Redd Foxx: The St. Louis Don
In life there are people born who leave an everlasting impression. One of the greatest gifts a person can obtain during their existence is to never be forgotten. In physics, energy can be converted in form but never created or destroyed. In my opinion, energy is one with our spirit. Our spirit lives on in the form of energy after our physical presence is not longer present. We strive to leave an everlasting memory for future generations. At least this is what the great ones manage to do whether they realize it or not. These individuals find a way to express themselves in a manner that force people to study, appreciate and even mimic their talent. To be perfectly honest with you, I can’t remember a time when Redd Foxx has not been part of my life. As a 42 year old, I continue to watched Redd Foxx on TV with the same enthusiasm I had as a kid watching him with my Grandparents. I would later learn to appreciate his Records as an adult. There has never been a moment where Redd Foxx didn’t have some type of influence on the way I viewed life, entertainment, struggle, resilience and persistence. To truly understand the complexity of Redd Foxx, we have to take a short journey through the window in which he viewed the universe.
Redd Foxx was born poor, black and in 1922. When you think about those odds in regard to American History, it makes for an even more fascinating life that he lived. I’ve always been intrigued with Redd Foxx and several years ago I started to research his life on a deeper level. One of the first things I learned was Redd Foxx actual name given at birth was John Elroy Sanford. Yes, Red Foxx last name was actually Sanford. As a fanatic of the 70’s Sitcom Sanford and Son, this was like music to my ears. Even more interesting was his father’s name was Fred Sanford Sr. His brother’s name was Fred G. Sanford, which is the name Redd Foxx decided to use for his character on Sanford and Son. Sanford starting calling himself Redd Foxx after being influenced by Major League Baseball Player, Jimmy Foxx. The nickname “RED” was given by others because of his skin complexion. I obviously didn’t know this information growing up but I can appreciate the show even more now and it was already my favorite sitcom of all time. As we continue with the life of John Elroy Sanford aka Redd Foxx, we see the adventurer at an early age. By the time Foxx was 13 years old; he left St. Louis and moved to Chicago. Prior to leaving for Chicago, Foxx was raised by his Grandmother. If you think about the show Sanford and Son, he always talked about leaving California and going back to St. Louis. At any rate, Foxx joined a band and played a washboard to make money. Fox would find refuge with new friends, band members and on the streets, trying to find his way. By the time Foxx was 16 years old, he decided to catch a train to New York to further pursue dreams and survive.
During Redd Foxx’s early years in New York City which was the 1940’s, he started to run the streets with another young man they called Malcolm Little. Of course the world would later know him as Malcolm X. Little would call Foxx “Chicago Red” and this was also documented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Yes, Foxx and Little were actually friends who weren’t always model citizens during those youthful years. At the same time, Foxx started to take his entertainment ambitions more serious because he didn’t have plans to wash dishes and perform odd jobs the rest of his life. Foxx was into music and recorded several songs in 1946 for Savory Records, located in New Jersey. Just for perspective, Savory Records recorded some of the greatest Jazz Musicians of all time. A few notable artists who worked with Savory records were Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Erroll Garner and Fats Navarro. After a small time period in the music business, Redd Foxx started digging deeper into his true passion, which was comedy. For the next few years, Foxx would perform in local nightclubs, bars and anywhere people would listen. From 1951-1955, Foxx was on the “Chitlin Circuit” as a Comedian and Actor in Black Theaters. During this time Foxx was approached by Blues Singer Dinah Washington who encouraged him to take his talents to Los Angeles. Foxx had already made a name for himself on the East Coast but more opportunity would be available out West. After a short period of time performing in California, Foxx was offered a recording deal with Dootsie Williams. Williams saw Foxx perform his act at The Brass Rail Nightclub. Foxx released several Records that I finally got the chance to hear once I became an adult. In all actuality, Redd Foxx released over 50 albums total in his career. Foxx became famous in black circles with his records and style of comedy. Foxx was very vulgar and used a lot of profanity that was relatively foreign during this time period. Trust me, acts such as Richard Pryor (who once worked in a Nightclub owned by Foxx), Paul Mooney, Robin Williams and other greats learned from Foxx. It’s also not a secret that Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and various 80’s acts would also be influenced by the genius of Redd Foxx. Over the next few years Foxx would continue to gain fame through his records and brilliant stage performances. Foxx was one of the first black comedians to perform in front of predominately white crowds in Las Vegas.
