The roller-coaster career of Johnny Holiday brings to mind the theme of the classic Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote cartoons—perseverance unrewarded. Here is a singer gifted with a rich set of baritone pipes, terrific taste in material, a good work ethic, nearly 60 years of experience in the music business, and plenty of determination. And yet, when the late lyricist Sammy Cahn first heard some demos of Holiday in the 1990s, all Cahn could say was what everyone else who has heard Holiday has been saying—“Where the &%#$ have you been?”
But now, at the ripe young age of 79, Holiday’s luck is about to turn. At an age when most of his contemporaries are either gone, retired, or in another line of work, Holiday has come out with a new album—or rather a new/old album—one that testifies to his durability and the power of persistence. Johnny Holiday Sings is really two albums in one package. The first 13 tracks were recorded in 1998 under the supervision of Holiday’s friend of 50 years, Terry Gibbs, while the remaining eight tracks comprise Holiday’s entire 1954 album for Dick Bock’s Pacifica label—first issued on a highly collectible ten-inch LP (also titled Johnny Holiday Sings).
The new tracks are time-tested standards, handpicked by Holiday, except for a couple of lively contributions by the team of Gibbs and the late Bobby Troup. “It was Terry’s idea to get the jazz guys in,” says Holiday. “I had stuff but it wasn’t jazz, and he said, ‘We gotta have some jazz.’” Among the older tracks, “Julie Is Her Name,” a Troup love letter to his wife, actress/singer Julie London, brings back an especially fond memory for Holiday. “She wasn’t singing at the time; she was just known as an actress,” he says. “I heard her and said, ‘Gee, Bobby, she has a hell of a sound; if she got the right material, she could go far.’ So he wrote ‘Julie Is Her Name,’ and I was the first to record it.”
Born October 3, 1924, Johnny hails from Chicago, where he started singing at the age of 11, receiving his early training from an opera singer whose disciplining influence contributed to his voice’s longevity. “Originally I was a tenor but made myself into a baritone by working on the lower register,” he says. His given name was Danny Siegel, but his then-press agent Tim Gayle changed it to Johnny Holiday during a casual brainstorming session one day in 1948.
Gigs in the late 1940s were few and far between for Holiday, so he supported himself as a song plugger and record promoter, among other pursuits, while landing the occasional date with bands like the Glenn Miller Army/Air Force Band (under Miller’s successor Ray McKinley) or Charlie Spivak. He came out to California in 1950, armed with some demos that he made with arranger Dennis Farnon, and these discs made some noise within the inner sanctum of Capitol Records. But instead of issuing these four sides, which Holiday thought were “wonderful,” Capitol’s executives insisted that he sing material that was completely alien to his style. “At the time, everybody was belting and they wanted me to belt,” he says. “When you come out here, you don’t know any better, and you figure you do what they want you to do. So [the records] came out and they went nowhere.”
This was only the first taste of what became a repeating pattern of high expectations and dashed hopes for Holiday. The Pacifica album came and went, lauded by critics, overlooked by record buyers. He made another album with arranger Russ Garcia for Kapp in 1957 which didn’t sell, then another, more jazz-oriented date with Marty Paich in 1958 for the Mode label—which promptly folded after getting only a few copies into the shops—and another for the even more obscure Contract label in 1959. “Sammy Davis, Jr. became a really big fan of mine,” Holiday recalls, “and he called me onstage and introduced me. I went backstage and said, ‘I don’t want any money, I need a manager.’ He said, ‘I’ll make the call.’ Nothing ever happened.”
In 1960, Holiday toured Sweden with a septet of Count Basie All-Stars led by Joe Newman, and was offered a chance to stay in Europe for a spell. But instead, he chose to go back to his day job as a music supervisor for an independent music studio. “Even though my heart wanted to sing, I had no guarantees of anything, because the money wasn’t going to be that great,” he recalls. “It made more sense to me at the time. Who knows what would have happened.”
Riding out the British rock invasion, Holiday managed to keep his foot in the door of show business, joining a Hollywood animation studio as a film and sound editor—as well as some of the voices—for cartoons like “Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse” and “Sinbad the Sailor.” He turned up as light and sound director for Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, assistant entertainment director of Las Vegas’s Tropicana Hotel, and all kinds of other jobs. He even tried going on the road selling water-repellent products in Kentucky, developing an aversion to Holiday Inns in the process.
But Holiday never gave up on his dream of making it as a singer of the Great American Songbook—and in an era when male jazz-oriented singers are in short supply, his presence and determination have never been more welcome than they are now. And opportunity has met preparation, for through all of the good and hard times, Holiday has kept his voice in superb shape—and he has watched his health like a hawk since undergoing quintuple bypass surgery in 1985. “I vocalize every day, sing scales, exercises,” he says. “I walk every day. Also I didn’t smoke, never drank, wasn’t into the drug scene. I was a good kid.”