Holle Thee Maxwell was born on October 17th, as Holle Thee Marcla Rode’ Maxwell. She recorded singles under the name "Holly Maxwell" in the 1960s-1970s for the record labels Constellation, Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records, Smit-Whit, and Star. Her songs such as “Only When You’re Lonely”, “One Thin Dime”, “Never Love Again”, “Suffer”, “Philly Barracuda” were regional hits across the country.
Holle Thee sang her first song professionally at the age of 5, studied classical voice and piano at the age of 9, and graduated with degrees from both The Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University and The Julliard School in New York City.
Holle Thee is an accomplished songwriter as well as an incredible singer. Blues superstar, Bobby “Blue” Bland covered one of her songs on his critically acclaimed album, "Come Fly With Me" entitled, "Ain't God Somethin'"
In addition to singing soul, rock, jazz, country and blues, Holle Thee also sings in French, German and Italian. From opera, to “Thee” blues (as she likes to call it), Holle Thee Maxwell can sing it all in a way that is distinctly “Holle”.
Holle Thee recorded with jazz great Jimmy Smith, and replaced Tina Turner in Ike Turner’s band. Holle Thee also worked with The Temptations, Johnny Taylor, The Spinners, The Dells, Fred Williamson, Captain and Tenille, Reynaldo Rey and many others. Sammy Davis Jr., Redd Foxx, Sydney Poitier, Isaac Hayes, KoKo Taylor, Archie Moore, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammed Ali, Slappy White, Lou Gossett Jr., King Curtis and others have all been fans of Holle Thee Maxwell.
An Icon...A Musical Living Legend..."Queen of Entertaining Entertainers"…There is only one Holle Thee Maxwell! [from Holle Thee Maxwell biography]
I recently had the honor and privilege of chatting briefly with Holle Thee Maxwell, via telephone, leading up to her participation in the 34th Annual Chicago Music Awards where she will be receiving the Chicago Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.
William Kelly Milionis: Hello Ms. Maxwell, how are you?
Holle Thee Maxwell: I am great! How are you?
Kelly: Fine, thank you. Thank you so very much. What an honor and a privilege to again have an opportunity to interview you. You and I met briefly at the end of, "All Things Mayfield" and I asked you a couple of questions and I thank you for that and I thank you for this. I appreciate it.
Holle: Thank you. You are welcome, dear. It's a pleasure.
Kelly: Congratulations on your upcoming Chicago Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award to be presented Sunday, March 15th, 2015, at the 34th Annual Chicago Music Awards at Copernicus Theater, 5216 West Lawrence, Chicago. How does it feel to be recognized for such a high honor and in your hometown?
Holle: It's about time! [laughing]
Kelly: I agree! [more laughing]
Holle: You know, I am excited and I am thankful. I'm deeply thankful. And, I'm grateful, but it's about time. You know, I give a lot of credit in any interview that I do, I make sure that people know my mother was my backbone. She would have me lasting this long. She did everything that there was to do to make sure that I would last this long. So I have to give my mom a lot of credit. She was an amazing woman. She really was an amazing woman. I just wish she was here to see this. She has to be looking down on me somewhere. I'm just going to make sure I get all of my accolades before I pass away, because I can't hear nobody tell me how great I am when I'm dead. [laughter] Now, I'm honored. I'm glad that they are recognizing me. I've worked very hard.
Kelly: Certainly well deserved. You have enjoyed a lengthy career; over seven decades. You mentioned your mother, was she responsible for music around the household during your early years?
Holle: Yes. My mom sang opera. I was five years old and she used to sing this song, "The Lord's Prayer". When she got to the high part, I would run out of the room singing "in redemption" and that's when she realized that I could sing. So, at the age of five she taught me my first song. And, I got paid fifteen dollars to sing at the Greater Metropolitan Church at 59th and Wabash. The church is still there. And, that's when I became a professional.
Kelly: Have you returned to the Greater Metropolitan Church to sing?
Holle: No. You know how they have the ladies tea, the bake sales, and stuff like that? Well, that's what I sang for. My Church, Coppin AME Church, was at 56th and South Michigan Avenue. I was in the Children's Choir. I was the lead singer for the Adult Choir. I was the lead singer for the Women's Choir. I was the lead singer for the Men's Choir. [laughing] They just sang me to death. And, the musical director, Ms Lena McKlin, appears in a documentary called, "Women In Blues". She is still alive at eighty-two years old and she's still teaching. She was my vocal instructor when I was a kid.
Kelly: Has that relationship evolved?
Holle: After I got out of my teens I started going my own way. I used to win a lot of scholarships to pay for my music education. I graduated from Roosevelt University and I also graduated from Julliard. I started getting into the R&B soul. That means I left Lena for a while. To be perfectly honest, I got back in touch with Lena last year, because I had her as a guest on my internet television show called, "Straight Talk", on Monday nights on Starplanet. That's how we got back together.
