Brookfield native Jim Holvay, hit songwriter, headed to LTHS Hall of Fame

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By BOB UPHUES

High school alumni halls of fame tend to be populated with big hitters - captains of industry, military heroes, groundbreaking scientists and physicians, athletic superstars.

On Friday, Nov. 9, Lyons Township High School will induct five more alumni into its hall of fame, many of whom meet those criteria.

But this year, LTHS found room in its hall of fame for Jimmy Soul.

Classmates who graduated with him in 1963 know him by his real name: Jim Holvay, the kid from the 4200 block of Elm Avenue in Brookfield, the guy who played the guitar.

Anyone who was a teenager in the United States during the late 1960s knew him as a hit-maker, even if they had no idea who he was at the time.

Jim Holvay's band - a horn-driven, Stax-style R&B show band called The Mob (think Blues Brothers on steroids) - was on the road in February 1967, playing a club called the Red Velvet on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood when he first learned the news.

His song, "Kind of a Drag" had reached the top of the Billboard chart. The recording, by the Chicago-area band The Buckinghams, was the No. 1 single in the nation and would remain in that spot for two weeks. It would go on to sell 2 million copies.

"A girl comes up to me who I met in San Francisco," said Holvay, now 67 years old and living in the San Fernando Valley. "She shows up with a cake that says, 'Kind of a Drag - Number 1.'"

Holvay would go on to write a few more hits for The Buckinghams in 1967, including "Hey Baby, They're Playing Our Song," "Don't You Care," and "Susan," all of which broke into the Billboard Top 10.

On Friday, Nov. 9 at the LaGrange Country Club, Holvay will be inducted into the Lyons Township High School Alumni Hall of Fame, along with fellow Brookfield native and radiologist, Dr. Luke Sewall; NASA Director of Aerospace Technology Salvatore J. Grisaffe; Air Force bomber pilot and three-time Distinguished Flying Cross recipient Lee Russell; and pre-eminent economic journalist David L. Warsh.

Despite writing three songs that The Buckinghams parlayed into million sellers, Holvay never entertained becoming a full-time songwriter. Trying to, as Lou Rawls once told him, have "all of the stars in the universe ... line up just right" and pen that next big hit wasn't for him. He wanted to be on stage, out front, playing his guitar.

"I wanted to be a star and get the women," Holvay said.

He caught the bug as a kid about 10 years old while attending St. Barbara School in Brookfield. His brother, Dennis, brought home a 45 of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock."

"My mom yelled, 'Turn that crap off!'" recalled Holvay. "It was too late. I had already gotten indoctrinated."

Holvay saved his money. When he had amassed $12, he bought his first guitar and a Mel Bay chord book. But the guitar was so cheap, it was impossible for Holvay to push the strings down to the fret board. He got so frustrated that he put a classified in the local paper to sell the guitar. No one called.

It was again his brother Dennis who stepped up. Holvay's father, Ernest, asked Dennis what he thought Jimmy would like for Christmas that year. Dennis' answer: a better guitar.

"It was the turning point for me," Holvay said.

His dad spent the princely sum of $75 for a Hofner archtop guitar.

"Now when I put my fingers on the strings, I could play a chord," said Holvay.

The next spring, Dennis came through again. Asked by his dad what Jimmy would like for his birthday, Dennis suggested a DeArmond pickup and a Supro amplifier. Jimmy was a rock 'n' roller now.

By the time Holvay was a freshman at Lyons Township High School in 1959, he had a couple of years of guitar lessons and even a recording session (featuring two blues-progression instrumentals, paid for with loose change) under his belt.

He also bought his first real electric guitar - he told his dad he wanted the same guitar that guy on the Lawrence Welk Show played - a sleek, sunburst-finish Fender Stratocaster.

"It cost $364 and took months to get shipped from California," Holvay said. "When I picked that Stratocaster up with that neck, I went from John Lee Hooker to Eric Clapton overnight."

In high school, Holvay played and recorded a couple of songs with a band called The MayBees and met his longtime collaborator, Gary Beisbier. The two joined a band called The Chicagoans in 1963, the year Holvay graduated from LTHS.

The Chicagoans were a touring band, hitting places like New York City and doing some recording sessions, which yielded a record written by Holvay and Beisbier that would turn out to be their first "hit," albeit a local one.

The instrumental track was a throw-in at the end of a recording session, and an acetate of the song somehow made it to Clark Weber of WLS-AM radio. He dubbed the tune "Beatle Time" in honor of the new craze hitting the nation.

"It was the first charted record I had," Holvay said.

In 1965, Holvay and Beisbier were recruited to play as part of The Executives, the touring band that traveled with the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars. After eight months on the road, they split and Holvay went back home, enrolling in Lyons Township Junior College, which was located inside Lyons Township High School.

During breaks between classes, he'd spend time in the small music practice rooms, poking around on one of the spinet pianos. It was there he wrote "Kind of a Drag."

