Chicago blueswomen-supreme Holle Thee Maxwell has never lacked in confidence, nor has she ever had to beg for attention.
Her immense vocals talents and the passion and energy she has stormed the stage with for well over six decades now have seen to that. Her nomination for a Lifetime Achievement Award at the upcoming Chicago Music Awards further confirms this.
But as outstanding as Maxwell’s voracious vocals continue to be, there was a time when her concert attire might have easily matched her larger-than-life personality.
“I wore an outfit that looked like (big) grapes covering my body. The material was net and was the same color as my skin, so it looked like I was naked under the grapes. I had no problem going on stage like that over in France. I was in absolute heaven like that,” Maxwell said. “My mother was a genius seamstress and a master taylor and artist. You could tell her what you wanted made and she could draw it out and then make it. Well, there was this outfit that Josephine Baker had worn, which was basically bananas all over her. She had bananas on her head, on her breasts, on her (private parts) … just all over. So that’s where my inspiration for the grape outfit that my mom made me came from.”
Public displays of fruit-wearing aside, that was just another evening on the bandstand for an amazing artist that has long been known as ‘The Black Blonde Bombshell.’ Maxwell explains where she picked up both her stage maneuvers (as well as her outrageous costumes) and her colorful handle from.
“Joyce Bryant (famous singer/actress from the ‘40s and ‘50s) and Josephine Baker (dancer/singer/entertainer who was also known for her civil rights work) are my SHE-roes. Joyce Bryant went into this nightclub in New York and saw Josephine Baker, who was known as the ‘Bronze Venus’ and ‘Black Pearl’ and was really a flamboyant performer. Well, Joyce wasn’t going to let Baker out-do her, so she went and got some silver-radiator paint and spray-painted her hair with it. She walks into the club with this see-through dress that was real-tight to the knees and then flares out to the floor. When she walked in the door, she stole the show from Josephine Baker,” Maxwell said. “Joyce Bryant was called ‘The Bronze Blonde Bombshell.’ So that’s where I got the concept from and I became the ‘Black Blonde Bombshell.’”
If it’s hard to exactly nail down what makes Maxwell such a distinctive vocalist, it’s because the well that she draws her powers from is such a deep and mighty one. Jazz, blues, R&B, country, pop, soul and even opera all provides the foundation on which Maxwell’s impressive vocals are built on. In the United Kingdom, where Maxwell is as big a star today as she ever was, her style has been tagged ‘Northern Soul.’
“I think all those styles do link together in my vocals. I’m so complicated, I can’t even explain me sometimes,” she laughed. “I’m lost for words sometimes (in how to explain her vocal style), but there’s something in my voice where you can hear the classical training; you can hear the R&B feeling; the words can be like the blues and then, the phrasing can be country, hip-hop and jazz. This is the truth – in the ‘60s and ‘70s, record companies could not label me. They didn’t know what to do with me, which is why I never had a major hit … they didn’t know how to market me, being a black artist coming from an opera background with so many vocal styles. They were baffled with me.”
Plans are currently underway for Maxwell to work on a country CD later this year, with a late 2015 or early 2016 tentative release date slated.
Though she may not have had any major hits, Maxell did have a number of the songs she recorded for Star, Smit-Whit, Constellation and Curtom Records – tunes like “Philly Barracuda,” “Only When You’re Lonely,” “Suffer,” “One Thin Dime” and “No One Else” (written by Curtis Mayfield and with The Impressions back-grounding) – which turned into regional smashes that spoke volumes about Maxwell’s talent.
With so many weapons in her armory to choose from, it would probably make sense for Maxwell to have one that she prefers over the others. Turns out, that’s really not the case.
“I really don’t (have one style she prefers singing over the rest). For me, it’s the words of the song, the feeling of the song, the rhythm of the song, that most interests me. I mean, I love Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me,” but when I did it, I did it more in a church mode. I did it with another rhythm; that’s just how I do things like that. I take a song and make it completely mine; that’s what I do, I just can’t help it.”
With degrees from both the Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University and The Julliard School in NYC under her belt, it’s no wonder that Maxwell, who sang her first song professionally at the age of 5 and has studied classical voice and piano since she was 9, is so well-rounded musically and socially. But in addition to her schooling, the emotional foundation that has turned out to be one of Maxwell’s greatest strengths was also honed razor-sharp at an early age, although it may have been anything but an easy part of the process, as one traumatic evening when she was just 12-years-old proves.
“Well, my mother married the wrong man and on May 18, 1958 she shot and killed my step-father. That was on a Saturday night and the next day – Sunday afternoon – I was being presented at the (Chicago) Civic Opera House. So my mother was handcuffed and standing behind the (stage) curtains, because they let her come and see the concert,” Maxwell said. “I was on the stage singing German, French and Italian opera and I finished that concert with tears in my eyes. I cried through the whole thing. There was (a contingency of) Europeans there that was going to take me back with them to study (overseas). But they didn’t understand why I was crying, so by me crying on stage, that blew my opportunity to go over there and study … they just didn’t understand.”
