which made it onto our first album on Jerry’s Colossus label.
GM: Colossus was the home of Jerry’s Dutch Invasion hits “Venus” by The Shocking Blue, “Ma Belle Amie” by The Tee Set, and “Little Green Bag” by The George Baker Selection, all in the Top 40 when I was in 6th grade. Later that year your album was released. Let’s talk about the single, “Give it To Me” with “I’d Like to See More of You” on the flip side.
JH: I just recorded a new version of “I’d Like to See More of You” for my next EP, with strings on it.
GM: On the original version, Al Herrera’s saxophone stands out and his vocals remind me of David Clayton-Thomas from Blood, Sweat & Tears.
JH: You certainly know our music. The David Clayton-Thomas reference really hurt us because we were the first horn band out of Chicago. We were a combination of three bands, playing R&B and soul music. All the other local bands were comprised of two guitars, a bass, a drum, and maybe a portable organ. We formed The Mob from two Dick Clark Caravan of Stars Tour groups plus another one from Milwaukee called Little Artie and The Pharaohs. Al Herrera was the tenor sax player in his brother Artie’s band. Artie sang lead and Al sang harmony parts on a couple of songs. We formed the group from the best players from the three bands. Artie was our lead singer, sounding like James Brown and a bit like Gene Chandler. We got standing ovations every night for over a year. The guys who became the band Chicago would come and see us and cheer us on. Then Artie got drafted. The whole show was based around Artie, so we thought we were sunk. A couple of us sang a few songs. I sang Major Lance’s “Monkey Time,” but Artie sang the rest of the numbers. Al was in the back, playing sax, along with Gary on trombone, and our trumpet player, Jimmy Franz. After Artie was drafted, our manager suggested Al as the lead singer, and to call us Big Al and The Mob. He told us that the people in the audiences love Al. Al became the new lead singer. One of the reviews we received later said that Al looked like a young Zero Mostel, ha ha. We rehearsed every day for a month. Al was reluctant but we talked him into it. Prior to moving to Milwaukee for work, his family was in Waco, Texas listening to blues, R&B, and soul. Al sang like Ray Charles at the time that Blood, Sweat & Tears broke through with their second album, which we heard, and it blew us away. We thought we were unique and then we heard that album in 1969 with “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” and said, “Wow!” Then the word from promoters of our singles began saying that the singer in The Mob sounded a bit too much like David Clayton-Thomas. So, when you compared Al to him with that song, yes, that is what we were hearing at the time too. Al played that sax part you mentioned, and he did it like King Curtis, who influenced Jr. Walker and so many saxophonists. Jerry Ross was very supportive of Al doing that beautiful solo.
Flip side: I’d Like to See More of You
A side: Give it to Me
Top 100 debut: March 13, 1971
Peak Position: No. 71
GM: That was your second Top 100 single from the album, with the first being “I Dig Everything About You,” with a beach music or Northern Soul sound to it, which you and Gary also co-wrote, just like you did with The Buckinghams’ hits, including “Don’t You Care” and “Susan” after your composition “Kind of a Drag” helped that band break through. Please tell me about “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song),” which we often feature on our Saturday morning radio show.
JH: We owned a converted Brunswick bowling truck to hold us and our instruments and we were riding in it throughout the Midwest doing mini Dick Clark tours with Terry Stafford, April Stevens, and others. I heard the DJ on the radio say, “Hey baby, they’re playing our song,” so I wrote that down in my spiral notebook of potential titles for songs. When I wrote the music for that song, I heard it in my head to be like a Four Tops song, perhaps similar to “It’s the Same Old Song.” When I shared it with The Buckinghams’ producer James Guercio, with lyrics that Gary added, I played it with my acoustic guitar and sang it for him. A few months later I heard “Hey Baby” on the radio and it sounded different from the Four Tops sound I heard in my head, but still was a great record.
GM: On the Saturday morning radio show, we play the song after an introduction that Carl Giammarese from the group sent me. I interviewed Carl and met him and Nick from the band after a Happy Together Tour show here in Florida, with my daughter Brianna. We were Carl’s guests, after my interview with him, which was arranged by another mutual friend of ours, Dawn Lee Wakefield.
JH: Ah, Dawn. You know, I feel that most people, in general, do not get the recognition they deserve, or are not appreciated as much as they should be. Let me say that I really appreciate Dawn. She has been so supportive of me over the years.
GM: I think we all share this Midwest music connection. My wife Donna and I spent four years in Chicago, when Brianna was in elementary school, and we were surrounded by the arts in Chicago. Not only did I hear Chicago rock oldies but also a lot of Chicago soul oldies, which you draw from on your new EP, which begins with “Love Has Found a Way,” which may be my favorite song of the five, although it is hard to pick one favorite as I like them all. To me, this one has a Curtis Mayfield sound with some Impressions harmonies.
JH: It is interesting to hear what other people compare my music to. I agree on The Impressions’ harmonies reference and Curtis Mayfield was someone I idolized as a songwriter and a guitarist. He wrote a bunch of songs for Jerry Butler like “He Will Break Your Heart” after Jerry left The Impressions.
GM: Tony Orlando and I just talked about that song and Curtis Mayfield in my recent interview with Tony. He has a new album out, Timeless - The Hits, where he has re-recorded his hits including his version of that song. The next song on your EP is “Still the Fool,” a slower soul song, that falls in line with some new soul songs I am listening to by Paul Stanley of KISS. Paul has an entourage called Paul Stanley’s Soul Station, and a new album Now and Then with five new songs plus nine soul covers, including the Chicago soul classic, “O-o-h Child.” The eleven member group’s drummer is KISS’ Eric Singer, my friend who I first met in 1969 in our 6th grade class, during the era of Blood, Sweat & Tears and The Dutch Invasion that we discussed. Your song “Still the Fool” is soothing and then in the middle of the EP is the title song “Sweet Soul Song,” with a reference to Major Lance, who had a pair of Top 10 hits in the early 1960s, “The Monkey Time,” which you mentioned earlier, and “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um.” I just learned who his daughter is.
JH: Yes, Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta. I learned that when the Black Lives Matter marches were happening. When they showed her on TV speaking, I spotted that she had her dad’s album behind her, which I have. I backed up Major Lance on the Dick Clark tour also. His song “Hey Little Girl” was the inspiration for The Larks’ song “The Jerk,” who were also on the tour. Major Lance was a great guy who grew up in the projects, along with Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler, in Cabrini Green, which I know you remember from your Chicago years. I was there once for a music session, and it was a different world from where I grew up. My family was from the Wrigley Field area and eventually saved money and bought a house in Brookfield, near the zoo, and my dad would say that is where they found me, in the monkey cage.
GM: The next song on the EP is the bouncy “Talking About,” with a light beach music sound, and it concludes with the Tyrone Davis inspired “Working On It,” which people can listen to on your website.
JH: Thank you so much for mentioning my website and helping to share my stories. I enjoyed talking to you with all your musical knowledge and references. I go nuts talking to guys like you.