Chicago jazzmen Isaac "Red" Holt, Eldee Young and Ramsey Lewis formed a strong bond in the early 1950s while performing with The Clefs, a seven-member group regularly booked for dances on the Windy City's west side. Drummer Holt wasn't with the group when it broke up, having been drafted by the Army near the close of the Korean War in 1953; pianist Lewis and bassist Young put together The Ramsey Lewis Trio with drummer Butch McCann, who basically held Holt's place until he'd completed his service. In 1956, with Red back and several months of club gigs establishing the trio on the Chicago club scene, they were signed by Chess Records and set to work putting an album together. Ramsey Lewis and his Gentle-Men of Swing was released on the company's Argo label in 1957, the lead track a liberally-altered adaptation of "Carmen" from Georges Bizet's classic 81-year-old opera of the same title. So began a decade-long collaboration built around Ramsey's copious command of the ivories. Not long afterwards they were Gentle-Men of Jazz; about 20 albums of material later, the trio hit the pop mainstream with their 1965 single "The 'In' Crowd." Before long, Young and Holt struck out on their own.
Early in his career, Red Holt had at different times worked behind jazz greats like James Moody, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. An all-around percussionist, he frequently made use of tambourines, triangles and even his hands and fingers if that's what it took to get the sound he wanted. Eldee Young similarly avoided confining himself; starting as a guitarist, then making the bass his main instrument, he later mastered the cello. Throughout the late '50s and into the next decade, the Lewis Trio gradually gained a loyal following, rising to the top after incorporating established soul tunes into their act, a move many jazz critics found objectionable. It did, nonetheless, win them a Grammy award for "'In' Crowd" in the category Best Jazz Performance by a Small Group. Egos kicked in among the three longtime partners, though, and suddenly Ramsey's records were no long credited to a trio, despite the configuration remaining the same; after leaving, Young and Holt were replaced by drummer (and future Earth, Wind and Fire founder) Maurice White and bassist Cleveland Eaton.
Eldee and Red purposely constructed The Young Holt Trio under the same kind of setup they were comfortable with. Hysear Don Walker, an impressive piano man from nearby Evanston, Illinois, was essentially hired to take the Ramsey Lewis role (Don was also a fine saxophone and trumpet player, though he strictly tickled the black and white keys on Young-Holt recordings). They were picked up by Brunswick Records and placed in the hands of Carl Davis, the highly successful Chicago producer who'd been important to the success of soul singers Gene Chandler, Major Lance, Walter Jackson and others. The first single, "Wack Wack," an infectious instrumental with the title squawk repeated several times, hit radio in late 1966 and reached the R&B top 20 and pop top 40 in January '67. Donald Storball, a member of The Capitols, created a minor annoyance when he claimed the YHT had lifted the basic riff from his Detroit-based group's mid-'66 hit "Cool Jerk," which he'd written; ultimately, an adjustment was made to give Storball a share of the composers' royalties.
The follow-up, Holt's "Ain't There Something That Money Can't Buy," is a live track with the trio's vocals set against an instrumental groove similar to "Hang On Sloopy," a hit single recorded near the end of their time with Lewis. Vocals, usually secondary to the instrumentation and often ad-libbed, were a regular part of Young-Holt's sound; the third single, Walker's "Yon Gimme Thum," the first under the name Young-Holt Unlimited, was one such track. Davis spearheaded an expansion of varying session players, for the most part the same crew heard on hits by Chandler, The Artistics and Jackie Wilson, thus justifying the new name, though Young, Holt and Walker often still performed in clubs as a small combo. Regardless, 1967 and '68 singles like "Doin' the Thing" and "Give it Up" retained the established jazz formula. The only thing is, there hadn't been a hit since they'd "Wack"-ed.
Walker left the trio around this time to do his own solo thing, resulting in two volumes of progressive electric piano works called Complete Expressions. Barbara Acklin, a soul songstress who'd started her career at Brunswick as a songwriter (Wilson's "Whispers" was hers), had scored with "Love Makes a Woman" the previous summer and was in the process of recording "Am I the Same Girl," penned by Eugene Record and William "Sonny" Sanders. Davis felt the completed backing track, a big brass number by the Brunswick session band, could be a hit strictly as an instrumental. Floyd Morris played piano where Barbara's vocals would go; Young and Holt were nowhere near the studio. The track was titled "Soulful Strut" and caught on quickly after a fall 1968 release, hitting the top ten in January '69. Acklin's "Same Girl," vocals in place of piano, was also released and became a minor hit shortly afterwards.
All subsequent singles featured the full band backing Young, Holt and Walker's replacement, pianist Kenneth Chaney. "Who's Making Love," a cover of Johnnie Taylor's '68 hit for Stax, made an unspectacular impact on the charts. Then "Strut" soundalike "Just a Melody" proved the folly of trying to replicate the hit. In 1970, the trio left Brunswick for Cotillion Records and reclaimed the artistic freedom that had fallen by the wayside in the wake of their million-selling smash. Young-Holt Unlimited received a 1973 Grammy nomination for Best Rhythm and Blues Instrumental Performance for their electricized cover of The Pointer Sisters' "Yes We Can Can," the award ironically going to Ramsey Lewis for a "funky reggae style" remake of his 1965 hit "Hang On Sloopy," which they had been a part of. In 1983, Young and Holt reunited with Lewis and, for a time, the three friends relived the magic of their early years together.