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by Jake Austen
Illustration by John Battles

(From Roctober #28, 2000)

Chicago, 1917: Fred G. Sanford (the G. stands for Glenn), not exactly the most honorable fellow, marries Mary Alma in hopes of getting a deferment to avoid the WWI draft. The next year Fred G. Sanford, Jr. is born, and four years later, on the 9th of December, 1922 Jon Elroy Sanford (also known as John, Smiley, 58th Street Red, Chicago Red and finally, Redd Foxx) is born. By the time the little red headed child enters the world, Fred Sr. has abandoned the family for good and Mary has moved back with her mother in St. Louis. Thus began the l-o-n-g hard journey that would bring America’s hardest working, most prolific, and (some say) all-time funniest comedian to heights beyond the dreams such humble beginnings should allow, and to depths so low that his early years would seem like paradise.

Less than a year after his birth, young Jon/Redd and his family moved back to Chicago. His mother supported the boys as best she could working as a domestic for a White Sox exec for 2 dollars a day. The cheapness that caused Shoeless Joe Jackson to throw the World Series forced Mrs. Sanford to throw her boys into the best situation she could, accepting charity to send them away to Catholic School in Milwaukee. It was here that young Redd’s course would be mapped as both comedian and man-in-perpetual-trouble when he was impressed seeing his brother get what child psychologists these days call "negative attention" for acting a fool. After four years their mother sent them back to St. Louis to live with their grandmother, while she stayed in Chicago to work. That act was never forgiven by the boy who would be Foxx, and he became pretty much a badass from then on (meeting a pre-teen Lawanda Page likely didn’t help his manners, either). He was expelled from one school on the first day for throwing a book at a teacher. By age thirteen he was back in Chicago, and then the trouble really began.

Awaiting him in the Windy City was DuSable high school and the 58th St. Gang. The former was the savior of many a black youth in Chicago. The first all black high school in the city, DuSable (named after the Black explorer who founded Chicago) was an excellent facility that produced many of the figures that shaped Black Chicago in the 20th century. The 58th Street Gang on the other hand , was a group of common hoodlum delinquents. Redd would put a half assed effort into each, attending only two semesters of high school, and eventually abandoning his hoodlum crime buddies for hoodlum singing buddies.

By 1939, 16 year old Jon Sanford was singing in "Tramp Bands." These hobo-attired vocal groups performed on street corners and had an arrangement consisting of guitar, washtub string bass and two singer/dancers (of which young Redd was one). They performed Mills Brothers type material, and songs like "Tiger Rag." After singing with The Four Hep Cats, Redd found his stride with The Four Bon Bons ("we picked that name because Bon Bons were little chocolates.") and was soon winning local contests. One of the highlights of their Chicago career was performing (with a special dropout’s exemption) in DuSable’s legendary talent show/revue, Captain Walter Dyett’s High Jinx, a show which produced such notables as Nat "King" Cole, Dorothy Donnegan and Johnny Hartman.

Not long after the show the Bon Bons hopped a freight train headed towards the promised land of Harlem (via Buffalo and Jersey) and after some adventures with railroad detectives, they found themselves jamming on Uptown street corners. It was there that they were discovered and given a chance to appear on the popular radio show, Major Bowes Amateur Hour. Billed as The Jump Swinging Six (with a coupla New Yorkers in tow) they performed "Sheik of Araby" and won 2nd Prize, a week’s engagement at the Apollo Theater. After the Apollo they had gigs in Brooklyn and New Jersey, but money was tight. When Redd ended up in jail for several months after a dine and ditch at a Chinese restaurant, and half the Bon Bons headed home while he was incarcerated. Thus, when he gained his freedom, he was also allowed the unwanted freedom to pursue a solo career.

