Wally Holmes: Evangelist, Jazzman, Composer, Impresario, Great Human
by Richard Simon & Cynthia Crosby
“I should have gone in and pounded the table,” he said, “but that isn’t my style.”
Wally Holmes didn’t need to pound tables; throughout his life, he commanded attention the old-fashioned way: through talent, hard work, persistence – and an astonishing skill in the obscure art of solfeggio.
Waldo (Wally) Holmes passed away on September 1, 2021. Holmes was best known to the jazz world as the producer of the sprawling Sweet & Hot Music Festival from 1995 until 2011, bringing together thousands of jazz and music fans and hundreds of musicians that represented a wide range of jazz genres that he was determined to perpetuate. Sweet & Hot descended upon the Marriott Hotel near LAX for five days every Labor Day weekend. Wally, his bald pate gleaming and his ready smile beaming, would wander through the eight packed venues – each a hotel meeting or ballroom transformed into a Hangover Room, a Ramparts Street, a Roseland Ballroom – relishing every Dick Hyman solo, Herb Jeffries’ “Flamingo” encore, and bawdy Jack Sheldon joke. The festival seemed to be a personal culmination in a sense, an ingathering of the disparate musical sensibilities that Holmes immersed himself in – and excelled at – at different stages of his life.
The first “stage” was provided by his parents, Pentecostal ministers with musical backgrounds. For the first years of his life, Wally, his older brother Robert and his parents traveled across the US, preaching the gospel.
“Pentecostals were the first religion to put music in their service,” he recalled. He started playing trumpet at the age of 6 but was diagnosed with tuberculosis and switched to clarinet. By age 8, he went back to playing trumpet and focused his efforts on becoming a professional musician.
Wally was a native of New York City – born there on October 27, 1928 – and he would make an auspicious return as a high school musician. After years on the evangelical circuit, the family settled in San Diego, CA. At age 13, Wally won a talent contest, playing “Elmer’s Tune” on the trumpet. “After that,” he remembered, “everyone called me Wally ‘Harry James’ Holmes.” Two years later, he was a member of Warren’s Swing Band, the first swing band at San Diego high school. Look magazine held a contest among youth swing bands. The band won third prize and played Carnegie Hall. Wally won the Cootie Williams trophy for best trumpet. Wally has said often, “For the first time I thought I had a shot as a professional musician.”
When tragedy would strike the Holmes family – Wally’s brother, Robert, was killed by a kamikaze pilot during the battle of Okinawa in 1945 – they moved up the coast and established a mission in Venice, CA. The move would prove to be beneficial for Wally. He attended Santa Monica College, took music lessons, and performed demonstrations of “triple tonguing’ with a fellow trumpet player. The concert and club scene in Los Angeles at that time provided Wally with an enticing array of top-notch artists. He would go out nightly to the Palladium, Shelley’s Manne Hole, Sardi’s, Club 54. He’d catch Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Jack Teagarden, Stan Getz, and Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, with (trumpet virtuoso) Lee Morgan. “They were playing just to play,” he recalled fondly, “not concert-style.”
His daughter, Cynthia Crosby, picks up Wally’s story:
“He married my mom Peach in 1960, and that changed his life. Suddenly, he had to figure out how to make a living. Before then he was a beach bum and playing gigs at night. When we met him, he would go on unemployment during the summer so he could be at the beach all day. (That was his lifestyle – and I wonder if he had never met my mom and married her would he have been as ambitious. My mom held the ambition.”
Wally connected with Dudley Brooks, who played piano for Elvis on set during the filming of his movies in the early 1960s. The two of them wrote songs to pitch to Elvis. But, alas, said Wally, “Dudley never did have the nerve to play any of those songs for Elvis” – so the world will never know if Elvis would have recorded any of their songs.
“During the beach days in the 1960s he was very athletic and a particularly good body surfer. After he married my mom, he decided to get his BA degree in Music & English and taught at John Adams junior high for a few years. He was successful teaching and immensely popular, but he wanted to dedicate his life to managing groups and writing songs – with the end-goal of hit records. Wally & my mom agreed it was a good idea to quit a steady job and to try and make it big. They both liked to gamble, and it paid off. My mother got a job at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to make ends meet, and Wally continued giving private lessons while managing groups and writing songs.”
One of those groups Wally managed was called The InRhodes, whose keyboard player was Jim Burdine. “At the end of the summer [of 1966] we met with Wally Holmes who became our manager and co-wrote many of the band’s songs. Wally had been Jim Odom’s jazz trumpet teacher and junior high band director. Holmes was also a well-respected jazz trumpet player.”