Kelly: Who were your early musical influences?
Holle: Marian Anderson, Grace Bumbry, that was with the classical music. And, Leontyne Price. Those were my influences when I was doing classical music. When I started getting into R&B; Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and Janis Joplin. With Jazz, I loved Gloria Lynne, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.
Kelly: How did it feel to attend Julliard?
Holle: You know, I was so young I don't know how I felt. I was just going to school. I didn't realize at that time what that meant. I had no idea how influential that would be later on. I had no idea. I was just going to school.
Kelly: How did attending Julliard shape your career?
Holle: Well, I'll tell you this, because I could do so many things vocally, and as a performer, I think in fact I know the classical music kept me surviving. I know that because I could do a lot of things vocally that other people couldn't do. I could go into all different types of genres of music because I understood the foundation of them. I understood the technicalities of the rhythm, and of different keys, intonations, arpeggios. Whatever the music was I understood its foundation. And that enabled me to be able to handle whatever song it was. A lot of people ask me, do I have a particular genre and I would say, no...
Kelly: When did you become aware that you had such a unique and varied voice?
Holle: I became aware of it when I started doing R&B. That's when I became aware of it, because I didn't have the soulful, gospel feeling in me that a lot of Black artists have had because the Opera, the classical training, took it out, but I could hit the same notes Aretha could hit or I could hit the same notes that Minnie Riperton hit. So, what I did was, I applied my musical range to R&B. And then, as years went by, I started being more soulful. That's the best way I can explain it.
Kelly: What interests you most about singing?
Holle: It's the song. It's the song, it's the words, it's the rhythm that captures me. I made this statement before and I'm going to make it again. Anne Murray did a song called, "You Needed Me". I love that song. What I did was, I took it and I put it in a 6/8th Gospel Church feeling. I made it my own. That's what I do with songs. I take a song that I really like and I'll turn it completely around and make it mine. That's what I do.
Kelly: You have taken songs from others and made them your own, how did the opportunity come about that you wrote a song for Bobby 'Blue' Bland?
Holle: Well, I was living in California. I went there in the seventies and I was staying with Milton Bland and his wife Virginia Bland. And, Milton Bland's name is, aka, Monk Higgins. He was a music writer and arranger and saxophone player. And, I had this song called, "Ain't God Somethin" and he thought it would be wonderful for Bobby 'Blue' Bland to record. Bobby never did a gospel song. So, that's how that came about. Monk Higgins was responsible for getting that song to Bobby.
Kelly: Which song would you be remembered for...for historical purposes or for your legacy?
Holle: Oh wow, let's see. I've found a lot of people like "Only When You're Lonely". Wow. I don't know. That's a hell of a question there.
Kelly: Yes, difficult because you encompass so much.
Holle: "Only When You're Lonely". I say that because "Only When You're Lonely". Ok, I am just going to throw this out there because I don't have a clue. My first song that I cut for Constellation Records was "(Happiness Will Cost You) One Thin Dime" and that was taken from the concept of Mary Wells and Motown. That kind of feeling. So if they were to go back and get something they might go back and get those two. And then, you never know, you just never know. Ok, there is another one, I have to admit there is "No One Else" that Curtis Mayfield wrote for me with The Impressions behind me. But, I really don't know.
Kelly: You were the only vocalist to sing with jazz organist Jimmy Smith.
Holle: Yes. That's right. I was with Jimmy for three years. I sang and traveled with him.
Kelly: How did that come about?
Holle: Ok, let me tell you. I've got to include Ike Turner in this because it's the same story. When I was fourteen years old, I saw Ike and Tina Turner on TV. Mind you, I'm trained in classical music. I ran and told my mom, "oh momma, that's what I need" and I was pointing to Ike and Tina. Then later on that same evening, my brother was playing a Jimmy Smith album. I ran into the room and said, "momma, I want to sing with him". And that's what happened. And, I'm fourteen years old. Fast forwarding, I met both of them November 5th, 1977 and got hired by both of them on November 5th, 1977. That's how that came about. What had happened was, earlier that evening, of November 5th, I'm sorry it was November 3rd. Ike's birthday is November 5th. Sorry about that, it's November 3rd. I went to Jimmy Smith's club because the drummer Kenny Dixon kept telling me, come out here, come out here. I took my time getting out there and finally when I did go out there I was sitting at the bar and the next thing I know I was up in front of the mic. I can't tell you how I got in front of the mic. I don't remember anybody calling my name. I don't remember anything until Jimmy, at the organ, he stopped playing and said, "what you doing"? "I'm singing", I said. "What you doing"? He said, " I'm playing the organ". I said, "get on back to playing and I'll get on back to singing". Right then his wife Lola came out and said your hired. Then later on that evening I was in bed and this girl Joan called and said this man is looking for a singer. I said I don't care who is looking for what. I said I gotta job with Jimmy Smith. And she said, "girl, please don't do this to me. I told this man how you can sing and he needs a singer. Would you please come". And I said, "would you please come, what you talking about". She said, "Ike Turner". I sat straight up in the bed and said, "Ok, I'll be there". She said know we'll send a limo for you and I said I'd take the bus. [laughing] You know how long it took me to get there in 1977 on the bus. [more laughing] But, I got there. And, that's what happened. [even more laughing]
Kelly: What was your most special memory from your Ike Turner days?
