James Holvay helped create Chicago’s famous horn-rock sound in the 1960s | The Secret History of Chicago Music | Chicago Reader

Music » The Secret History of Chicago Music

James Holvay helped create Chicago’s famous horn-rock sound in the 1960s

He’s best known for writing the Buckinghams’ “Kind of a Drag” and cofounding the Mob, but he’s still making music more than 50 years later.

By

comment
sh_james_holvay_magnum.jpg

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.


Some artists seem to fall into the entertainment industry, but others might as well be destined for "the biz." Such is the case with Jim Holvay, who must've strummed a guitar before he shook a baby's rattle. Even if you don't recognize this musical polymath's name, you've definitely heard his songs. He's best known for writing the Buckinghams' smash "Kind of a Drag" and for cofounding the Mob, the group that arguably invented Chicago's famous "horn rock" sound. But his story goes a lot deeper than that, and the Secret History of Chicago Music was lucky enough to get all the details from the living legend himself.

James Steven Holvay now lives in Los Angeles, but he was born in Chicago on May 16, 1945. "My parents were from the north side, Foster and Western," he says. "My dad grew up across the street from Wrigley Field. My uncle Jim, who I was named after, lived in an apartment building on Waveland Avenue, just behind the left-field fence. Whenever the Cubs had a home game, we would visit my uncle. My brother Denny and I would run up the stairs to the rooftop to watch the game. When one of the players hit a home run, we would run like hell down four flights of stairs and out into the street in hopes of catching the ball."

Holvay grew up in Brookfield, and his parents liked to joke that they'd found him in the monkey cage at the zoo. He attended St. Barbara School, and before he even reached his teens, his older brother got him hooked on rock 'n' roll by bringing home Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Holvay bought his first guitar and chord book at age 12, and his parents responded to his interests and upgraded him to a better ax and amplifier.

In seventh grade Holvay formed his first band, the Rockin' Rebels. Their first gig was at a go-kart shop in Lyons, with Ray Nichols on guitar, Billy Krien on bass, Dale Soltwich on drums, and Holvay on guitar. "The only thing we knew to play was a blues progression in the key of E and C," he admits. "My brother Dennis came up with the name, which was triggered by Duane Eddy & the Rebels and Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps. Denny spotted a few rebel hats at a five-and-dime store in Brookfield, bought them, and showed up at one of our rehearsals and said proudly, 'You guys are the Rockin' Rebels.'"

One of the Rebels' more memorable gigs was at a gas station on Ogden Avenue in Brookfield. "The owner there ran an extension cord out to the front of the station so I could plug in my tiny Supro amp, and off we went," Holvay says. "Ray Nichols and I played the same blues progression over and over until our fingers bled. A handful of kids stood around with their bikes and watched us. After about two hours (with one break), the owner gave us each a dollar." The short-lived band managed to arrange a recording session, but it didn't go well and yielded no releases.

Holvay took the lead in his next group, Jimmy & the Jesters, which he launched in the spring of his eighth-grade year. "I met the twins, Guy and George Miska, at Ehlert Park in Brookfield, through another schoolmate I also played little league with, Griff Durrett," Holvay recalls. "They knew and sang every Everly Brothers song that was ever recorded and sounded just like them! Their father came up with the name Jimmy & the Jesters. I played lead guitar, Guy played rhythm, George on bass, and Griff on drums. Bob Sladek later replaced Griff, who went on to play with E.J. Mason & the Cool Ones out of Berwyn."

The band kept playing into high school. "The Jesters played a few local church and school dances," Holvay says. "We all attended Lyons Township High School. We played at school events and the Corral, which was the school's local youth center. Guitar instrumentals were popular at that time, and we played all of them (Duane Eddy, Link Wray, the Ventures, the Fireballs, the Marketts). We alternated the instrumentals with Guy and George singing Everly Brothers hits and me singing a few Gene Vincent songs."

Holvay's father further encouraged his son's fledgling music career by taking him to Chicago's famed Record Row (the stretch of Michigan Avenue south of Roosevelt) to visit the offices of the premier labels of the day. "I was the kid that read all of the text on the record labels and found it fascinating," Holvay explains. "It may have been during '61 or '62 when I noticed the address of Chess Records at the bottom of a Chuck Berry LP—2120 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago IL. I also noticed that Vee-Jay Records was located on the same street."

Holvay had started writing songs a year after getting his first guitar, and he'd learned to record them using his dad's Webcor tape recorder. "The popular beat at the time was a cha-cha," Holvay says. "I'd graduated from playing a blues progression to a more melodic C, Am, F, G progression. I would write a cha-cha type song, make a tape, and convince either my brother or my dad to drive me down to what was called Record Row. Mercury was at 35 E. Wacker Drive, and it was very difficult to get past the receptionist. But I could walk into Chess or Vee-Jay all day long."

These visits became almost routine for Holvay. "The first time I went to Chess, I met Willie Dixon," he recalls. "Little did I know at the time, but he was the A&R man for the label and had written and played on many of their hits. He listened to my song and offered a few suggestions. At Vee-Jay, I met Calvin Carter, who was the A&R man for the label. Both Dixon and Carter were very encouraging. The most memorable time was at Vee-Jay when I met Curtis Mayfield, who happened to be in the building. Curtis was a very shy and humble guy."

Holvay joined his third band, the MayBees, as a high school sophomore. "There was a jazz-piano prodigy kid by the name of Ken Rhodes, who I had befriended," he says. "We had a gym class together. He saw me play with the Jesters at numerous school events. He knew the MayBees guitar player, Chico Ledesma, who lived in Westmont. Ken told me the MayBees (who were based out of Aurora) were looking for a hot lead guitar player. I auditioned and got the job, quitting my group Jimmy & the Jesters. That did not go over well with the Miska twins. You could cut the tension with a knife each day we all had to stand on the corner, at the same bus stop, waiting for the school bus."

At that point the MayBees were Holvay on lead guitar, George Torrens on lead vocals, Chico Ledesma on rhythm guitar, Gary Beisbier on tenor sax, Max Gregg on bass, and Don Dalton on drums. The band released three 45s on small Naperville label Terry in the late 50s and early 60s, including "Mary Lou" b/w "You're Just an Angel" and "TR-3" b/w "Angel of My Dreams." The third, an instrumental version of the 1947 hit "Buttons and Bows" backed with a cover of "The Third Man Theme" (from the 1949 movie), was reissued almost 50 years later on a Sundazed CD compilation called Dancehall Stringbusters! 2.

  • The MayBees cut an instrumental cover of "Buttons and Bows" in 1961.

The MayBees played local dances at a Harvey Club called Teen Land and traveled to Wisconsin to gig at a different bar each weekend. "These places were depicted perfectly in The Blues Brothers, minus the chicken wire surrounding the stage," Holvay recalls. The band lost members for the typical reasons: Torrens and Gregg both got married, and both were replaced. Holvay switched to bass, playing alongside Wayne Erwin (vocals), Phil Kagel (lead guitar), Dave Franch (drums), and Larry McCabe (trombone).

"It was 1962 or '63 when we became a great band with two horns!" Holvay says. "We worked almost every weekend. During the summer of '63, Phil and Wayne dropped out to do other things. Luckily, I got a call from a guy by the name of Sal Ferrera, who had a group called Sal & the Sidemen. He said there was a guy by the name of Jimmy Peterson who was looking for a bass player. They were going to go 'on the road,' which is where I wanted to be. I auditioned in drummer Bobby Ruffino's basement and met with Peterson, Bobby, and Chuck Russell, a wonderful jazz guitar player. I told Peterson about the MayBees and the two horn players we had, Gary and Larry. The next rehearsal, they were in the band."

This new group became known as the Chicagoans. "In the summer of '63, the Chicagoans became the house band for a WGN-TV show called Danceville U.S.A. Every Saturday afternoon, we played at a different high school, where they filmed the show live. Every current hit artist coming through the city and promoting their record would make an appearance. We backed up Barbara Lewis, Lesley Gore, Johnny Tillotson, whole bunch of folks."

The band also hit the road, as Holvay had hoped. "In September 1963, the Chicagoans worked our way to New York, where we played all of the popular clubs at that time. The Wagon Wheel, the Metropole, Arthur's, the Round Table, et cetera. We were there when the Beatles came to New York to do The Ed Sullivan Show—it was a very exciting time. GAC, the booking agency we were with, got us a Chubby Checker tour, Terry Stafford, and Nino Tempo & April Stevens gigs—all wonderful people to work with."

While in New York, the Chicagoans cut two sides at Beltone, a studio whose record label had scored a huge hit in 1961 with Bobby Lewis's "Tossin' & Turnin'." But the song that ended up charting in Chicago in 1964 was thrown together during the session. "We cut the two songs quickly and had 20 minutes left on the studio clock," Holvay says. "The engineer asked if we had anything else we wanted to record. Since the Beatles had just arrived, Gary and I wrote an instrumental (with no title) on kind of a lark. We recorded that track, which was later titled 'Beatle Time' by I believe Clark Weber or one of the jocks at WLS. They also changed the name of the band to the Livers."

  • In 1964 this tossed-together track by the Chicagoans charted locally under the name "the Livers."

That Livers single can be considered a milestone in Windy City music history—some historians and critics identify it as the first song to display the soon-to-be-famous Chicago horn-rock sound, two years before the Mob formed.

Later that year, the Chicagoans parted ways with Jimmy Peterson and moved west. "The first place we played was a club called the Blackhawk in Salt Lake City, Utah," Holvay says. "We were there a week and the place burned down with all of our instruments. The owner gave us gas money to get back to Chicago."

The band regrouped with a new drummer named Barry Van Volkenberg and gave it another go. "We headed to San Diego and played a lounge in a huge bowling alley called Parkside," Holvay says. "They had a second entertainment room that was like a showroom in Las Vegas. We were there a week when cops rolled in, pulled us offstage, and wanted to see our IDs. Having just purchased them in Tijuana a few days earlier, we thought we were good. Wrong! We fought the law and the law won. They told us to pack up and vacate the premises ASAP."

