Saxophonists Red Holloway and Plas Johnson have frequently crossed paths over the years--and have even locked horns on occasion--but Keep That Groove Going! represents the first time the two veteran tenor players have worked as a team. The Milestone Records release carries on a grand tenor-battle tradition in jazz associated with such classic pairings as Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, and Johnny Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, but, as Johnson is quick to point out, "with a blues twist."
The two longtime Southern California residents had been kicking the idea around for years. "We both had the same type of thing in mind," Johnson says. "There aren't many of the old tenor players that play this kind of stuff who are still around and viable. Bob Porter had sort of the same idea."
Porter, whose soul-jazz productions for Prestige Records in the late Sixties are legendary, brought Holloway and Johnson east to Rudy Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio to cut the bluesy, boppin' disc with a highly empathetic trio comprising B-3 organ vet Gene Ludwig, soul-jazz guitar great Melvin Sparks, and ever-swinging drummer Kenny Washington. Keep That Groove Going! features such tenor standbys as Coleman Hawkins's "Stuffy" and Arnett Cobb's "Go Red Go," along with several standards and original tunes by the two tenormen, including Holloway's gospel-shouting title track.
Holloway and Johnson have much in common, including a deep affinity for both bop and blues. And their big-toned approaches to the tenor reached ears well beyond the jazz world during their busy days as studio musicians, Holloway in Chicago, where he contributed to the El Dorados' "At My Front Door" and other rhythm-and-blues hits, Johnson in Los Angeles, on Art and Dottie Todd's "Chanson d'Amour," Jerry Wallace's "Primrose Lane," Henry Mancini's "The Pink Panther Theme," and many more.
Although both musicians made their livings playing on commercial recordings, neither ever turned his back on jazz. "You don't improve your jazz in the studio," Johnson explains. "You're in the studio because of the jazz and blues that you know."
James "Red" Holloway was born in Helena, Arkansas on May 31, 1927. He settled in Chicago when he was five, studied piano for a period, and took up tenor saxophone in 1940 after hearing Lester Young's monumental solo on Count Basie's "The World Is Mad." Holloway played his first professional gig while still in high school, with bassist Eugene Wright's Dukes of Swing, and later toured with bluesmen Roosevelt Sykes and Jimmy Reed, as well as with Lionel Hampton and with R&B star Lloyd Price's jazz-flavored big band. During the Fifties, Holloway was in constant demand for R&B sessions at such labels as Chess, Chance, Cobra, and Vee-Jay, blowing behind the likes of Danny Overbea, the Flamingos, the Moonglows, Otis Rush, and the El Dorados. He also recorded several instrumental singles of his own for Vee-Jay. "In order to make a living as a musician, you've got to play everything," he reflects.
Holloway's big break in the jazz world came in 1963 when his friend Jack McDuff brought him to New York City to play on the now-classic Prestige album Live!. He remained a member of the organist's combo, which also featured guitarist George Benson, for four years and recorded a series of albums of his own for Prestige.
The saxophonist moved to Los Angeles in 1967 and began a 15-year stint as musical director for the Parisian Room. It was while working at the fabled nightclub that Holloway formed a musical partnership with the great Sonny Stitt that lasted from 1977 until the saxophonist's death in 1982. "He loved to challenge horn players," Holloway says of Stitt. "He'd let 'em all come up on the stand. Then, if they were pretty good, he'd switch keys on 'em." Holloway continued recording regularly, including several albums of his own for Concord Jazz, and with such artists as the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut, Ernestine Anderson, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Carmen McRae, and Joe Williams.
Plas John Johnson Jr. was "born on the Bayou" in Donaldsonville, Louisiana on July 31, 1931. His father played banjo and saxophone, his mother played piano, and he made his professional debut at age 10 as a singer with their band. Soprano saxophone was his first instrument, then alto, but he switched to tenor after hearing such players as Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons, and Don Byas. With his brother, pianist Ray Johnson, Plas made his debut recording in 1950 for DeLuxe Records in New Orleans. He went on tour with Charles Brown the following year, spent two in the Army, and settled in Los Angeles in 1954.
Maxwell Davis had been king of the L.A. R&B tenor players until he heard Johnson, after which he concentrated on arranging and producing, hiring the new kid in town to solo with the Cadets, Etta James, and others at Modern/RPM Records. Sessions for other labels soon followed with the likes of the Platters, Fats Domino, Pat Boone, Eugene Church, Larry Williams, and Bobby Day (that's Johnson playing piccolo on "Rockin' Robin"). After being introduced to Capitol Records by bandleader Johnny Otis, Johnson became a fixture at the company, playing on countless sessions with such artists as Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Glen Gray, Billy May, and Nelson Riddle.
"My solos always seemed to bring the record up another notch," reflects Johnson, who did as many as ten studio dates a week in the Fifties and Sixties. "I could do that in eight bars, I could do that in twelve bars, and I was used to maybe do fills behind the vocalist after that."
Johnson always played jazz on weekends and had a long association with trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, with whom he was featured on the theme for TV's The Odd Couple. And like Holloway, he recorded albums of his own and with the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut for Concord Jazz.
The two-tenor team of Red Holloway and Plas Johnson comes as a natural evolution in the careers of the two saxophonists. "There's not too many of the young players playing any decent blues, I mean blues like we know it," Johnson says. "I'm not talking about putting a hundred different changes in a blues chorus. Let's see what you can do with three."
With Keep That Groove Going!, Holloway and Johnson do it indeed!