Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
Blues and soul powerhouse Holle Thee MarCla RoDé Maxwell, born in Chicago on October 17, 1945, has gone by several names and sung in at least as many genres during her long career. She worked what was arguably her first professional gig at age five. She and her mother, Eula Thee Gladys Maxwell, had been harmonizing at home on Albert Hay Malotte’s 1935 setting of the Lord’s Prayer, and they were paid to sing in a church at 59th and Wabash—the congregation that now calls itself Greater Metropolitan Missionary Baptist.
At age nine, Maxwell began studying classical voice and piano at Roosevelt University’s Chicago Musical College, where she continued her studies till she was 17. By the time she was 12, she’d sung onstage in three languages at the Civic Opera House. “I was raised in a European background because of the classical music,” she told scholar Robert Pruter for his 1990 book Chicago Soul. “I could sing in German, French, and Italian. Well, who was I gonna curse out in Italian going to a black school. It took me a long time to figure out who I was.”
Maxwell discovered blues and soul while attending Parker High School in Englewood in the early 1960s, and it was love at first listen—soon she was sneaking out to see local shows by the likes of Harold Burrage, Little Johnny Williams, Otis Clay, and Simtec & Wylie. At around that time, Maxwell also joined girl group the Tourjourettes, showcasing her light, lovely soprano, and in early 1965 she was discovered by producer Bill “Bunky” Sheppard. Sheppard worked with Maxwell (then performing as Holly Maxwell) for two singles on Constellation Records. The first, “(Happiness Will Cost You) One Thin Dime,” got some Windy City airplay, and the second, “Only When You’re Lonely,” is now considered a “northern soul” classic in the UK and beyond. Later that same year she moved to Star Records, and her second 45 for the label, “Philly Barracuda,” became a regional hit in ’66—Maxwell and DJ Herb “the Gent” Kent promoted the single at an event at Crane High School, where she demonstrated how to dance to the tune.
Maxwell changed course in 1967, after a disastrous gig at south-side club Peyton Place, near 39th and Indiana. She sang “Misty,” the signature number of pop crooner Johnny Mathis, and her classical training was still audible in her carefully controlled, somewhat fussy performance, just as it is on “One Thin Dime.” The crowd weren’t having it, and they pelted Maxwell with beer bottles and oranges. One of the other acts that night—blues singer, comedian, and drag artist Wilbur “Hi-Fi” White—explained the problem to her. “Honey,” he said, “you ain’t got no soul.”
“From that point on I was determined to get this ‘soul,'” Maxwell told Pruter. “I listened to Gladys Knight. I listened to Aretha Franklin. I listened to everyone who hollered and screamed.” She’d return to Peyton Place four months later and wow the audience with a stunning version of “Respect.” Maxwell continued to gig under her own name and occasionally backed R&B singer Barbara Acklin, and in 1969 she released a solo 45 on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label—the A side, “Suffer,” was written by Mayfield and Donny Hathaway. She put out one more single in 1970, on the Smit-Whit label, before bailing on Chicago for a while.
In the early 70s Maxwell moved to California, where she helped open a nightclub and sang for three years with legendary Hammond organist Jimmy Smith. She also wrote a tune that appeared on a 1978 album by blues superstar Bobby “Blue” Bland, and from ’77 to ’85 she replaced Tina Turner in Ike Turner’s band, touring mostly in Europe. Despite Ike’s bad reputation, Maxwell insists that their relationship was professional and fruitful, and she even toured with him again in 1992 (at which point she was going by “Holly Maxx”). In 2018, she coauthored the memoir Freebase Ain’t Free about her close friendship with Turner, taking the contrarian view that he was fundamentally kind and generous and his crimes and abuses were aberrations.
After her first stint with Turner, Maxwell returned to Chicago in 1985 to look after her sick mother. Her music also began moving in a bluesier direction, and she frequently played blues-focused venues such as Kingston Mines. That’s where French club owner Gérard Vacher heard her in 1996—he booked her at his Paris venue, Quai du Blues, which was renamed the Maxwell Cafe after she became co-owner. Maxwell performed regularly enough in Paris and around Europe that she was popular on the continent well into the 2000s.
Maxwell sometimes calls herself “the Black Blonde Bombshell,” because for much of her career she’s sported a flamboyant blonde wig (or bleached her hair and worn long blonde extensions). Her voice has grown a little deeper, a little rougher, and much more powerful and expressive than it was in the 1960s—she throws her whole body into her sensual, brazen, bigger-than-life performances. She’s unmistakable no matter who her collaborators are—and she’s worked with a wide range, including the Temptations, Johnny Taylor, the Spinners, the Dells, Fred Williamson, and even Captain & Tennille.
In 2011, Maxwell was booked on a side stage at the Chicago Blues Festival, but only one of the fest’s seven headlining sets featured a woman. In response, blues pianist Joan Gand convened the all-female “Women in the Blues” showcase at Reggies’ Rock Club, and Maxwell came aboard to host. It’s become a recurring event, with shows at Reggies’ and at SPACE in Evanston, and Maxwell has often been involved. During the 2013 Blues Festival, she cohosted a bus tour of Chicago soul and blues history. And in January 2014, she was honored by the Great Black Music Project at Northeastern Illinois University, which added her to its artist registry and released an interview with her as a podcast.
Maxwell was still performing in Chicago clubs when they all shut down this spring. Over the course of a career that’s now in its sixth decade (counting from her debut recording), she’s made friends or fans of luminaries such as Sammy Davis Jr., Redd Foxx, Sidney Poitier, Isaac Hayes, Koko Taylor, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali. She’s now 74 years old, and she continues to win over new audiences—let’s hope it’s not too much longer before she can get back onstage where she belongs! v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.
- Maxwell’s 1965 debut single
- The UK release of the 1969 single “Suffer,” distributed by Buddah Records
- This undated video of Holle Thee Maxwell at the Maxwell Cafe in Paris was uploaded in 2009.
- Holle Thee Maxwell performs during the Chicago Women in the Blues Festival at Reggies’ in 2013.