The next summer, in 1966, Holvay got back together with The Executives, which served as the backing band for the Dick Clark Teenage World's Fair at Chicago's International Amphitheater.

In the meantime, Holvay had met a Chicago promoter named Carl Bonafede, who was managing a band called The Buckinghams.

"I went to see them at a record hop, and I thought they were horrible," said Holvay.

Bonafede knew Holvay was a songwriter and asked if he had any tunes. Eventually, Holvay told Bonafede he had something - "Kind of a Drag." Holvay cut a demo of the song on acoustic guitar between shows at the Amphitheater for Bonafede, and that, he thought, was that.

That same year, Holvay and Beisbier formed The Mob, his R&B dream band. The band toured as the opening act and backing band for Chad and Jeremy and then built a following playing nightclubs locally and around the nation.

Later in 1966, The Mob was playing a nightclub called Wine and Roses in Schiller Park when one of the band members remarked to Holvay, "You remember that song you recorded [for Bonafede]? It's on the radio."

"I turned the radio on in the kitchen," said Holvay. "I thought it sounded kind of cheesy to tell you the truth."

Cheese apparently was a big seller.

The money Holvay made from the hits he wrote for The Buckinghams (of the 10 songs on their "Greatest Hits" album, Holvay wrote or co-wrote half of them) went into his own band.

"Gary, our manager and I invested all of our royalties into The Mob. We thought for sure we were going to be the next Beatles," Holvay said.

"When our little two-year run as hit songwriters and 15 minutes of fame was over, we really didn't have much money left," he added.

Big-time success never materialized and The Mob broke up in 1980. Holvay walked away from the music business and into a job as a sales representative for the Pitney Bowes corporation and then Office Depot, retiring three years ago.

"Kind of a Drag" and other hit songs he wrote gradually began paying off again for Holvay. The advent of "oldies" radio put those songs into rotation again, and Holvay said the royalties from those helped pay for his son's college tuition.

Holvay is still performing, however. The Mob re-formed for the first time in 31 years in April 2011 when they were inducted, oddly enough, in the South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association Hall of Fame.

"Looking back, I made the right choice," Holvay said. "I traveled all over the country and met some wonderful people. If I would've gone the songwriter route, I'd be sitting in a tiny room with an upright piano and a guitar, trying to write a hit song and competing with all of the other songwriters, who are trying to do the same thing."

Reader Comments

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Robert Pesce from Cary  

Posted: March 10th, 2016 4:13 PM

I was drumming in a band that went on before you at the Bitter End . I'll never forget the power of The Mob sound with Big AL out front ! Best Try a Little Tenderness I ever heard! Enjoyed talking to Bobby Ruffino.

Frank Suda from Glen Ellyn  

Posted: December 22nd, 2015 6:30 PM

My brother Rich Suda recently told me a story about the time he and his 4 year old daughter (Karin), paid a visit to see Dennis Holvay which was his SIU college pal. At the time, Dennis and his younger brother Jim lived at their folks house in Brookfield, IL. After saying hello to the parents, Jim asked if my brother and niece Karin, would like to hear him sing and play on guitar a new song that he wrote called "Susan". Not more than a week had transpired after that, The Buckinghams record the track and the soon-to-be hit song was on the radio. Nearly a half century later, my Karin, says that she still can recall Jim's performance of the song vividy.

Ira Sperling from Belle Mead, New Jersey  

Posted: February 13th, 2014 9:24 AM

GREAT article...Just saw Jim's name while listening to "Kind Of a Drag" on Sirius and reading attached info on my Ipad...and looked for his name online LOVED Chad and Jeremy connection...They're a great live act BTW.

Nancy Czer Piotrowski from Pensacola, Florida  

Posted: August 31st, 2013 1:34 PM

Hey Jim, I also attended St. Barb's with you and I secretly had a crush on you. Congrats.

Suzanne Entress Morris from Grayslake, Illinois  

Posted: August 31st, 2013 7:35 AM

Congratulations Jim.. went to St. Barbara with you. Remember you as funny in class. But that got you in trouble with Sr.Mary Carol. Never knew you wrote those songs but I loved them all. Glad to hear they helped with college tuition.

Merry Lynn Katis from Carlsbad  

Posted: August 4th, 2013 1:34 AM

Just wondering. Many awards are mentioned, but winning the Ninth Graders End of Season Rock Dance Competition was left out. I was your partner. I remember experiencing a spiritual transcendence halfway through the music, "Get a Job." Best Wishes, ML

Tom Gussy DeRosa from Leesburg, Fl  

Posted: April 9th, 2013 5:28 AM

Jim. No words can express my sincere appreciation for the wonderful and POWERFUL sound you put out with the MOB. I had fake ID"S and would follow you guys all over. Great Times. I know the Chicago Kids loved what you put out. Is there any CDS of the MOB available. Thanks for the great writing.

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