Barbara Holliday has performed with some of the greatest blues and jazz musicians of all time. She has also worked as a disc jockey for WRIF-FM, the station that rocks Detroiot, went to high school with Arlo Guthrie and was married to blues great, Mr. James Montgomery as well as played in his band for sixteen years.
Holliday has traveled the globe and has many stories to tell of her travels. Examiner sat down with Holiday and asked her to share some of her stories.
Examiner: How long have you been in the music business?
Holiday: “If you count the first dollar I made from playing my guitar and singing onstage, that would be sixteen years old at the Chessmate on Livernois and Six Mile Road in Detroit. I made my first non commercial recording at 9 and have always loved to sing and perform.”
Examiner: Where did you grow up?
Holiday: “I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. There were a group of radio stations and disc jockey stars like Martha Jean the Queen and Lee Allen on the horn, Wolfman Jack and Arnie Ginsberg (from NY). Great music was abundant! Motown was cranking out hits 24-7 and there were local stars that crossed into the National market like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, hometown Queen Aretha Franklin and Bob Seeger and the Stooges.
Detroit also had a number of amazing nightclubs. There was Baker’s Keyboard Lounge where all the jazz greats played, the Twenty Grand where all of the Motown artists went to work out new steps in routines to new hits and Nathaniel Mayer’s Village of Love.
There was also Fortune Records and Club 1270 which was the local ABC station dance program where I danced when I was 15 years old and met bands like the Rolling Stones on their first national tour and local hero Smokey Robinson who gave me his cufflink.
I later became the first full time female FM air personality for ABC networks on WRIF – FM and worked at the same studio. I met John Lee Hooker when I was 13 and I’d sneak out to hear music at the Chessmate which was open all night. It was safe in those days. Hooker was a father figure, a good friend and because Detroit was his home, he could be found there often. The Chessmate in fact became a gathering place after hours for musicians who were in town along with those who would drive far distances after their gigs, sometimes local, sometimes as far away as Chicago like James Cotton and Andrew Jefferys. And it could be anyone, from Chuck and Joanie Mitchell, Geoff and Maria Muldaur or Richie Havens to the Blues Magoos, the Chicago Art Ensemble, or Howlin’ Wolf.”
Examiner: When did you settle in Massachusetts?
Holiday: “I came to Massachusetts in High School. I graduated from the Stockbridge School which is in Interlaken. Arlo Guthrie was in the grade ahead of me and Chris Guest was a classmate. There was always music. Arlo performed with three or four musicians before meals and up in the woods where we’d gather after dinner. We had regular classes in theater and our stage productions were often invited to hit the road and perform around New England.”
Examiner: So you pursued your music career right through college as well?
Holiday: “My college years were spent as a working musician traveling from Detroit and Ann Arbor to San Francisco and Marin County. I hung out and played with friends in the bands Flying Circus and Clover later to become Elvis Costello’s band. The incredible Johnny Ciambotti on bass, John McFee who went with the Doobie Bros, and Rick Wright from BB King’s band.
I was the first performer to play at the Trident in Sausalito, a great hangout for lots of incredible musicians in the day and close to the houseboats where the Paul Butterfield Band was living. Butterfield’s band was out of Chicago post Sam Lay and included my dear friend Phillip Wilson on drums, Gene Dinwitty and Davie Sanborn on horns. So I got to sit in with some extraordinary musicians in odd places like an afternoon in Golden Gate Park just setting up and jamming.
Michael Bloomfield became a great friend, teaching me some piano and encouraging me to focus on singing. During the years I lived in Marin Co. & SF I also played bass with the Ace of Cups and sang in a band with Powell St. John from Tracy Nelson’s Mother Earth with a group of players from Austin named The Angel Band.”
Examiner: Did you ever have your own band?
Holiday: “In Detroit I had an all woman group named POW (or Pride of Women) who could really play. We were Detroit girls. We were one of the first performance art bands and were managed by Barry Kramer, publisher of Creem Magazine.”
Examiner: Who were some of the other artists to come out of the Detroit area?
Holiday: “There were lots of clubs in the area that produced bands like Commander Cody with Billy C, Terry Tate, Iggy Pop and the Stooges to name a few. The Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals were happening with all the regulars on the scene including Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, James Cotton and Koko Taylor.
A lot of the blues musicians came from Providence and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Steve Nardella and Scott Hamilton who started Hamilton-Bates and the Blue Flames with Preston Hubbard who became the bass player in The Fabulous Thunderbirds in Austin. It was amazing. I ended up being on the road crossing paths with all of them over the years.
At one point I came to Boston to see family who are still in the area. I crossed paths with a musician that I would work for and eventually marry, James Montgomery who was also from Detroit. We spent a lot of nights playing music in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston during the time of Joe’s Place, Jonathan Swifts’, the Performance Center, Jack’s, The Inn Square Men’s Bar, the incredible Paul’s Mall/ Jazz Workshop, the Paradise and Bunrattys as well as the Garden. It was a great time in Boston with music and musicians. It was the heyday of WBCN with DJ’s like Maxanne Sartori who introduced Stevie Tyler and Aerosmith, J Geils and the Woofa Goofa Mama Toofa. Local record promotors like Charlie McKenzie and Paul Ahern who discovered Boston and Fleetwood Mac respectively. The Shaboo Inn in Connecticut. and the Rusty Nail near UMass. There were big nightclubs all over New England and music everywhere it seemed.