The act of violence committed by Maxwell’s mother was in retaliation for her husband sexually-abusing her daughter. That whole turn of events ended up changing Maxwell’s life in more ways than just one.
“Somewhere in my head, I never wanted to sing opera again. That whole thing … the rape and everything traumatized me and shook my head,” she said. “I started slippin’ around listening to other music and I started to sing R&B and some of the other music of the day.”
There’s really no way to describe just how essential Maxwell’s mother – Eula – was to what has turned out to be seven decades of playing music and entertaining audiences all over the globe.
“My mother was the heaviest influence on my life for positivity and for my musical background. Sometimes she wouldn’t have the money for us to get on the bus to go down to Roosevelt University and we might have to walk from 71st and Wabash all the way downtown, but she did have the money for those lessons when we got there,” Maxwell said. “That’s how devoted my mother was to me becoming something.”
Maxwell started hanging out at a club on 39th Street called Peyton Place and it was there that she quickly fell under the spell of R&B.
“Oh, man! I saw Otis Clay and Little Johnny Williams and they were stompin’ and singing and it looked like smoke was coming up from the floor,” she laughed. “And I wanted to do that but I couldn’t. It was like I was empty or something was missing from me inside. Later on, I realized that it was all my classical training that had taken that raw soul out of me. But even though, I still went for it. The music just got to me.”
In her early 20s – again at Peyton Place – Maxwell indeed ‘went for it.’ And the results bordered on disastrous.
“I told the emcee – whose name was Hi-Fi White and he was a character unto himself – that I wanted to do a guest spot with the band. So I got up there with my arms folded in front of me and told the bandleader – James Wheeler – “Misty” in E-flat.’ He looked at me like, ‘Say what?’ I said, “Misty” in E-flat, please.’ (she starts singing) ‘Look at me, I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree’ – and those people (in the audience) looked at me like they’d seen a ghost. They started throwing apples and bananas and anything else they could find at me. I ran off the stage crying … and I never will forget, out of everything Hi-Fi White told me that night, he said, ‘Baby, you can sing, but you ain’t got no soul.’”
Those cruel words and rough reception may have been enough to send others off chasing another line of work, but not Maxwell. Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and got down to ‘getting some soul,’ although that journey wasn’t completely pain-free, either.
“Well, I knew that I could sing. I mean, couldn’t nobody tell me I couldn’t sing, whether I had soul or didn’t. So I went home and stayed in the house for six months, listening to Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight. But the closest person I could relate to was Aretha, because of the musical range that I had. I told my husband (Maxwell had recently married at that time) as he came home one day, ‘Baby, I got it.! I been working on it and I got it.’ So he said, ‘OK, let me hear it.’ I said, (starts singing “Respect”) ‘What you want, baby I got it, what you need’ … and he goes, ‘Uh-uh. That ain’t gonna work at all; you ain’t got a damn thing.’ He hurt my feelings. He said, ‘Let me tell you what you got to do. You got to holler in tune.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You’ve got to learn to holler in tune.’ I had never heard anything like that in all my musical training.”
That concept may have been foreign to the classically-reared Maxwell, but she did get the gist of what her husband was recommending her to do.
“I started re-training myself, that’s what I did. Everything I had learned through my classical, technical musical training, I reversed. I un-learned and reversed the whole process,” she said. “But like I said, I knew I could sing, so that part I already had down. My life has been such a contradiction and I guess that’s just what I thrive on.”
Not one to just sit around and watch the grass grow, Maxwell is presently hard at work on a weekly variety show – dubbed Thee Maxwell Café – that will be available to view via the internet when the show’s launch date is scheduled for later this spring.
“We’re going to have a live audience and we’re going to have a live band; it’s going to be like the female Johnny Carson Show. I’m also going to present a segment on the show called Seniors Still Got Talent,” she said. “The show will be filmed right here in Chicago.”
Maxwell’s foray into the world of television started out rather innocently, when she was a featured guest on Star Planet Television’s Straight Talk segment a couple of years ago.
“In June, 2012 I went to be interviewed by W.L. Lillard, who is the host of Straight Talk and the owner of Star Planet TV (a 24-hour, web-based television network located in Chicago). In the middle of the interview, he (Lillard) looks at me and says, ‘You’re going to be my entertainment producer.’ Well, I was on camera, and I was smiling, but I was looking at him through clinched teeth with an ‘I’m gonna kill you’ look,’” laughed Maxwell. “But that’s how that happened. I became the entertainment producer for Straight Talk. On Mondays, we called it (Maxwell’s segment) Straight Talk Presents Music and we did the shows live.”