A week later, the Chicagoans arrived in San Francisco. "We checked into a fleabag hotel called the Governor and immediately headed to the musicians' union," Holvay says. "North Beach was considered the entertainment district, and we played at every club that had live entertainment. Topless dancing was popular, as was a dance called the Swim. We played the Peppermint Tree, the Galaxy, the Off Broadway, the Purple Onion, the Embers, the Americana, the Robin Hood. The music scene was exploding. There were so many great bands playing in North Beach. While picking up my clothes at a dry cleaners, I met Lenny Bruce. He was a cool guy. I felt like I was talking to a jazz musician."

Holvay returned home to attend junior college, but more musical opportunities arose. "While I was playing with the Chicagoans at the Gi-Gi a' Go-Go in Lyons, Jimmy Ford came in to see us perform. He had a band called Jimmy Ford & the Kasuals," Holvay says. Ford knew the head of the William Morris office in Chicago, and his group had landed lots of road gigs with Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, which played mostly ballrooms in the midwest.

Luckily for Holvay, the Caravan of Stars tours needed a second traveling band. Soon named the Executives, that new group consisted of Holvay, bassist Jim Guercio (future producer of the band Chicago), Hammond organist Kevin Murphy, and drummer Bobby Ruffino (formerly of the Chicagoans). Later that year, Holvay brought in trumpeter Rick Panzer and another former bandmate, saxophonist Gary Beisbier.

"It was grueling riding on that Greyhound bus and making those long jumps from city to city, but it was a phenomenal experience," Holvay recalls. "The camaraderie that developed was priceless." The Executives backed a staggering roster of performers on several mid-60s tours, among them Del Shannon, the Shangri-Las, Tommy Roe, the Ikettes, Tom Jones, Peter & Gordon, and Jimmy Soul.

  • The Mob's fuzzy, funky single "Give It to Me" came out in 1970.

Amusingly, Holvay himself was nicknamed "Jimmy Soul" in his next band, to differentiate between the two Jims in the lineup. That band was the Mob, which he and Beisbier put together in 1966, drawing on members from the two Caravan of Stars tour groups and Milwaukee R&B band Little Artie & the Pharaohs. Secret History covered the Mob in 2015, so I'll skip the whole story here and interrupt Holvay's tale only to reiterate that the Mob pioneered the Chicago horn-rock sound we all know and love today—and that they had the hits and the longevity to back it up.

Holvay has also had a significant career as a songwriter for other groups, most notably the Buckinghams. Holvay knew Buckinghams manager Carl Bonafede from his high-school record-hop days in 1960, back when Bonafede was singing with the Gem-Tones. He recalls the genesis of his most famous song in Bonafede's 2016 memoir The Screaming Wildman: "I was dinking around on a spinet piano in a music practice room at Lyons Township Junior College and wrote 'Kind of a Drag,'" Holvay says. "I wasn't sure Carl remembered I was a songwriter until he asked if I had any tunes. Yeah, I did have something, and Carl asked when he could hear it. I remember cutting a demo of the song on acoustic guitar between shows."

  • James Holvay wrote the 1966 Buckinghams tune "Kind of a Drag," which hit number one the following year.

Bonafede worked with arranger Frank Tesinsky and with his coproducer on "Kind of a Drag," big-band leader Dan Belloc, to add horns to the track—and he did it largely because he'd heard the Mob perform at local clubs. Thus was Chicago horn rock propagated into the 1970s. The Mob continued to release new music until dissolving in 1980, then reunited in 2011.

In a 2021 interview with Goldmine magazine, Holvay sheds light on the genesis of "Hey Baby," another hit he cowrote for the Buckinghams, this one produced by Guercio. "We owned a converted Brunswick bowling truck to hold us and our instruments, and we were riding in it throughout the midwest doing mini-Dick Clark tours," he recalls. "I heard the DJ on the radio say, 'Hey baby, they're playing our song,' so I wrote that down in my spiral notebook of potential titles."

Holvay wrote "Hey Baby" with Beisbier, who added lyrics. Beisbier also contributed to "Susan" and "Don't You Care," and all three tunes were top-ten hits for the Buckinghams in 1967. "Kind of a Drag," released in '66, had reached number one early that year.

In 2016 Holvay contributed songs to Eastside Heartbeats, a musical inspired by Cannibal & the Headhunters' 1965 tour with the Beatles. The Headhunters, a Mexican American band from Los Angeles, got the gig thanks to their version of "Land of a Thousand Dances," which became one of the most widely covered songs in garage rock.

This spring, Holvay released the solo EP Sweet Soul Song, which deftly captures the classic sound of Chicago soul. Inspired by the likes of Major Lance, Tyrone Davis, and Curtis Mayfield, its classy tunes swing between smooth and bouncy—and of course they use that horn sound that Holvay helped pioneer. "I'm planning a second album to be released in November," he adds. "All of your readers can go to jamesholvay.com for details. Thank you for your support!"  v


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.


  • James Holvay released his latest EP in April 2021.

Get our free weekly Early Warnings newsletter 💌

It’s Chicago’s essential months-ahead music calendar straight to your inbox.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →