Redd Holt, a drummer who in the 1960s, before jazz fusion became a popular term, struck a beat that had both the kick of funk and the delicacy of jazz on a number of surprisingly popular instrumental tunes, died on May 23 in Chicago. He was 91.
The death, at a hospital, was caused by complications of lung cancer, his son Reginald said.
Mr. Holt scored his biggest hit as the drummer with the pianist Ramsey Lewis’s trio, whose original lineup also included Eldee Young on bass.
The Lewis Trio version superseded Mr. Gray’s, reaching the top of the Billboard R&B chart and No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their “‘In’ Crowd” won the 1965 Grammy Award for best instrumental jazz performance by a small group or soloist.
The group had found a winning formula — repeating a catchy melody over and over, as in a pop tune, adding a bluesy rhythm and leaving room for improvisation. Later in 1965 they released the album “Hang On Ramsey!” It included two bluesy instrumental covers of pop songs that also appeared as singles: the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Hang On Sloopy,” which the McCoys had made a No. 1 hit in 1965. The trio played each of them to shouts of encouragement from a live crowd.
Success, however, proved the be the group’s undoing. In 1966, following disagreements over artistic direction and money, Mr. Holt and Mr. Young left Mr. Lewis to form the Young-Holt Trio, later renamed Young-Holt Unlimited. (Mr. Lewis replaced Mr. Holt with Maurice White, who went on to found Earth Wind & Fire.)
Mr. Holt and Mr. Young continued making music in a pop-friendly vein. Their 1968 single “Soulful Strut,” with a funky, danceable groove, reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, behind Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It on the Grapevine” and “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” a joint release by Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations.
(“Soulful Strut” sounded a lot like an instrumental version of “Am I the Same Girl?,” a late-’60s single by the soul singer Barbara Acklin. Some questioned whether Mr. Young and Mr. Holt had actually played on the recording credited to them, suggesting rather that they had allowed their band name to be used for work done by studio musicians who had backed Ms. Acklin. Reginald Holt said that Carl Davis, the producer of both songs, told him that his father and Mr. Young had indeed played on “Soulful Strut,” and that his father would laugh when questioned about it.)
Another Young-Holt single, “Wack Wack,” reached No. 40 on the charts in 1967. With a monotone male voice repeating the word “whack” in the manner of a quacking duck, the song expressed the merry spirit of Mr. Holt’s style of jazz.
Isaac Holt was born on May 16, 1932, in Rosedale, Miss., a Mississippi River town in the northern part of the state. He got his nickname when he was young, a reference to his light-toned skin. His father, Willie, worked in a lumber yard, and his mother, Mary (Gilliam) Holt, was a homemaker who sometimes taught crocheting and worked as a nurse’s aide.
Redd’s father took him to see traveling minstrel shows when he was a boy, and he was particularly struck by the one-legged tap dancer Peg Leg Bates moving to the rhythm of a trap drummer.
“I went home and from the moment on, I was banging on my mother’s pots and pans and buckets,” Mr. Holt told The Journal and Courier of Lafayette, Ind., in 1992. “That’s how it all came to be.”
The family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration. Redd grew up in the city and lived there the rest of his life, mostly on the South Side. He served in the Army from 1954 to 1956.
He played with Chicago jazz luminaries as a teenager, and he belonged to a local seven-piece jazz band called the Clefs. When several members were drafted, only Mr. Holt, Mr. Young and Mr. Lewis remained. They formed a trio, calling themselves the Gentlemen of Jazz, but changed the name when they were advised that it made more commercial sense to name the group after their pianist.
Mr. Holt married Marylean Green in 1954. In addition to his son Reginald, she survives him, along with two other sons, Isaac and Ivan; a brother, Benjamin; eight grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Holt kept up a regular Friday night gig in Chicago until the onset of the pandemic, and he loved to talk about his craft with high school students.
“Kids are hip,” he told The Journal Herald of Dayton, Ohio, in 1977. “They have open heads.”