Isaac “Redd” Holt, the jazz fusion pioneer and founding member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, died Tuesday (May 23). The Grammy-winning percussionist, songwriter, educator, humanitarian, and entrepreneur recorded dozens of albums as a sideman, a bandleader, and with bassist Eldee Young. His music has been sampled more than 200 times by hip-hop artists such as De La Soul, Kendrick Lamar, and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. He was at 91.
Born in Rosedale, Mississippi, on May 16, 1932, Holt scored his first gigs with Lester Young in the 1950s while still attending high school at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music. He served a stint in the U.S. Army before joining Ramsey Lewis’ original trio alongside bassist Eldee Young.
The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s high water mark was their second LP The In Crowd, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard album chart in 1965. The title track cracked the top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and No. 2 on the R&B chart. The album won the Grammy in 1966 Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, and the single would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009. Dizzy Gillespie would later credit the Trio—which melded bebop with soul, R&B, rock, and opera—as a forerunner to jazz fusion.
Following the album’s resounding success, Holt and Young left to form the Young-Holt Trio, which eventually became Young-Holt Unlimited. The group featured an expansive rotating cast of musicians, many of which signed to the publishing company the two founded together. The pair disbanded in 1974.
Holt spent much of the 1980s releasing various collaborations and projects throughout the 1970s and 80s as Redd Holt Unlimited. He would also return to school, attending Kennedy-King College to study radio and television in the 1980s. He endorsed Ludwig drums; the company’s founder Bill Ludwig designed a custom drum rack to hold his congas that would become the standard in drum shops around the world.
Holt released his final LP It’s a Take! in 2020.