The cool thing about Redd Foxx was his loyalty to his childhood friends and other people he came in contact with early in life. Redd Foxx never forgot about St. Louis. During his time with NBC and Sanford and Son, Foxx requested that several of his actual friends have characters created for them on his show. Sanford and Son was an American remake of the British Sitcom Steptoe and Son, released 11 years earlier in the United Kingdom. LaWanda Page, who is known as Ester “Aunt” Anderson is a childhood friend of Redd Foxx. They attended school together and remained close friends. It was rumored that Norman Lear (Creator) didn’t want Page on the show because of her dark skin color but Foxx wasn’t having that at all. Page would later reprise this role in Sanford Arms and Sanford series. Foxx and Page remained friends for the duration of their lives. Foxx and Comedian Slappy White performed together for years on the Chitlin Circuit. During the television run of Sanford and Son, Foxx made sure that Sloppy White would have a role in the show as well. This was another testament to the loyalty of Redd Foxx. Sloppy White was also given a role by Foxx on The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour that was aired on ABC for a season. Foxx was also known to be very concerned about politics and the black community. Foxx was often seen at events and would speak as well. Foxx had a great friendship with Della Reese who he’d known for decades. It is also said that Foxx was friends with and admired by Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. We all know Foxx and Sammy Davis Jr. were friends and respected each other very much. Foxx always appeared to be proud of his teenage running mate Malcolm X. It was rumored (I have no facts) that Foxx assisted Malcolm’s family after he was assassinated financially for a while. Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor reached out to Foxx to be a starring character in the cult classic Harlem Nights in 1989. His performance 40 years after he started his career was still hilarious.
Redd Foxx was a pioneer. A lot of people don’t realize why Foxx left Sanford and Son. By the time Sanford and Son was rated #2 on Television following All in the Family, Foxx wanted to be financially compensated for the show’s success. Carol O’Connor (Archie Bunker) was reportedly being paid 25k per episode. Foxx wanted similar money and went on strike at one point until they started to pay him 23k per episode. This was unprecedented for the time period. Foxx never felt second place or second rate to other celebrities, regardless of their race. When you're born poor and black in 1922, you learn how to fight. Redd Foxx was a fighter. Redd Foxx was a visionary who would sing, play instruments, tell jokes, act in television/film and even washed dishes earlier in life for survival. Redd Foxx lived a full life. What I mean by that is he lived the way he wanted to live. Foxx became the star that he believed he should have been. Foxx has been celebrated by many of the comedians that followed his footsteps. Demond Wilson (who played Lamont Sanford) often spoke on the brilliance of Foxx. Comedy changed with Redd Foxx. Throughout the first few decades of his career; salty and scatological, his material broke new ground with his point blank rifts, discussions on sex and race, and his raw delivery. At one point his party records were banned from white radio stations but eventually Foxx couldn’t be denied because he was just that funny. Redd Foxx jokes can still be played almost 30 years after his death and you will laugh. You can still watch Sanford and Son and laugh. I own the entire series (6 Seasons) and still watch episodes from time to time. We loss Redd Foxx on the set of his new show with Della Reese, The Royal Family of a heart attack (something he ironically spoke about on Sanford and Son in regard to joining his wife Elizabeth in Heaven) in 1991. I remember seeing the report of his death on the news. I was sad. I also hate the fact that he died with serious financial issues but none of this take away from what he did for the culture. Redd Foxx was like my TV Dad. Redd Foxx is my Favorite Comedian of all time. Redd Foxx voice is still a sound that allows me to smile. Energy can never be created or destroyed and the soul of Redd Foxx will love forever.
Sources: The Official Website of Redd Foxx, Wikipedia: Redd Foxx, Various Redd Foxx Interviews and Videos