Major Holley

Major Holley, also known as “Mule”, was best known for singing along in unison with his bowed, upright bass solos, and for his sense of a grooving, steady swing. He was able to produce a rich, deep sound from his bass whether playing up tempo or ballads.

A Detroit native, Holley originally played violin and tuba, but switched to bass while playing in Navy bands in the 40’s. He played with jazz luminaries like Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald in the mid- to late ’40s. In 1950, he did a series of duet recordings with Oscar Peterson. He also toured with Woody Herman in 1958, played with Coleman Hawkins, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Shirley Scott.

Holley’s bass recordings with guitarist Kenny Burrell are considered some of his best work, including Midnight Blue, Burrell’s most famous album recorded in 1963. He also did a good deal of studio work and had a stint with Duke Ellington in 1964. He taught at the prestigious Berklee School of Music from 1967-70, freelanced in New York, and recorded with everyone from Roy Eldridge to Quincy Jones. He recorded two albums with Slam Stewart where they both did their signature vocal solo with stringed bass riffing.

Holley died in 1990, but his sound and contribution to jazz is very much alive in modern bass playing. Bass players, like Ray Brown, followed in his footsteps.

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