Red Holloway, jazz musician and Cambria resident, dies at 84

Red Holloway is shown in August. He lived in Cambria.
Red Holloway is shown in August. He lived in Cambria. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Red Holloway, jazz musician and grand marshal of the 2011 Pinedorado Parade, died Saturday. He previously had suffered a stroke and had been in line for a kidney transplant.

The 84-year-old tenor saxophonist lived in Cambria for about a quarter-century and usually traveled about 30 weeks a year to play for crowds of jazz lovers at venues all over the world.

In an interview last year with Tribune staff writer Patrick Pemberton, Holloway talked about his autobiography, which he titled: “If You Do Not Like Foul Language and a Lot of Sex, Do Not Buy This Book.”

He was born to a 13-year-old girl, escaping the segregated South for Chicago and performing with legends including Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Sonny Rollins, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.

Holloway was destined to play music since he was a child.

“My mother played organ and piano in the church,” he said. “And I used to pump the organ and took piano lessons from her.”

While his mother was strict about his music — “You can’t go out until you finish that page,” she’d tell him — their closeness in age helped them develop an unusual mother-son bond.

“We was like brother and sister,” Holloway said. “Yeah, lemme tell ya — my mother was really something. She always kept me laughing and kept me involved in a whole lot of different projects. I could ask my mother anything.”

When his mother became pregnant at age 12, the family of Holloway’s father, then 17, whisked him off to Los Angeles. Holloway moved to Chicago with his mother when he was just 5, and he didn’t see his father until he was about 20.

“My father somehow found out that she had a couple of beauty shops, “ Holloway said. “And, thinking she had a lot of money, he came to Chicago and wooed her again, and they got married. So I was no longer a bastard — I was legal. But it didn’t last. Because even with two beauty shops, you don’t have a lot of money.”

Musically, Holloway was gifted, learning to play harmonica, piano, flute and drums. But he began his music career playing sax.

Though he hadn’t played sax long, he wound up playing and touring with Gene Wright’s big band while still in high school. Then, he got drafted and played in the U.S. Army band.

“I didn’t join the Army, “ he said, clarifying that it wasn’t his choice to give up his music gig. “I went in screaming.”

When he got back to Chicago, the jazz player immersed himself in the blues. “Roosevelt Sykes and my mother went to school together, “ he said. “And he was a blues player. And so he came to visit my mother and he saw that I had a saxophone. And he said, ‘Boy, can you play that thing?’ I said, ‘I think so.’ He said, ‘Lemme hear something.’ And he started playing the blues, and I played with him.”

That shift led to gigs with other bluesmen, including Bobby Bland, B.B. King and Junior Parker.

“When he first came to Chicago, I played with Muddy Waters because I was working with the Chess brothers from Chess Records,” he said. “But when Little Walter came on the scene — the harmonica player — the Chess brothers no longer used saxophone; they used a harmonica.”

Holloway learned early on to be flexible, which is why he has performed blues, jazz and rock.

“You learn that, in order to eat, you have to play whatever they want,” he said.

While in Chicago, he had the opportunity to perform with Billie Holiday. A year before her death, Holiday’s famous relationship troubles were evident, Holloway said.

“Her husband was a real dog — he was a pimp, “ Holloway said. “I asked her a few times, ‘Why are you still with this dog?’ and she said, ‘Because he loves me.’ And I said, ‘S---, he loves your money.’ ”

Tribune staff writer Patrick S. Pemberton contributed to this report.