Since 2005 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.

Most musicians use their first professional endeavors to find a voice and develop their chops. So I love it when artists “spin off” into new sounds, even if they break up beloved bands to do it. Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler both left the Impressions to follow their own soulful muses, and 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 the band Chicago. Today’s Secret History of Chicago Music subjects are drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt and bassist Eldee Young, who likewise left a great gig to form their own celebrated group, Young-Holt Unlimited.

Eldee Devon Young was born in Chicago on January 7, 1936. His machinist father also played the mandolin, and his mother spent most of her time raising the family’s eight children. Young learned guitar from a brother at age ten, but he switched to upright bass at 13 and promptly began gigging professionally. He played an after-hours club on Sunday nights from 2:30 AM till dawn, then came home for breakfast and left for school. Isaac “Redd” Holt was born on May 16, 1932, in Rosedale, Mississippi, and raised in the Windy City. He started on the 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 those years, Young was lucky enough to catch shows by Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington, which further solidified his desire to become a full-time musician. He played with Holt and Lewis in hard-gigging, play-the-favorites jazz band the Cleffs until after his graduation in 1953—in fact it was Holt who broke up the group when he joined the army after college in 1955 (he was stationed in Germany, where he played in a military band).

Young stood just five foot one, but as a bassist he was a towering figure and a consummate entertainer. In the early 50s, he played with trumpeter and bandleader King Kolax (schooled by famous Chicago music educator Captain Walter Dyett), then left to gig 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 he eventually tired of the road grind and returned to Chicago to play jazz again.

Holt, Young, and Lewis had worked together extensively already, of course, but in the fateful year of 1956 they debuted as the soon-to-be legendary Ramsey Lewis Trio. Their first album, Ramsey Lewis and His Gentle-men of Swing, came out on Chicago label Argo, where that lineup would stay for most of their ten years together. In 1958 the album Lem Winchester and the Ramsey Lewis Trio Perform a Tribute to Clifford Brown augmented the group’s evocative soul-jazz vibe with literal vibes, courtesy of vibraphone player and police officer Winchester (who died in a gun accident in 1961). 

YouTube video
Eldee Young and Redd Holt played on the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s first smash, “The ‘In’ Crowd,” in 1965.

The staggeringly prolific trio released more than 20 LPs over the next decade (including two Christmas albums), but it wasn’t till 1965 that they had their first smash—a cover of the Billy Page tune “The ‘In’ Crowd,” which had been a hit for Dobie Gray earlier that year. The trio’s gritty, jazzy, instrumental take on the tune (recorded live at Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C.) hit number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October 1965 and peaked at number two for three weeks on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart. 

The album The In Crowd, released the same year, became the trio’s first gold record, but unfortunately it would also be the group’s last with Young and Holt. The pressures of fame may have caused internal friction that pushed them to leave, but it wasn’t an easy choice. “We had worked so hard on this music together, and when the group broke up, it was like a family breakup,” Young told the Chicago Tribune in 1996. “I took it very hard.” The two of them were soon replaced by Cleveland Eaton and future Earth, Wind & Fire drummer Maurice White. 

YouTube video
A track from Redd Holt’s 1963 solo album, which featured Eldee Young and Ramsey Lewis in the backing band

The Ramsey Lewis Trio had never been either musician’s only gig, though, and by 1965 Young and Holt had both cut albums under their own names—Young released Just for Kicks in 1962 (with a group that included Holt and pianist Mal Waldron), and Holt dropped Look Out!! Look Out!! in 1963 (with Lewis and Young in the backing band). 

In 1966 they formed the Young Holt Trio with pianist Hysear Don Walker, though they would only make one LP under that name: Wack Wack, released by Brunswick that 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 their two names in 1967, Feature Spot, with Lewis on keys. Then, at last, after adding groovy electric organist Ken Chaney, they christened themselves Young-Holt Unlimited.

YouTube video
The title track of the Young Holt Trio’s Wack Wack was a minor hit in 1966.

Under their new name, the group signed to Brunswick and debuted on LP in ’67 with The Beat Goes On, which included several covers, among them Sonny & Cher (the title track) and the Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations”). They hit big with their third LP (fourth if you count a live album), the 1968 release Soulful Strut. They scored an international hit with the title cut, which was originally the instrumental backing they’d recorded for Barbara Acklin’s “Am I the Same Girl.” The grooving single went gold in less than three months, selling more than a million copies, and climbed to number three on the Hot 100.

YouTube video
You’ve almost certainly heard Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut,” even if you never knew that’s what it was called.

Young-Holt Unlimited couldn’t match that success with their subsequent albums—1969’s Just a Melody, 1970’s Mellow Dreamin’ (which does occasionally verge on smooth jazz), and 1971’s Born Again. But in 1973 they dropped an LP that’s since come to be considered a minor classic. Plays Super Fly, released on Paula Records, has been a fave of this author for many years—the cover pictures the duo decked out in flashy, funky duds, and the grooves make plenty of slamming funk moves too.

Only half the album consists of covers of the famous Super Fly soundtrack, but they might outdo the originals—Young and Holt’s radically different versions accentuate the danceable and jazzy elements of the music, along with its weird, wah-wah’ed side. In other hands, this might’ve 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 this past June for Record Store Day.

YouTube video
Young-Holt Unlimited cover “Freddie’s Dead” from Curtis Mayfield’s famous soundtrack to Super Fly.

Plays Super Fly didn’t reverse Young-Holt Unlimited’s declining fortunes, though, and they split up in 1974. In 1983 they got back together with Lewis for the one-off Columbia Records LP Reunion, credited to the Ramsey Lewis Trio. 

Holt continued with a group called Redd Holt Unlimited, and though they didn’t record past the 1970s, he gigged under that name into the ’90s. He began working in jazz education in Illinois, and in 1988 he played the Montreux Jazz Festival. More recently, Holt held down a weekly trio gig at the East Bank Club in Chicago, which led to his first recorded outing in more than four decades, the 2018 LP release It’s a Take! on the Treehouse label.

Young stayed busy as a musician too, and in the 80s he began performing regularly in Asia, including Vietnam, India, Malaysia, and especially Singapore; he died of a heart attack on February 12, 2007, at age 71, while touring Thailand.

Holt and Young won’t soon be forgotten, not least because Young-Holt Unlimited have been sampled more than 200 times for hip-hop tracks by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, the Beastie Boys, Eric B. & Rakim, and Gang Starr. Reissues continue to hit the racks as well, and the musicians’ legend keeps growing. 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 their work with Lewis—their own vision deserves immortality too.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.