James Holvay’s New, and First, EP is a Sweet Slice of Chicago Soul
If you’re a baby boomer, you’ve heard the pop classic “Kind of a Drag” by the Buckinghams a thousand times.
The song’s writer, James Holvay, didn’t even know it was climbing the charts and barely acknowledged the feat when the song reached number one in Billboard in the U.S. in February 1967.
Holvay, a Chicago-born guitarist, was playing with his band, The MOB, at Los Angeles’ happening rock club, the Red Velvet, when he got the news. It was hardly the celebratory moment a number one record calls for.
An acquaintance, almost in passing, informed him and the other members of The MOB that the record had reached number one and brought out a cake that said, “Congratulations. Kind of a Drag is Number One.”
“That’s when I found out,” Holvay said. No champagne, no wild party.
The MOB was a young band focused on breaking through and no one was sure of anybody’s motivations or how long the whole thing would last.
His bandmates were worried that Holvay, already a seasoned musician in his early 20s who had a number of his songs released as singles by other artists, was going to take off and become a Brill Building songwriter. “Nobody said a word. That was it. Woke up the next day and we were back on the road and going to another job.”
For his part, Holvay was afraid to acknowledge the success because he thought his bandmates thought he might leave. “I look back at those times and go, ‘Man, I was kind of in a weird place.’ I was afraid to acknowledge that, ‘hey, I’ve got a number one freaking hit record,’” he said.
So “Kind of a Drag” was kind of happy accident, or unhappy accident, for Holvay.
He has always been a soul man at heart. Now, after joining his first band as a 12-year-old, writing songs for other artists, and 15 years with the never-able-to-make-it-big The MOB, Holvay has released his first solo set, Sweet Soul Song, a five-song disc of Chicago-style soul music.
The songs range from up-tempo numbers like “Working On It” and “Talking About It” to the ballad “Still the Fool.” The title track, “Sweet Soul Song,” is a salute to the singers and hometown musicians he worshipped while growing up like Major Lance, Gene Chandler and especially Curtis Mayfield.
“Curtis Mayfield was the guy that I always idolized,” Holvay said. “I always gravitated toward black music when I was a kid. My roots were always in black music.”
In 1965, Holvay was recruited as a guitar player for Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars band. On a tour Holvay befriended Brian Hyland who had the hits “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Sealed With A Kiss” and the pair wrote many songs together.
In 1966, Holvay formed The MOB, an ahead of its time rock band with horns, the kind of sound that would lead to big success for Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago a few years later. (An early member of The MOB was James William Guercio who went on to produce and manage Chicago.)
“We thought we were going to be the Beatles any month,” Holvay said. None of their records did much and instead the band made a living on the road.
Holvay continued writing songs and gave “Kind of a Drag” to the Buckinghams’ manager and didn’t give it another thought.
“‘Kind of a Drag’ was a total fluke because I had had probably five or six 45s out by different artists before “Kind of a Drag” hit. Dee Clark, Brian Hyland, Mousie & The Traps. Two guys named Kane and Abel. A couple of doo-wop groups. And none of them became hits. So I was totally unaware when this thing came up and it went all the way up the charts. Totally did not know it,” Holvay said.
“My big influence was Curtis Mayfield. I had already had all these 45s out. Some of them were very professionally produced. So, when I first heard ‘Kind of a Drag’ on the radio it sounded cheesy from where my musicality was. I was an older musician. The Buckinghams were young guys who were playing record hops. So, when I heard the thing on the radio with the Farfisa organ, I thought, ‘eehh, God.’”
Now, Holvay said, “I’m very proud of it when I hear it and not critical of it. I had a number one record.”
Every penny that Holvay made from the record and his other writing efforts he put back into The MOB. After the band broke up on New Year’s Eve in 1980, Holvay quit the business, sold his instruments and gear and entered a rock bottom dark period.
About 15 years ago, Holvay began making cassette tape demos in his Los Angeles apartment.
“The thing that kicked it into gear when Amy Winehouse came on the scene and I said, ‘wow, that’s 60s music.’ And then Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. That gave me some inspiration to keep doing it.”
Three or four years ago Holvay began thinking about putting a record together in earnest. He polished the songs he thought were good and began writing new ones. He scouted around to find a studio and musicians to help him realize his vision for the record.
His formula for making an authentic, not retro, sounding soul record was a simple one. “You start with a good song, a song that sounds like that era and then you’ve got to have the musicians that are going to play it correctly. And then it all has to fit,” Holvay said.
“It came out great. I’m happy with the songs and the way the musicians played them and the production and the mix,” Holvay said. “You’ve got to be true to the genre and it being believable.”
With one record done, Holvay is working on another EP, which will also be filled with songs of the music he loves, Chicago soul.
“That’s my niche. That’s the stuff I can write and write authentically,” he said.
To learn more about James Holvay, visit his website at jamesholvay.com.
Sweet Soul Music can be purchased by clicking on the Amazon link.