“It wasn’t a starch-collared, strictly-business relationship: “Wally, his wife Peach and their kids, Mike, Cindy, and Jimmy, were a big part of all the InRhodes’ lives.”
The InRhodes became a local favorite, playing frequently in the Summer at the Civic (Santa Monica Civic Auditorium) series. They were a draw all on their own and held their own with touring bands with national following such as The Yardbirds and Them, featuring Van Morrison.
“Wally’s management created a positive, dynamic tension between our wanting to be like whatever the flavor of the month band was and his vision of the uniqueness of what we brought to the stage. So we blended typically well done covers of top 40 songs (Beatles, Byrds, Stones, Doors, etc.) with our original material. The material, mostly co-written by Jim Bunnell and Wally or Odom and Bunnell, was also influenced by our ability to mix so many different instruments live on stage.” (www.JimBurdine.com)
His experiences with the InRhodes and other bands helped prepare Wally for a momentous step-up in his steady progression towards success.
His association with the Hues Corporation began in 1969. (Originally spelled “H-u-g-h-e-s,” the name was changed at the request of the Howard Hughes estate.). They were another Santa Monica-based group, but they found broader visibility at Circus Circus in Las Vegas, opening for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle and Glenn Campbell. They appeared in the movie, “Blacula,” and reached Billboard’s chart at #63 with a song called “Freedom for the Stallion.” The song went Platinum (1M in sells) in the United Kingdom.
The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” release had a humble debut. It was a rare ‘four-wall’ production: Wally Holmes wrote it, owned its publishing rights, played trumpet, and produced the session. Its initial stagnation in the marketplace of music was not for lack of talent; it featured Wilton Felder on bass, Joe Sample on keyboard, Larry Carlton on guitar – all members of the Jazz Crusaders – plus drummer Jim Gordon and jazz trombonist Benny Green. The song was sung by the sophisticated and fluid trio of Ann Kelly, St. Clair Lee and Flemming Williams. The tune was first released in the beginning of 1973, but it “went nowhere.” It was then re-released July 1973. Wally knew that the secret to creating a “hit” record was often tied to the frequency of radio airplay – and that RCA, the group’s label, was not promoting it energetically enough.
“I should have gone in and pounded the table,” Wally said in retrospect, “but that’s not my style.”
It was not until the dance clubs in New York City started playing it that it “found legs” both on Billboard and Cashbox and sold over a million copies. It was a smash not only in the US but around the world. It spawned a dance craze in Ireland. AM radio’s major domo, Casey Kasem, dubbed Wally “The Father of Disco.” The Hues Corporation would go one to tour Europe and South America, recording an additional 4 LPs. But “Rock the Boat” continues to appeal to audiences worldwide – nearly half a century later. Movies and series it has graced include “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The Martian,” “Milk,” “The Cable Guy” and “Carlito’s Way.” (Note: Wally’s personalized license plate bore the legend “One Hit.”)
Wendell Anderson would become the leader & lead singer of the Hues Corporation in 1989. “Everything I endeavored to do and be in music became my new reality when Wally handed me the keys to the boat. Through many grueling rehearsals and fantastic performances, I cherished each step. Thanks to Wally for taking a chance on an unknown guy with a little bit of talent from Cincinnati, Ohio, which changed my life forever…. He made it possible for me to build a life, raise a young son and believe that having faith and believing in the goodness of people like Wally and Peach was worth the effort and hard work.
Thank you, Wally, for trusting me not to wreck your boat.”
Wally would continue to manage and write for the Hues Corporation, but he never extinguished his love for jazz. In 1982 he formed a group of traditional jazz players, The Yankee Wailers. The original members were Ira Westley (bass); Gene O’Neil (drums); Bill Wood (clarinet); Vinnie Armstrong (piano); Dave Kennedy (trombone); and Seth Houston (singer).
They played the LA Classic festival, as well as festivals in Pismo Beach, Three Rivers, Sacramento, Monterey, Las Vegas, Cathedral City and Mesa, AZ.
Even though the band had a bent toward traditional jazz, Wally’s solos often had a distinct Bebop Jazz flavor. Wally blended traditional jazz with Bebop Jazz to make his own unique sound.
“There was always something special about playing with the Yankee Wailers,” writes pianist Vinnie Armstrong, “and that was Wally Holmes. First, I must note that he was a congenial, likable leader, and was sensitive to the varied needs of his band members. But beyond this, Wally possessed true ‘star’ qualities. More than his fine trumpet playing and vocals, he was unique in his ability to command the stage with his exciting flute playing and mesmerizing ‘do-re-mi’ solfeggio vocals. Further, he was comfortable and clever at the mic, and very quick with his wit. (I think others would agree that our performances at jazz festivals sometimes seemed to morph into a session act Comedy Improv.). I need to say, too, that I always greatly admired his trumpet playing. His was a melodic and sensitive modernist ‘swing’ style, always locked right on the beat. Thirty years of good times, playing piano with the Yankee Wailers.”
