Friday, June 14, 2013

Boogie-Woogie Boy Bobby Holt

By Chet Williamson

Although he played with Emil Haddad, one of Central New England’s best known musicians, pianist Bobby Holt is a largely forgotten name in the annals of local jazz history

Given the fact that he also played with national acts the likes of Will Bradley, Ina Ray Hutton, and Al Hirt, his profile should be much more recognized.

By most accounts, Bobby Holt was a self-taught pianist, but his mother played the keyboard in the family home. He was somewhat of a child prodigy. At 9, he led his own band, the Kandy Kids, and appeared every Friday at 6:45 p.m. on WORC radio. According to the Worcester Directory, the family lived at 75 Grove Street at the time of Bobby's birth.

Bandleader Eddy “Sham” Shamgochian recalls first hearing him in the 1930s with fellow drummer Eddie Dolbare’s band. “That was a good little band,” he said. “They had a great guitarist by the name of Lou Mercuri [who went on to play with Claude Thornhill]. Bobby was a couple of years older. He was very fine player.”

Eddie Dolbare's Band
According to Worcester Telegram & Gazette writer Ev Skehan, Holt was a regular at the Saxtrum Club, a storefront in the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood owned and operated by young jazz musicians. There, Holt got to test his mettle among such local piano players as Jaki Byard, Don Asher, and Barbara Carroll.

Art Hodes
This was before WWII, in the late 1930s, when Holt was still a teenager. He spent three years at North High School, where he sang in the Boys Glee Club. Holt loved to play the emerging blues piano style known as boogie-woogie, best exemplified by Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis. His favorite player was a “two-fisted blues traditionalist” name Art Hodes, whom he later befriended.

Young Bobby in action
In his book, The Story of Boogie-Woogie: A Left Hand Like God, author Peter J. Silvester stated: “A friendship with Art Hodes assisted [Holt] with the mastery of the boogie-woogie style, which he played with conviction.”

Holt’s break came in 1941 when he received a call to join a national touring band led by trombonist and bandleader Will Bradley of "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" fame. “Holt was leading a band in Worcester, Massachusetts, when the call came,” Silvester said. “Before that he had spent 1940 working in New York attempting to gain recognition for his piano playing,” Silvester said.

Although the opportunity to tour and record for the first time came with Bradley band, Holt’s stay was not long, only two months. He did hang long enough to ask Bradley to be the godfather of Holt’s daughter, Linda.

Holt’s departure was covered by Downbeat, who reported that he was replaced by Billie Maxted for its opening night at the Hotel Astor in Times Square. No other reason was given. Although it is assumed that Bradley was looking to shed his reputation as a band that played boogie-woogie music.

On the road with the Bradley band 

Ray McKinley, Don Goldberg, and young Bobby

“In 1941, Bradley made public his views about the band’s boogie-woogie policy, saying he did not want to be known as the King of Boogie-Woogie, particularly as being misapplied to any music associated with jitterbugs,” Silvester said.

Prior to Holt’s arrival, pianist Freddie Slack was featured and a tremendous draw in the Bradley band, along with the drumming and singing of Ray McKinley. According to Silvester, fans expected to see Slack hammering out his signature eight-to-the-bar beat. “Freddie Slack should be credited with introducing several new ideas into his boogie-woogie interpretations and his arrangements of orchestrated boogie-woogie pieces,” he said. “His efforts probably helped to make boogie-woogie acceptable to a wider audience by removing much of the elemental treble dissonance and introducing in its place catch melodies that could be whistled or hummed and lyrics that were in keeping with the ‘hep cat’ attitudes of popular American culture of the 1940s.”

This Billboard ad highlights the fact Bradley is featuring drummer Shelly Manne and pianist "Bobbie Holt."

In describing the piano work of Holt, Silvester asserted that, “More than any other white pianist playing boogie-woogie at the time, Holt experimented with playing new and complex basses. The effect was highly original and contrapuntal form of 
Bobby on stage 

Holt scuffled around New York working with such stars as Ray McKinley and Ina Ray Hutton. As WWII began to intensify in Europe, Holt set aside the music to join in the war effort. On September 28, 1942, he traveled to Springfield, MA and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. His occupation at the time of enlistment was “musician and teacher of music.” He is listed as being 5’ 6” tall, weighing 122 pounds, and married.

After the war, Sgt. Holt returned to town and opened a teaching studio in the Day Building in downtown Worcester where he taught the “modern piano method.”  He and his young family lived at 22 William Street.

He also hooked up with drummer Ed Shamgochian, whose ensemble became the house band at the Ye Old Tavern in West Brookfield. The group also played summers at the Sea Crest Beach Hotel in Falmouth on the Cape. Other members included Emil Haddad, Paul Burby, Eddie Defino, and Teddy Lane.

In 1948, Holt appeared with George Robinson’s orchestra at the Moors, a nightclub and showcase in Shrewsbury. However, before the year was out, he re-enlisted in the military and for the next 26 years was a working pianist in the Unites States Air Force.

Burby, Holt, Sham, Defino, and Haddad
Originally stationed at Westover Air Force, Chicopee, MA, Holt’s tour of duty took him to Waco, Texas; West Palm Beach, Fl.; Reykjavik, Iceland and the island of Guam

Upon retirement in 1969, Holt first settled in Chicopee and took a job teaching at the Cathedral High School in Wilbraham and taught privately. He also moonlighted as the pianist in the Teddy Lockwood Band.

His first wife, Vivian (Hallback) died in 1976 and Holt married Eileen Gelsone in 1977. The newly weds thought it was time to leave New England weather and headed south. She had family in Texas. Along the way, Holt decided to stop in New Orleans and look up old military friend Al Hirt. The two musicians were stationed together in Massachusetts during the war.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time. The renowned trumpeter’s pianist had just given his notice and offered Holt the gig. The Worcester-born pianist accepted and immediately Holt began working with Hirt culminating in an appearance on the Johnny Carson show. The program is dated at December 11, 1979, where the band played “Hot Lips and Sugar Blues.” 

Holt with Hirt in New Orleans
The Holts settled into Metairie, Louisiana. She was a nurse and Bobby played at Hirt’s nightclub in New Orleans. After 10 months of the late nights in the Crescent City, the “City That Care Forgot,” the Holts moved on to Texas, where Eileen’s children (from a former marriage) had settled. The couple lived in the Kerrville/Fredricksville area. At this time, Holt was approaching 70, but continued to play in general business and jazz bands in town.  
Family members recall that Bobby started showing signs of memory loss as early 1993. He was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, yet he continued to play the piano to the end. He died in San Antonio, Texas in 2001. In a gesture fitting this great American, a memorial service was held for Mr. Holt at the Park Congregational Church, 80 Russell St., here in Worcester.

Robert “Bobby” John Holt

DOB: June 13, 1921
DOD: June 22, 2001 

Special thanks to the Holt family for their assistance in the piece.

*Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Please check out my features on Worcester songwriters at: Thank you. 


Eddie Sham

Will Bradley

Lou Mercuri’s obit

Art Hodes obit

Ray McKinley

Holt with Bradley on record

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