The next few years were a constant struggle and hustle. He ate soap to avoid the draft, he rolled drunks for money and he shot pool. It was behind the cue stick where he met Malcolm Little (later to be come the revolutionary Malcolm X, but at the time a hustler like Redd). Soon they were working side by side in the kitchen of Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, sleeping on newspapers on a nearby roof ("Newspapers is some of the warmest stuff going"). Not the slickest con, he was nabbed for milk stealing and landed back in jail. Luckily he got out of common crime and got fully into an uncommon scam…show biz!

Redd (a name he actually began using by this time) had made friends with a number of the stars around New York, and that began to pay off in 1943 when Jo Ann Baker got him his first steady gig emceeing…in Baltimore. Performing for the rough longshoreman (and becoming one during the day), Redd developed his style of blue humor to get a rise out of the audience. Redd’s style of combining perfect timing, delivery and a conversational storytelling vibe to make clean material sound dirty and dirty material sound filthy came naturally to him. His profile was on the rise during this period, and he parlayed the exposure into a brief singing gig with the Buddy Johnson band (Arthur Prysock was the featured vocalist), a semi-fruitful foray as a recording artist (one session singing jump Blues for Savoy - see REDD RECORDS in Roctober #28) and even a return to the Apollo stage. His comedy career really came into bloom when he partnered with a comic/dancer he met in Baltimore, Slappy White. As Redd and White they escaped the local scenes and got themselves on the bottom of touring bills. By 1947 they were traveling with Duke, Cab Callaway, Basie and others. They were pulling in $150 each per week, and all they had to do for the money was work 7 days a week, 3 shows a night, plus weekend matinees. The network of venues where Black performers would play for Black audiences was dubbed The Chitlin Circuit, and it was on this circuit that Redd would meet many of the comics he would be associated with later in life, including Don "Bubby" Bexley, Leroy and Skillet, and even his old St. Louis associate Lawanda Page, who long before Aunt Esther days, was actually an exotic dancing beauty!

In1948 Redd met and married Evelyn Killebrew, a bourgeoisie gal whose father was the George Jefferson of Newark. Off the road at the time, he was making only $5 a night telling jokes at a Jersey bar, so naturally her daddy wasn’t happy. The marriage lasted only until the early fifties, when Queen Dinah Washington arranged for Redd and White to come open for her in Los Angeles. Deciding to relocate to the Golden State after the brief gig was over, he sent for Evelyn, who wouldn’t come. The Redd and White duo broke up, and Foxx struggled for work, even trying his hand at opening a soul food place. But it was in the LA nightclubs where Foxx would soon become involved in the two longest partnerships of his life.

At the Stadium Club Redd opened for the Harris Sisters, and though his crude style at first offended the girls, only a year he convinced Betty Jean Harris to marry him, and he adopted her daughter Debreca. His other "marriage" got it’s start when he was hired as a comedian at the Brass Rail for $150 a week. The 32year old comic already had a fully developed ego and sense of entitlement, he really believed he was the best in the business, and would walk out on any club that disrespected him. Luckily he hadn’t walked out the night Dootsie Williams came to see him perform.

Dootsie Williams, a charismatic Black wheeler and dealer, would go on to describe himself as America’s Foremost Authority on Humor. He had been running the Dootone label since 1951, mostly concentrating on vocal groups and Doo Wop, as well as fiddler John Creach, who would become "Papa John" in the Woodstock era. He was ready to invest some wax to comedy, feeling it was his zone since he had released Billy Mitchell’s "Song of the Woodpecker" in 1949 on Blue/Duotone, which he called the first comedy record (few would agree with him). Redd soon recorded his first live Dooto LP, "Laff of The Party," for which he would later claim he was paid $25. The raunchy LP was a success, soon becoming the biggest party record of all time, and Dootsie signed Redd to a long term contract. Redd’s star was on the rise.

For those unfamiliar with the "Party Record" phenomenon, it involved bawdy comedy records by Black comedians that were sold in Black shops semi openly, and in select white shops under the counter. In the pre TV era (and for poor people that lasted well into the TV age) listening to these records was a social event, where friends would gather, drink and enjoy the double entendres. Many rent parties were based around Dooto comedy albums.

After the success of "Laff Of The Party," Dootsie began releasing record after record, including multiple EP packagings of each album, different color vinyl, and "Best Ofs" faster than you could say "Record Collector Scum." Redd became a national star and his LA engagements at more upscale joints like The Summit Club and the Interlude Club, both on Sunset Blvd., began to earn him upwards of $750 a week. By1959 he was playing for white audiences in New York. At his first such engagement, at the Basin St. East , he tried to do a sanitized version of his act to be safe and the crowd demanded he do the dirty stuff. In 1960 he began his Vegas career by playing the Aladdin after hours. Redd came to define the Vegas After Hours club, a place where headliners like Sinatra, Sammy Davis and their ilk, as well as anybody who refused to sleep, would go at 2am after the big shows let out. All the while Dooto was releasing new LPs, and EPs every couple of months. As his rep rose he started to smell a vinyl rat.

In1961 Foxx brought suit against Dooto trying to cancel his contract blaming Williams for fraudulent practices, and royalty underpayment. While this suit lingered on Dooto didn’t slow down releasing Foxx records despite not having access to the act. The release of out of date, repackaged and poor quality material during that time would come to set the tone for the rest of Foxx’ recording career. In September of ’63, after 2 years, 5 months and 10 days in court, Foxx got screwed! Whatever the truth was, the judge was so partial to Williams that it makes one suspect that perhaps there’s something wrong with the LA Judiciary system. Dooto not only got the courts to agree they hadn’t underpaid Foxx, they also got a ruling that they’d overpaid, him, and that Redd owed the label $11,000! In addition, not only did Redd have to honor his lengthy contract, but it was extended by the courts to reflect the time Foxx was uncooperative.

But 1963 wasn’t a bad year for Redd, on the contrary, he would have liked to break ties with Dooto because opportunities were rich for him. Hugh Downs had seen Redd at the Sugar Hill club in New York, and though he had to tone down his blue streak, Hugh was able to get the 41 year old comic on the "Today" show. "Negro" comedians were starting to break through on TV, with Dick Gregory making strides and Bill Cosby about to make leaps, so with a little sanitizing it made sense that Redd would make it on the small screen

Championed by Downs, Johnny Carson and Della Reese, Foxx appeared all over the tube, and in the late 60s and early 70s he’d been on "The Tonight Show," "Mike Douglas," "Merv Griffin," "The Addams Family," "Mr. Ed," "Green Acres," "Here’s Lucy," "Flip Wilson" (whose career was boosted by Redd pumping him up on Carson) "Dinah Shore," " The Name Of The Game," and the special "A Time For Laughter," amongst many others. His clean act helped raise the price for his dirty act, as he was soon earning $4,000 per show at the Aladdin in Vegas. And when ’67 came and his Dooto contract was over, his recording output exploded.

Foxx got out of his contract cleanly and even a little early after Sinatra decided to sign Foxx to Loma, the Black imprint of his Reprise label, itself an imprint of the mighty Warner Brothers label. Within 48 hours of seeing an impressive Vegas set, the Chairman settled with Dootsie and had a contract with Redd. It was, amazingly, a non-exclusive contract, and Redd was also allowed to release records on King (home of James Brown) and a bushel of LPs on his own MF records (MF stood for [Bert] Marks, his partner in the venture, and Foxx). Many of the albums were recorded at Redd’s LA club, which he had opened to have a profitable home base (cutting down on Vegas trips) and to showcase old chitlin circuit and young Black comedians. (see FOX-E-PHEMRA in Roctober #28) Redd was living the life, chilling in a $62,500 home in Baldwin Hills, seeing his Loma LP sell 15,000 in the first few weeks (great for a comedy record), and swimming in the indulgences he felt his hard work deserved, including mountains of cocaine and plenty of women. It seemed like he was on top of the world, but little did he dream that this was a mere drop in the success bucket.

1970 had some lows and highs. On the negative side, his club, which he had put in the hands of crooked and incompetent friends and relatives, burnt down after falling into deep financial holes. This bad business sense he demonstrated in the venture would haunt Redd for the rest of his life. On the up side, Redd appeared in the film, "Cotton Comes To Harlem," Ossie Davis’ adaptation of Chester Himes novel. His character Uncle Bud,, a crafty old urban junkman, caught the eye of Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. They were riding high with the TV success of "All In The Family" on CBS. That edgy comedy was an adaptation of a Brit-Com, and they were looking to import another English series about a junkman and his dysfunctional relationship with his son. They had considered several ethnicities, but Redd’s Uncle Bud performance convinced them to go Black, and they never went back.

A mid-season replacement series, "Sanford and Son" cast Redd as the father and Demond Wilson as the son. The humble set and small cast made for a modest production that could really showcase Redd’s appeal. On January 14th, 1972 it debuted, and for the rest of its run it never left the top ten. All of a sudden Redd Foxx was a SUPERSTAR!

The show was not without critics. Variety compared it to "Amos and Andy", and in a prominent New York Times piece, "Sanford and Son Is White To The Core" Black scholar Eugenia Collier lambasted the show, making some interesting points (for example, the Black tradition of humor usually involves a common man protagonist, and if any Black junkyard owners actually exist, they would be incredibly exceptional). Interestingly, cultural critic Donald Bogle has made the opposite argument, championing the show’s inherent Blackness.

Bogle may be on the mark here. Though the show’s writers were mostly white (the production credits read like those gold tree leaves with donors’ names you see at a synagogue) Foxx exerted a huge amount of influence. Though he didn’t have a TV track record, he was making a mil a year at the Hilton in Vegas, so he didn’t need the job, and was in a position to make demands. Even before the show’s success occurred he had the juice to name the characters Fred G. Sanford after his brother (not his absentee father of the same name) who had died in 1963, and Lamont after Lamont Ousley, one of the Four Bon Bons. As far as writing goes, in addition to ad libbing his own lines, Redd also contributed to scripts, answering stupid questions about his writing credentials with the snappy answer, "I’ve been black longer than anybody here." Foxx also insisted that no degrading "jive talk" be written into the scripts, which actually closed the door to a number of young black writers whose sample scripts were drenched with Black English. When the show hit, Foxx fully asserted his own aesthetic by stocking the cast with Chitlin’ Circuit buddies, including Lawanda Page, Skillet and Leroy, "Bubba" Bexley, Slappy White and others. Of the older characters that hung with Fred, only Whitman Mayo (Grady) came up as a regular, trained actor.

With great success came great demands…for money! As the show became a smash, Redd’s 10 grand an episode became an insult. He demanded Carroll O’Connor’s salary plus a dollar, and a percentage of the show. In 1975 he bitterly walked out for 1/2 a season until the president of NBC gave in to his demands. With a massive cocaine habit, ill advised generosity, the lure of the Vegas tables and terrible business sense, he actually needed the money. Though he made almost five million dollars in 1975, he also had made the awful mistake of trying to emulate John Johnson’s Black-owned Johnson empire of hair care products and publishing. Buying a huge LA building and starting a cosmetics company without knowing much about the business was a money pit. (see FOXX-E-PHEMERA in Roctober #28) He certainly could afford his mansion two doors down from Bob Hope, but the cash, jewelry, cars and extravagant gifts he gave even casual acquaintances were beyond even his massive means. To make matters worse, in 1976 Jean divorced him, getting (amongst much else) his hard fought percentage of "Sanford and Son" in the settlement.

If it was just alimony and business failure haunting Redd maybe he could have kept afloat, but respect was a huge issue as well, and all the bitter negotiations with NBC over the years left him vulnerable to ABC’s offer of a mountain of cash to jump ship. With Sanford still a hit, Redd left at the end of his contract to do a short lived, overly ambitious variety show on ABC, which was a triumph to the network despite only lasting 9 episodes, because it killed the Sanford and Son juggernaut that had been the competition.

Over the next 15 years he would return to television occasionally with little success (See FOXX-TV in Roctober #28). His personal life in the 80s was more downs than ups. On the plus side, he settled in Vegas and married his third wife Yunchi Chung (Joi). It’s interesting that after doing some surprisingly ugly anti-Asian routines on wax, he spent the last years of his life with Asian women and even had an Asian motif wing of his mansion. On the negative side, his family relationships were poor. Many of his relatives he trusted had screwed him in business, he never had forgiven his mother for repeatedly sending him away as a young child, and his father, whom he never met, shot himself to death accidentally, removing any chance of a reconciliation. Artistically he was also troubled. He released fewer records (though Dooto and King continued to issue knockoff albums of old material), his attempt to play Broadway was a bust (See FOXX-E-PHEMERA in Roctober #28) and even his popular Vegas concerts were shaky and unpredictable. Billy Crystal once joked on the "Tonight Show" about going to see a Redd Foxx set where the M.C. dramatically announced him, Redd stumbled out, grumbled and then left almost immediately, as the announcer dramatically announced his exit. Foxx was clearly losing focus, and that stemmed form massive financial woes.

By 1983 Redd made millions a year in appearances, but alimony and debt made him declare bankruptcy. By ‘86 he was making 4 million a year in Vegas, but was having problems with the IRS. When his marriage to Joi dissolved, and his coke, gambling and womanizing habits didn’t, he soon found himself in a worse position than he could have dreamed of. On November 28, 1989 the IRS swooped in and like stormtroopers and seized all his possessions as Redd stood in the street in his underwear shaking his head, all the ugliness captured and broadcast by TV news cameras. To partially satisfy his elephantine debt to the agency they auctioned off nearly all of his possessions, including his model T, his uzi , his Redd Foxx records, his ukele, the watch Elvis gave him, his personal photographs, his Asian room furniture, and everything else. Though he had been paid half a million dollars earlier that year to appear in Eddie Murphy’s "Harlem Nights," (See FOXX FILMS/VIDEOS in Roctober #28) he had spent it all on partying and didn’t save a penny for Uncle Sam. This humiliation broke Redd’s spirit and he became a bitter, angry shell of what he once was, blaming racism, the government and everyone but himself for his predicament.

Eddie Murphy bailed Foxx out, somewhat, by developing a TV show for him and Della Reese, with whom he’d had good chemistry in "Harlem Nights." "The Royal Family" debuted in September 1991, and was a modest success its first few weeks on the air. On the set on October 11th Redd was filming an interview with (ironically) "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" when a "Royal Family" staff member insisted, with Robin Leach’s camera’s still rolling, that Redd cut the interview short to come block some lighting. This was clearly something anyone, or even a sandbag, could do, but the producers must have been warned to try to keep an upper hand with Redd and keep his spirit broken as to avoid NBC’s "Sanford" problems. It backfired. Raw footage shows Redd visibly upset at this indignity, muttering, hateful and embarrassed to have this happen in front of the interviewer. He starts breathing heavily and becomes agitated. Moments later he would drop dead from the heart attack initiated by the incident. People thought at first it was a pratfall. It wasn’t.

Redd never gained consciousness and was declared dead at the hospital at age 68. His new wife of three months, Ka Ho Cho, didn’t have a penny to bury him, and Eddie Murphy had to foot the bill. Redd Foxx went out the way he should have lived, with thousands of people there to show their love, no extravagances spared and the star treatment all around. His talents should have afforded him this his whole life, but his actions and appetites betrayed him. He sold over 20 million records, was one of the biggest TV stars of the ‘70s and helped define the traditions of comedy, Vegas and Superstar excess in the 20th century. These days he’s mostly remembered as Fred Sanford (several fine websites honor the TV show and Chris Rock turned down an idiotic proposal to make a "Sanford and Son" movie) but he was so much more. Luckily for history, as one of the most prolific recording and television artists in his field, his huge body of work can be rediscovered for generations to come.