On this day in comedy on December 9, 1922 Redd Foxx stated on many occasions that he wanted to leave the world as he came in – with nothing. And he did. His journey of burning through life leaving a stack of bills and few cares started on December 9, 1922 when Mary Hughes from Ellisville, Mississippi gave birth to little John Sanford in Saint Louis, Missouri. She raised him on Chicago’s Southside along with his brother, Fred G. Sanford Jr. Their father Fred G. Sanford Sr. ran off when little John was four years old. He had to grow up quick.
Show business was a profession even a kid could do. So he joined a wash tub band and in 1939 his group, the Jump Swinging Six, performed on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour on radio. However, show business was also an inconsistent profession meaning taking odd jobs between gigs was the norm. In the 1940s he worked as a dishwasher, scrubbing alongside the man would later come to be known as Malcolm X. During this period in both of their unheralded lives Malcolm Little was known as St. Louis Red and called John, Chicago Red, “the funniest dishwasher in the world.” He used the Red part for his stage name and got the Foxx from baseball player Jimmie Foxx.
Redd avoided the draft during World War II by eating half a bar of soap. That little trick right before his physical caused him to have heart palpitations. Still performing as a musician, Redd Foxx recorded 5 songs for the Savoy label in 1946. Then he decided to use his laugh making ability and integrated into comedy. Like most black performers, his technique got tight on the chitlin circuit and he made a lot of friends. He worked solo and for a time partnered with Slappy White.
Redd Foxx got his big break when famed singer, Dinah Washington introduced him to Dooto Records owner, Dootsie Williams and Foxx started recording party albums. Foxx wound up recording over 50 and earning the title, “The King of the Party Records”. His style was raw, uncensored and uncut. A lot of it is tame by today’s standards, but totally shocking in the 1950s and 60s.
Redd Foxx was one of the first comedians to perform before white audiences on the Strip in Las Vegas. He did a few films, but it was his cameo in Cotton Comes to Harlem as a junk man that put him on the path for his defining role as Fred G. Sanford on NBC’s Sanford and Son. It was an American version of the hit British sitcom, Steptoe and Son, but there was nothing British about the way Foxx did it. For one thing he hired most of those friends I just mentioned from the chitlin circuit, including LaWanda Page, Bubba Bexley, Slappy White (his former partner) and Leroy & Skillet. The year was 1972 and the show was an instant hit.
Foxx was riding high, but NBC was dragging him down emotionally by not giving him the same things his white counterpart, Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker) of All in the Family was getting. Foxx walked out when he found out O’Connor had a window in his dressing room and Redd had none. The walkout was a minor protest, but it bothered the show’s producers that production had to be held up; especially since he did it more than once. Soon they grew tired of it and Redd grew tired of them growing tired so in 1977 the show was canceled.
Never one to be idle too long Redd did a variety show, but in 1980 found himself back at NBC in attempted revival of the original named Sanford. That didn’t last long so he did what all comedians do when they’re on TV hiatus – he worked clubs, mainly in Las Vegas. He went back to the boob tube in 1986 for ABC on The Redd Foxx Show, but it lasted only a dozen episodes. So back to Vegas he went to earn millions. “Known to some as the Godfather of Comedy, he got to work with the King and Prince (Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy respectively) along with a slew of other amazing comedians in the Murphy directed vehicle, Harlem Nights. So money was never the problem. It was how quick Redd would blow it to fulfill his prophecy. This got him into tax problems.
In an attempt to hold off the IRs and continue living in the life style in which he was accustomed, Redd hopped over to CBS and starred in The Royal Family along with old friend, Della Reese. Things were going fine until October 11, 1991, the day Foxx’s long standing gag of grabbing his heart when things got stressful looking upward and saying, “This is the big one, I’m coming to join you, Elizabeth” from his Sanford and Son days fooled everybody on the set. His always mock heart attack was real and John Sanford aka Redd Foxx died that evening at Queen of Angels Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.
He left one current wife and three former wives, an adopted daughter, a 3.6 million dollar bill for the IRS and a world of fans and admirers. Oscar winner Jamie Foxx used Redd’s last name as a tribute to the man. Yes, a fake name replaced another fake name as flattery. Perhaps Jimmie Foxx should’ve been the one flattered.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton