Reference Entry

Foxx, Redd

Alexander Battles

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Foxx, Redd

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comedian, was born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Fred Sanford, an electrician, and Mary Carson, a radio preacher and domestic worker. He spent his early childhood in St. Louis. After his father deserted the home in 1926, he and his mother moved to Chicago, where she worked for the vice president of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. While attending DuSable High School, he and two friends formed a washtub band, the Bon Bons. In 1939 the trio hopped a freight train to New York, where they met with sporadic success. Although they performed mostly on street corners and in subway stations, they occasionally appeared at the Apollo Theater and on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour.Friends nicknamed Sanford “Chicago Red” because of his red hair. He then added the surname Foxx in admiration of the baseball star Jimmie Foxx. He devised a distinctive spelling of the name he would be known by for the rest of his life: Redd Foxx.In the mid-1940s Foxx married Eleanor Killebrew; they divorced in 1951. He was married three more times, in 1955 to Betty Jean Harris (divorced in 1974); in the mid-1970s to Yun Chi Chong (divorced in the late 1980s); and in 1991 to Kahoe Cho. He had no children.In 1942 Foxx got his first regular job as a solo entertainer at Gamby's, a nightclub in Baltimore. He returned to New York in 1945 with a unique, polished act. Two years later he teamed with Slappy White and saw his salary rise from $5 to $450 a week. In 1952 Dinah Washington invited the duo to open for her in California. Foxx and White split up soon after that, but Foxx remained on the West Coast at the end of the engagement.Redd Foxx, c. 1973. Foxx became famous for his role as the raffish junkman Fred Sanford in the NBC comedy series Sanford and Son. (AP Images.)Foxx found the club scene in California even more segregated than on the East Coast. Still, he persevered in finding progressively larger venues and contracts, while supplementing his income with work as a sign-painter. In 1955 Dootsie Williams, the owner of Dooto Records, caught Foxx's act and approached him with the revolutionary idea of recording an album consisting only of stand-up comic material and devoid of novelty songs. Foxx's sexually suggestive material prevented radio stations from broadcasting the albums. Nevertheless, the “party albums,” as they would come to be known, were hugely popular in homes across the country. Foxx eventually recorded fifty-four party albums that together sold well over 10 million copies.Owing to the popularity of the party albums, Foxx's salary and his acceptance at white nightclubs increased. In the early 1960s two famous patrons in these venues advanced Foxx's career. Frank Sinatra heard him perform, settled his Dooto contract, and signed him to LOMA, a subsidiary of the newly formed Reprise label. In 1964 the television host Hugh Downs saw Foxx at a club in San Francisco. Although television producers had been leery of Foxx's blue reputation, Downs booked him as a guest on the Today show. Foxx was a smash, and this appearance led to regular spots on talk shows such as The Tonight Show and The Joey Bishop Show, as well as appearances on television series such as Mr. Ed, Green Acres, and The Addams Family.Along with his television success, Foxx appeared regularly in Las Vegas throughout the 1960s. In 1968, when Aretha Franklin failed to appear for an opening-night show, Foxx, the opening act, entertained the crowd for one hour and forty minutes. Bookers from the Hilton International Hotel who saw this performance were impressed enough to offer him a year-long, $960,000 contract.Foxx broke into motion pictures in 1970, portraying an aging junk dealer in the United Artists release Cotton Comes to Harlem. This led directly to his title role in Norman Lear's adaptation of the British comedy Steptoe and Son, NBC's new television series Sanford and Son. It was an immediate hit. Foxx created the main character, Fred Sanford, named after his late brother. Foxx's portrayal of the irascible junkman who faked heart attacks—crying out “I'm coming, Elizabeth!” with the arrival of each “big one”—elevated him to his highest popularity. During the show's 1972–1977 run, Foxx was nominated for six Emmy Awards. Initially he had some degree of control over the show, but in 1977 he left it because of continual differences of opinion over the writing.Although Foxx's talent was still bright, his luck was not. The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour, which premiered on ABC after Foxx left NBC, ran only for the 1977–1978 season. A revival of the Fred Sanford character, Sanford (NBC, 1980–1981), was also short-lived, as was The Redd Foxx Show (1986). Throughout this period Foxx continued to entertain crowds in Las Vegas; however, his lavish spending habits caught up with him in 1989, when the Internal Revenue Service forced him to sell off houses and cars to cover back taxes. In 1991 Foxx's luck was finally turning good again with the early success of another situation comedy, CBS's The Royal Family, but he died of a heart attack on the set, just weeks into the show's run.Although Foxx will be remembered mainly for his work on Sanford and Son, his most lasting contribution is the invention of the stand-up comedy album. In his party albums he pioneered not only an innovation in record marketing but also freedom of speech in comedy. As a result, the voices of many other comedians were heard more widely in the homes of America.

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Subjects: History

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