That LA Classic festival was huge, occupying three LAX-area hotels and drawing thousands of traditional jazz fans and their idols. When disagreements emerged between board members, one contingent left to establish a festival in Orange County (CA), while Wally Holmes stayed in town to create the Sweet & Hot Music Festival, which thrived from 1996 until 2011 at the LAX Marriott, Los Angeles. They called it the “Musicians Festival” because of the opportunity to play with so many All-Star musicians. And of course, the famous Musician’s Lounge on the 18th floor overlooking LAX runways was a very popular watering hole.
Its original partners and staff included Wally and Peach Homes; Mini and Arthur Newman; Marv and Martha Rubin; Margaret Teagarden; John Kennebeck; Wanda and Bill Morrison; Linell Seegall; Gordon and Carol Wolfe; and Laurie Whitlock.
“Planning a festival” writes Laurie Whitlock, “is daunting and it requires velvet gloves to keep the various parts functioning as well as working together in a suspiciously combined effort. Wally’s gift was choosing people to do the work that was necessary to make each of us feel like we were the most important cog in the machine. He was a kind of Svengali in that respect, but he also had Peach to reign him in and to control his various grand ideas and flights of fancy.”
Sweet & Hot Music Foundation Walk of Fame – Every year the festival inducted jazz greats from all eras of music. Honoring the great artists & composers who have contributed to American’s Golden age of popular music. 64 plaques in total including Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Louie Armstrong and in 2011 a plaque for Wally Holmes. This was something Wally was very proud of because his mission statement was always to keep jazz alive for generations to come. The plaques are located at LAX Marriott, Los Angeles.
“At the many Sweet & Hot Music Festivals to which I was honored to have been invited to perform, Wally never failed to make me laugh, and often. I envied his wit, and his cool demeanor, even when volunteers would come to him with occasional logistical problems. He always had a simple solution to whatever the current crisis may have been. I do not know of any other jazz events that were run more efficiently, or with as much hospitality shown the musicians. Regarding the music itself, I may have known other musicians and fans who love it as much as Wally did, but no one loved the music more than Wally. He will be remembered. Dan Barrett, Trombonist, Arranger
In 2007 Wally completed a 20-year recording project of his own called – Good Mix. He recorded 13 songs. Wally sings on several of the songs and has a solfeggio version of Rock the Boat. Plus a Latin version of Rock the Boat with a very talented Latin Jazz guitarist, Marcelo Berestovoy.
Cynthia says, “My mother threatened to stop the festival if Wally didn’t complete Good Mix. Maurice was wonderful in supporting Wally to polish and complete it. Wally was always thinking of others and putting his own projects down on the bottom of his “to do list”. We are so grateful that we now have these musical memories to cherish.”
Wally also produced two jazz CDs:
- Jackie Coon, Flugelhorist – Jazzin’ Around, 1986
- Gil Bernal, Saxophone – Sensual & Latin, 2001
Recording Artist & Producer Maurice Gainen shares his memories:
“I worked with Wally and the Hues Corporation for at least 10 years and probably more, preparing back tracks for shows… He also produced a CD for the great Gil Bernal at my studio and the group graced two songs for my solo CDs. Over that period, Wally was constantly threatening to do a solo CD but never quite getting around to it, always putting others first as was his style. That left it to me to bug him about it and basically in the end twist his arm to finally do it. Last night when I listened to the CD for the first time in a very long time, I was so happy that we did it. I was fully responsible for eight of the tracks. His son, Jim Crosby, had produced and recorded five of the songs, I believe in the ’80s. I had them transferred from 2-inch analog tape to digital. We then added, edited, and remixed them. Wally, constantly wanting to try all the new techniques, insisting on adding some things and taking a fresh look at the songs. Everyone knows ’Rock the Boat,’ but I would argue that this CD is the real Mr. Wally Holmes. It shows his writing, producing, singing, trumpet playing, scatting solfeggi and Hardcore Bebop on his $10 Ocarina. It ends with a song called “No Question” that he wrote for Peach. It was the last thing that we did. He really struggled with it because he wanted it to be ‘perfect’ for her. When he finally pre\seated it to her and she liked it, he declared the CD complete. Now they can listen to it together. Thank you, Wally, for always ’being cool in the studio’ (his words) and taking the time to explore and perfect. I learned so much about music and life from you. You will be sorely missed. Rest in peace, my dear friend.”