With Lillard more interested in current political and social topics than music, it made perfect sense for him to hand the entertainment/musical reigns over to Maxwell, who basically took the ball and ran with it. Archives of Maxwell’s programs on Straight Talk can be viewed via the on-demand button at www.starplanettv.com.
Why stop with just recorded music and live television? Turns out, Maxwell is not limiting herself to just those two mediums. She’s also involved in a couple of written projects; her life story, as well as the journals of her time with a dude whose reputation has always seemed to precede him – Ike Turner. Maxwell replaced Tina in Ike’s band from 1977-1985 and then sang with Turner – one of the founding fathers of rock-n-roll – again for a spell in 1992.
“I’m in the process of finishing up a book on the time I spent in Ike Turner’s band, called Freebase Ain’t Free. This book isn’t my life story, just my time with Ike. He was not like he’s been depicted; they’ve assassinated his character and that’s why I want to put this book out. He’s gotten a dirty deal. The man was a musical genius and I would even say that he was a God-blessed man that had a lot of devils around him,” she said. Maxwell is currently scheduled to appear on the TV show Unsung this summer, discussing her time in Turner’s band.
As if all that isn’t enough to fill up Maxwell’s still-being-completed book on her life story, another chapter of that tome might touch upon her onetime co-ownership of a club just 15 minutes outside Paris, France.
“The name of the club was called the Maxwell Street Café, which is where the inspiration for my TV show comes from. It was in Neuilly-sur-Seine, which is about 15 minutes from the center of Paris. I got a break from Gerad Vacher (who had seen Maxwell perform at the Kingston Mines in Chicago), who was the original owner of the club when it was called Quai du Blues,” said Maxwell. “I ended up moving there in ‘95, but I would come back-and-forth (between France and Chicago) to see about and take care of my mother. I was just so prolific in the nightclub scene over there and Paris was my scene. If it hadn’t been for my mom being over here (in the States), I wouldn’t have ever moved back; I’d still be living there. In my head, I went over to Paris to be Josephine Baker. The people over there just loved me so much.”
According to Maxwell, the first step that any artist has to take in order for their audience to love them, is to start with the simple act of loving themselves.
“A lot of performers won’t say this, but it needs to be said. We are in such an abusive country that people are taught not to love themselves. We’re always taught to put somebody else first. That carries over to the performers and entertainers over here; we don’t love ourselves,” she said. “Well, guess what? We don’t realize, but in order to perform, we have to be loved and we have to be adored and have to have the attention. There’s a conflict going on in us and that’s the reason why some of us make it, why some of us don’t make it, and why some of us make it but don’t last. I’ve lasted for seven decades because my mother taught me to love myself. That’s very, very important. But that meant that I couldn’t be around too many people, because I would be called selfish, you see? That’s not selfish, or being a diva, or being narcissistic or cold-blooded, that’s called being a performer and performers have to be loved … but it all starts with loving yourself, first. Nobody says this, because they don’t know the truth. Well, I know the truth, so I’m puttin’ it out there. It all boils down to the fact that we as human beings are not taught to love ourselves first. I don’t like to sugarcoat anything.”
It would probably be a bit of a misjudgment to label Maxwell as arrogant, a malcontent or even brash, because she’s none of the above. What Maxwell is, however, is an entertainer that is fathoms deep in self-confidence, along with self respect for herself and what she does, and that is a healthy quality if there ever was one. It has to be more than a mere coincidence that Maxwell’s middle name is what it is.
“I’m very happy with myself and I have learned the hard way that I can’t get too close to people, because they can’t accept the fact that I’m brutally honest and I just can’t help that,” she said. “The fact is, me and my mother are the only two people in this world that legally have ‘Thee’ in our names. Her name is Eula ‘Thee’ and I’m Holle ‘Thee.’ I always say that God put that in my name because he knew I didn’t have a clue, but that I would get the hint.”
While she was still in high school, Maxwell had a job at a shop called Danny’s Doughnuts, around 51th Street, not too far from the El. It was during her shift one morning that Maxwell decided – maybe sub-consciously – what she was going to be doing for the rest of her life.
“I went in there at 5 a.m. and worked a couple of hours before school. But at 6:30 in the morning, I don’t care what else I was doing, I would go to the jukebox and press a Billie Holiday song and would sing along to it. I did that every morning and would look around and I’d have an audience. At 6:30 in the morning, they knew there was going to be a show going on,” said Maxwell. “So one morning, Danny the owner looked at me as I was getting ready to head to the jukebox and said, ‘If you take that damn apron off, don’t come back.’ I said, ‘OK.’ So I took my apron off, went over and played the song on the jukebox and then walked out the door.”
Visit Holle’s website at https://holletheemaxwell.wordpress.com/about/
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine