Chicago has deep soul and R&B roots. From Chess and Brunswick Records to Curtis Mayfield and his Curtom label, the city has produced incredibly talented players. Young-Holt Unlimited, featuring core members Eldee Young and Isaac "Red" Holt, were no exception, as they worked with Ramsey Lewis before branching out on their own. While they never scored major hits, they are best known for "Soulful Strut," the instrumental version of the Barbara Acklin single "Am I the Same Girl." Featuring a funky bass line, light jazzy piano, and a catchy horn riff, "Soulful Strut" has endured, covered by artists such as Grover Washington, Jr. and sampled in hip hop tracks.
Bassist Young and drummer Holt first met at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, ultimately forming a dance band called the Cleffs. Through that connection they encountered Lewis, and they formed the now famous Ramsey Lewis Trio. In 1965, the three appeared together at the Bohemian Caverns nightclub in Washington D.C.; the subsequent live album spawned the tremendous hit "The 'In' Crowd," today known as Ramsey's unofficial theme song. After that initial success, Young and Holt departed Ramsey's group to form the Young-Holt Trio, adding pianist Hysear Don Walker. They recorded the single "Wack Wack," a danceable track tailor-made for singalongs, much along the lines of the Capitols' "Cool Jerk."
By 1968, Walker had left the group, replaced by Ken Chaney. Young and Holt renamed the act Young-Holt Unlimited, added horns and more percussion, and found even bigger (and unlikely) success with "Soulful Strut," actually the instrumental track from Acklin's "Am I the Same Girl." With Chaney's piano replacing Acklin's original vocals, the track reached number three on the pop charts. According to All Music, it remains controversial as to whether Young-Holt Unlimited really played on the Acklin version; nevertheless, it performed better on the charts than the vocal rendition. Unfortunately the group never duplicated their good fortune; the hits dried up, and they spent years touring on the R&B and jazz circuits. They disbanded in 1974, but Young and Holt continued playing in Chicago bands, eventually reuniting with Lewis in 1983. Young died of a heart attack in 2007.
Young-Holt Unlimited may have been a "one-hit wonder," but what a hit it is. As the horns blare out the unmistakable riff, Young's bass pops and pulsates throughout, underscoring the strut-filled rhythm. Chaney impressively replicates Acklin's vocals on piano; one can hear the lyrics in the notes. However, the song creates a different aura, a hot summer afternoon lounging and daydreaming. The instrumentation possesses a loose quality, an imperfect sound that suggests the jazz version of a garage band. Ackln turns in a solid vocal performance on her single, but it strikes a more defiant, proto-feminist tone than this swaggering version.
Swing Out Sister revived the vocal track in the 1990s, but the instrumental has been covered as well. Washington, Jr. released his smooth remake in 1996, while George Benson added his guitar and even a string arrangement in his 1979 take. Hip hop artists latched on to its retro funk style, with the Beastie Boys sampling it for their 1989 track "Some Dumb Cop Gave Me 2 Tickets Already." Indeed, "Soulful Strut" remains one of a handful of instrumentals that achieved commercial success, and is a prime example of how jazz and R&B can merge, resulting in an irresistibly funky and timeless track.