Holle: Let me just say this. The way he was depicted, he was not like that. He was not like that at all. That was Hollywood movie. That was just Hollywood making Tina a star. That's all they were doing. Ike was a musical genius. That's what he was. And he brought a lot of my rhythm out of me that I didn't know that was there. And, he brought a lot of the character that I have now out of me that I didn't know was there. I found out I have a very strong character and a lot of people cannot deal with it. I'm aggressive. I'm outspoken. And, a lot of people can't handle that. But, Ike was a gentleman to me. He didn't hit me because he knew he would have got shot. [laughing] [more laughing] [much more laughing] But, he wasn't like that. He was very kind to me. I thank God for him. I really do. What I had with, as far as, Opera and Jazz was concerned, he showed me how to do it rhythmically, as far as R&B and Rock 'n' Roll, is concerned. Can you imagine me three weeks out with Jimmy Smith singing Jazz and being ladylike and then the next three weeks I gotta shake my butt, sing, and holler in tune. [boisterous laughter] Can you imagine me doing that. [much more laughter] I don't know how I did any of that. But, I can do it, so I did it. Ike brought out the ability to be aggressive on stage. He brought out the ability for me to entertain, and to grab people, and just knock 'em out. That's what he did for me. I love him and I miss him. I really do.
Kelly: You have many fans. To whom do you attribute achieving those fans with; was it Curtis Mayfield, was it Ike Turner or both?
Holle: You know what, I give it to both of them. Because if it hadn't been for both of them, I wouldn't be sitting here still doing what I do. If need be, I am able to sing the Curtis Mayfield stuff. If need be, I am able to sing "Proud Mary" and still do a little dance. [laughing] So I have to give credit to all because they brought so much out of me. I have so many people that I can thank, like Sly Stone. Sly Stone was another musical genius that I was in his presence a lot. Jack McDuff, Charlie Earland, Jimmy McGriff; I sang with those people and a lot of people don't know that. I sang backgrounds for Captain and Tennille. I got something for everybody. And that's how come I confuse people. They don't know what to call me; an R&B singer, a Jazz singer. But to clear it up, if you want to put a label on it, I'm just an entertaining entertainer. They gave me that title in France at the Cannes Music Festival, "Queen of Entertaining Entertainers".
Kelly: You have covered a wide range of material vocally. You are a vocalists, vocalist.
Kelly: How did you meet Curtis Mayfield? Was it through Eddie Thomas or directly with Curtis Mayfield?
Holle: It was through Eddie. It was through Eddie Thomas. Can you believe I was just with Eddie this past Monday. He's a wonderful man. That's how I met Curtis. I can't remember to clearly but somewhere, in some town, sometime, Eddie heard me. And he brought me to Curtis. That's when Curtis said he was going to write a song for me. And, he did. He wrote two songs called, "Suffer", and "No One Else". The Impressions did backgrounds on that song.
Kelly: What projects are you currently working on?
Holle: The next thing is "Unsung". I've already done the television interview for "Unsung". It's talking about my life with Ike Turner. Then, I've got the book coming out behind that called, "Freebase Ain't Free". It's telling Ike's story, telling the truth about Ike. We're trying to put out a candy called Holle-Pops. [laughing] I thought that was clever. [laughing]
Kelly: ...very clever. [laughing]
Holle: Yes. And, I have a movie called, "Women In Blues". I'm excited about it all. I'm not jumping up and down because I've been doing this for so long. But, seriously, I'm excited.
Kelly: Would you like to add anything else?
Holle: Well, all I can say is to those people who keep supporting me, I love you and I thank you. Because if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be able to do what I have done. I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart.
Kelly: Thank you so very much for this interview. Congratulations on your upcoming Chicago Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.
Holle: Thank you.
Sunday, March 15th, 2015
34th Annual Chicago Music Awards
5216 West Lawrence Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60630
Red Carpet: 6:00PM
Award Show: 8:00PM
Holle Thee Maxwell photo credit: Connie Carroll