Montgomery was on Capricorn and Island records and accordingly those were the acts that we were on the road with and hosted. It was incredible who rolled through Boston. Paul’s Mall Jazz Workshop was a conduit for new stars like Bob Marley and the Wailers and so many others, playing and just visiting! During this Boston period and before I began performing full time with the James Montgomery Band.
I had had a band in Cambridge with Tony Harrington, Kenny Harris, Geoff Lyall (Klaus Fluoride from the Dead Kennedys), Steve Grimley and Shorty on sax. This band evolved into the Barbara Holliday Review including players like Newton native, Jeff Levine, Joe Cocker’s music director, professor of recording at Berklee and much more. I was the first to hire Jeff Golub when he arrived from Akron, Ohio playing with the James Montgomery Band for years and later becoming Rod Stewart’s permanent guitar player. He just did an album with Brian Auger that is beautiful.
My bands included lots of great musicians, Charles Calmese on bass from James Cotton’s band and native son Bobby Chouinard on drums. I also ran the talent night at the Inn Square Men’s Bar and was the first to hire Rick Ocasek and Ben Orr before American Flyer and the Cars. It was a great fun and actually how I met Bill Lichtenstein. I was on the road with the James Montgomery Band for 16 years and most of them were around 300 nights a year traveling all over New England, the East Coast and Canada. We had a joke if you threw a dart at a map of New England chances were we would have played there. It was an amazing journey and I got to know New England very well indeed to NYC and beyond.”
Examiner: What did you do after the James Montgomery Band?
Holiday: “After I left the James Montgomery Band I moved to the Caribbean for awhile and sang with two bands, one a steel pan and guitar ensemble where I played a little keyboard and sang. We were the house band at a beach club named Prinderellas where Brian Doyle Murray and members of Sha Na Na did the worm one New Year’s Eve under a blue moon. In addition, I performed with a huge soca band named Caribbean Roots, a family unit run by a wonderful band leader named Postman.
I also began painting on the island (getting up at 5am instead of going to sleep at that hour:) and was chosen as the Signature Artist of the Four Seasons Resort Nevis by Isadore Sharp, President and Founder of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. He has a signature piece in every, single Four Seasons and he chose a 4ft. x 5ft. painting of mine. Again, very fortunate to have all this living on an undeveloped island with World Class amenities and visitors.
Steven Tyler showed up one week and Billy Squier was in the audience one night at the Hermitage Inn when I performed in their cabaret. It was so cool to see the look of slow recognition and surprise on his face! I knew he was there, it was great fun, great to see him in a relaxed setting and a very good evening.”
Examiner: How many albums have you recorded? With who? Any big hits?
Holiday: “I’m a work horse. I’ve been in the studio many times and recorded on other people’s work as well as my writing and recording my own. There was a time when it seemed I was in studio every week in either Boston or NYC. As a solo artist, I was on Jelly Records out of Northern Studios in Maynard and had two regional hits with singles “Nobody’s Business” a duet I sang with Montgomery and Radio King and his Court of Rhythm (now the Uptown Horns) and “Baby I Love You” that gained great traction on jukeboxes throughout the region. I’ve sung on three Montgomery albums, the last being a live album recorded at Trax in New York CIty. Montgomery and I had another regional hit with “New England Sunshine” that became an anthem, a beautiful ballad that people fell in love to and carried with them.
We played with Alex Taylor for a few years and recorded live with Dan Aykroyd, Paul Shafer and the Blues Brothers Band at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto over a weekend and at the opening of the Dallas Hard Rock Cafe with the East Coast Funkbusters with Buck and Bird Taylor. There’s a wealth of recorded live shows with all kinds of stars including a duet with Patty LaBelle at Nightstage in Cambridge. We played the Shaboo Inn all the time and many of those nights were recorded.”
Examiner: Your most memorable experiences working as a vocalist or Rock Staress?
Holiday: “Well, there are a couple that stand out. Montgomery and I were on the road with the Allman Bros. and Aerosmith. The night after we were married we opened for the Allman Bros. at the Music Inn in Lenox. I was still in the turn of the century lace wedding dress I’d been married in the night before. When Frank Russo introduced us he announced we’d just been married and 25,000 people cheered! it was amazing and very touching. Red Dog, the Allman Brothers roadie came over to me as I was watching the band in the wings and told me Jaimoe was going to do a drum solo as my wedding gift. He played John Coltrane on the drums for 40 plus minutes, the steam rising from his body in the cool Autumn evening and the lighting, he was literally smoking, it was beautiful and the best wedding present ever.”
Examiner: You are part of the documentary film on WBCN?
Holiday: I performed at the benefit for The American Revolution: WBCN, Bill Lichtenstein’s upcoming documentary of free form radio. I performed “Let Me Love You Baby” with the Montgomery Band and the Uptown Horns from the Rolling Stones and J. Geils Band. it was a mighty unit and I had so much fun fronting them, the energy was incredible and it was recorded by John Savignano. It can be seen on YouTube. It will also be a part of the documentary.
I’ve got a project that’s sounding very good with a few players up here in Vermont that are as excited as I am to write some new material, interpret some tunes I’ve wanted to record for a long time.
You can find Holliday on Facebook for upcoming dates and performances.