After four decades out of the music limelight, singer-songwriter-guitarist James Holvay makes his return with a vital five-song slab of authentic Chicago-style soul music, Sweet Soul Song on his Mob Town Records imprint and set for release on April 16, 2021.
The collection is a vibrant tip of the hat to the music Holvay witnessed and then played in during its 1960s flowering, when such hometown stars — all saluted on its title track — as Curtis Mayfield (lead singer-guitarist-songwriter of the Impressions), Major Lance (whose “The Monkey Time” was one of several smashes penned by Mayfield), and Gene Chandler (nationally known for “The Duke of Earl”) ruled the R&B roost in America.
The Holvay originals on Sweet Soul Song, which range from up-tempo stompers like “Working On It” and “Talking About” to the lush, horn- and string-decorated ballad “Still the Fool,” recall the glory days of Windy City soul, an era that Holvay was able to experience first-hand as an aspiring adolescent guitarist and songwriter.
“Curtis Mayfield was the guy that I always idolized,” says Holvay, who wrote his first song at the age of 12. “I always gravitated toward black music when I was a kid. My roots were always in black music.”
Barely in his teens, Holvay joined the hordes of cleffers peddling their numbers door-to-door on Chicago’s South Michigan Avenue, where such storied record labels as Chess and Vee-Jay observed something like an open-door policy in a competitive hunt for hits. One stop earned him an audience with Calvin Carter, brother of Vivian Carter, one of Vee-Jay’s partners, and the label’s top A&R man and producer.
Holvay recalls, “Behind his desk was this this big plaque from BMI, and it said, ‘To Calvin Carter for ‘He Will Break Your Heart’ — One Million Seller.’ And the writing credit said, ‘Mayfield-Carter-Butler.’ I said, ‘Wow, you wrote that?’ He said, ‘Yeah, me and Curtis and Jerry.’ I said, ‘Oh, I love Curtis Mayfield.’ And he said, ‘You want to meet him?’ And he was at the office. He comes in, little guy, real humble. You could barely hear him when he talked. I said, ‘Oh, you’re the greatest!’ I was probably 15. That was all embedded in my brain.”
The young writer soon fell in with Joe DeFrancesco, a hustling local music promoter and manager. “He would drive around and find these doo-wop guys on the corner,” Holvay recalls. “I’d go write a song and we’d record it, and then we’d go down Michigan Avenue and try to sell it to somebody, to get a couple hundred bucks back for the session.”
With a group of like-minded teenagers, Holvay co-founded a group with a name drawn from a movie title that reflected Chicago’s colorful gangland history: the MOB. The act ultimately became a flashy octet that would have a marked influence on the band Chicago (whose producer-manager James William Guercio played in an embryonic lineup of the MOB).
“All my focus was on that group,” he says. “When I put the MOB together, it was basically a white soul band, a blue-eyed soul band. We had the horns, and guys were jumping all over the stage in pinstriped suits, and we were thinking we were going to be the Beatles.”
However, it was another local act that ended up taking Holvay to the apex of the national charts – as a songwriter. After authoring tunes for such artists as Brian Hyland (whom he supported as a guitarist on Dick Clark’s national Caravan of Stars tour) and Dee Clark, he passed one of his compositions, “Kind of a Drag,” to Carl Bonafede, manager of a Chicago group called the Buckinghams.
“I didn’t hear anything for a year,” Holvay remembers. “One of the guys in the band came into the club and said, ‘You know that song you were playing to Carl a long time ago? I think I heard it on the radio.’ I said, ‘What?’ After I gave Carl the song, the Buckinghams played it in their set at their record hops at the Holiday Ballroom, and the kids would come up and tell them, ‘Oh, I like that song.’”
Signed to U.S.A. Records – an imprint operated by local record wholesaler All State Distributing – the Buckinghams scored an immense hit in Chicago with “Kind of a Drag,” which soared to No. 1 on the city’s 50,000-watt rock ‘n’ roll giant WLS. It ultimately reached the pinnacle of the American singles chart in 1966 as well. Picked up by Columbia Records, the group released three more national hits authored by Holvay in 1967: “Don’t You Care” (No. 6), “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)” (No. 12), and “Susan” (No. 11).
Riding high with these major hits under his belt, Holvay devoted his energy to the MOB. Through the early ‘80s, the band toured regularly and issued several singles and LPs on Colossus, Private Stock, and other indie labels. But, after 15 years on the road, the act disbanded after a New Year’s Eve 1980-81 date in Los Angeles.
Holvay went into sales, but for him music remained an itch that eventually would have to get scratched.
“What got me started again was I began to hear Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Amy Winehouse,” he says. “All of a sudden I’m hearing this indie soul thing from the ‘60s coming out again. There were a whole load of these bands out there, all over the world, in Spain, Italy, England. And I said, ‘God, that’s my music!’ So that music inspired me, and the songs I was writing were in the Major Lance-Gene Chandler-Curtis Mayfield vein. That’s who I am, in my heart.
“I started making cassette tapes in my bedroom 10 years ago. Then I met Steve Cohen, who’s from Chicago. I went over to his little studio in North Hollywood. He said, ‘Oh, there’s a Curtis Mayfield vibe.’ And I thought, ah, he knows what I’m doing. So I started recording songs two or three years ago. Then I started to polish them over a year ago. I met our mixing engineer Cameron Lew a year ago and I played him some stuff. He’s a Motown fan, and he went, ‘Oh, man, I know exactly where you’re at.’”
With Cohen acting as tracking engineer at his Lake Transfer Studios in North Hollywood (and Lew ultimately honing the final mix), Holvay set about recording his new material with a group of seasoned working musicians drawn from the Southern California live music scene.
“I started to go to clubs around town and get referrals on people who I saw who I thought could play the music. I finally found some great players – these are the guys who go out with the O’Jays and the Temptations and Earth, Wind & Fire. They’re road guys, road warriors. The keyboard player had worked at Motown. That’s why the quality of the recording and the groove are so good.”
The EP’s background vocal arrangements were helmed by one of Holvay’s oldest musical compatriots, the Mob’s Gary Beisbier.
Every aspect of Sweet Soul Song was designed for maximum authenticity, right down to the last detail on the record’s cover art, a careful recreation of the LP jacket for Gene Chandler’s 1964 Constellation Records title Just Be True. Crafted with care and played and sung with punch, James Holvay’s debut recording in his own name is sure to delight the most ardent soul music fans.
Holvay himself may be most tickled by praise the record received from Johnny Pate, the legendary arranger of the Impressions, Major Lance, Betty Everett, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, and other stars.
“He’s 97, and living in Texas now,” the musician says. “I sent him a copy of the record, and he said, ‘Ah, Jimmy, that brings back such beautiful memories.’”