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Mellow Dreamin’: The Times of Drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt

Written by on June 20, 2023

The “master of time” who recorded in blockbuster jazz combos The Ramsey Lewis Trio and Young-Holt Unlimited, as well as his own Redd Holt Unlimited passed away May 23 from complications associated with lung cancer. He was 91.

The world was introduced to Isaac “Redd” Holt when The Ramsey Lewis Trio hit the scene. The rhythm pairing of Holt’s drumming and Eldee Young’s upright bass perfectly complemented the stylings of pianist Ramsey Lewis. Their first album, Ramsey Lewis and his Gentle-men of Swing, was released in 1956; and hits that straddled the world of jazz pop and soul followed, including an inspired live cover of “The In Crowd” recorded at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C.

From the gentlemanly jazz sounds of The Ramsey Lewis Trio, to the groovy mellow dreaming of the Young Holt Unlimited, to the hip, rhythm forward sounds of Redd Holt Unlimited, and over a career that lasted sixty years, “Redd” Holt continued to lay down a crucial heartbeat. Play his music. And dream.

But before all of that, there were The Clefs.

On September 9th, 1970, allegedly over cold cans of Colt 45, Holt and Eldee Young (then known as Young-Holt Unlimited), joined legendary radio man Wolfman Jack. At the time, Jack had a show on a border blaster station that taped on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, but broadcast across the border in Rosarito Beach, Mexico on a frequency that reached halfway across the United States.

Young divulged the beginnings of their group, which was formed in and based in Chicago:

“We’re going back a while now… We were in high school together when we first started playing together. We played together in high school with a group called The Clefs and we were all kids going to school.

And we kept on going. And then when we come out of high school, the band kind of broke up. Cats had to go in the army. Redd was in the service. And I went on the road to play the blues, and pay my dues. I had to play the blues. So after school, after that happened and Redd come out of the service, that’s when we put the group together. But we worked real hard on that thing, Wolfman, because we wanted to lay something on the people.”

Isaac “Redd” Holt with his drums. Provided.

Redd added, “And dig. Like with the last thing we did, we tried to do the [Young-Holt] Unlimited thing. We want this thing, this whole dream to be mellow. We want this dream to be a mellow dream… a mellow thing for everybody.”

After playing the 45rpm single of “Mellow Dreamin’”, the then-current single by the Young-Holt Unlimited, Wolfman Jack inquired, “Who wrote that song anyway, man?”

Holt replied, “Well, I and my wife [Marylean] put it together.”

“And you had some lyrics,” Wolfman Jack noted. “When we were playing the record, you were giving me some lyrics that were really beautiful. Can you do that again for me?”

Holt replied, “Yeah. It was sort of like we were thinking of a thing of today, of that dream that we were talking about. I like to dream of life to be of years to come so happily. I know my love lives somewhere out there fighting a war with life. I’m mellow dreamin’.”

Mellow Dreamin’ Album, Young-Holt Unlimited (1970)

As I listened to my ¼” tape of that radio conversation, I thought of another conversation, a phone call I had with multidisciplinary jazz drummer Mikel Patrick Avery back in 2021. At the time he’d been based in Chicago for over a decade, and is known for his use of unconventional techniques and instruments, as well as his work with Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society and Matthew Lux’s Communication Arts Quartet, among other configurations.

“Trap is short for contraption,” he explained. “And it’s this idea of, a combination of disparate instruments, kind of from the globe. From all over the place. So I liked that root of it. It’s still, even though there’s a lot of standardization of how the drum set really looks and functions, that you see. But it’s still, at its most basic, it’s still just a personalized instrument.”

I asked him about how he arrived at his beliefs. “The truth is, I got hit by a truck on my bike in like, 2010? Or 2009, or something like that. Kind of messed me up, for a minute. And I was seeing “Redd Holt”, play downtown. Redd Holt, kinda of Ramsey Lewis fame.”

Avery continued, “I would see him play downtown. He played two nights a week, I believe. I would see him on Saturdays, I think, Fridays or… Anyway, he just broke it down. I was just like, ‘Man, I’m not going to be able to be 80 years old, and carrying all these damn drums.’ And Redd is rocking it, with a bass drum and a snare drum, and a cymbal. And it’s just like, all the music in the world is coming out of that stuff. And he’d bring little toys. A triangle, little bells and stuff. It just kind of blew my mind open.

“And just in conversations with him, he’s coming from something else. There’s a lot of kind of leftover Hollywood vaudeville things, in his approach. His relationship with mallets on the drum set, when he would talk about big tympany endings, and he’d be playing. And it was things that I just had not made the connections with.

He would just call it out to the band, ‘Hollywood ending.’ They would do that thing.

And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he’s mimicking early Hollywood. I never made that connection.” That kind of thing. And I would talk to him about it. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, you pull out the tympany.’ Tympany mallets. And like, ‘Oh, it’s sitting there, right in front of my face for half of my life, and I never made the connection.’”

“So, his approach to just the music and then, the things he would bring, just kind of reinforced the things that I was kind of already resonating on. Because I wanted to bring less drums, but expand music, the music I can make, and all sorts, so I was…

He concluded, “And I was teaching a lot, so just having access to kids’ interpretations of… Kind of naturally, critically thinking about things. The whole, the box-isn’t-a-box thing. It’s spaceship, it’s a chair, it’s a drum.

…And then just stealing their shit. Like, oh, that’s a great idea. I’m gonna take that,” he laughed. “Sorry… I’ll credit you!”

Redd Holt Unlimited, circa 1975. Provided.

Isaac “Redd” Holt continued to gig around Chicago through 2020. He also shared his art with children, playing at various Chicago Public Schools through the Urban Gateways program.

Holt’s son, Reggie Holt, shared with the Chicago Sun-Times that his father, “was a superb dad,” adding that he “rode that roller coaster of being in the entertainment field, and I watched him rise up from ashes maybe four different times. There were lean years and lots of odd jobs; he was never too prideful between gigs.”

Through it all, he was a player who was so consistently in the pocket, so consistently in the groove, that according to the Sun-Times, “Holt was known to answer the phone by simply saying: ‘This is the master of time.’” That sense is evidient on the records he left behind, like “Wack Wack” and “Wah Wah Man” by Young Holt Unlimited, and his otherworldly 1975 album The Other Side Of The Moon.

The “master of time” who recorded in blockbuster jazz combos The Ramsey Lewis Trio and Young-Holt Unlimited, as well as his own Redd Holt Unlimited passed away May 23 from complications associated with lung cancer. He was 91.

And in his time, the “master of time” gave us so much to dream about.

Written by Ayana Contreras

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