The Holliday family homestead, tucked in a residential slice of the Hill's eastern edge amid banks, doughnut shops and car washes, holds more than you might guess when viewing from the curb. Singer, pianist and bandleader Al Holliday and his wife, Emily Ligon, occupy the first floor of the two-family unit along with two dogs and a cat. And it's on the front porch that Holliday, tall, broad and tanned, greets a visitor on a Monday afternoon in late May with a magnum-sized jam jar full of iced tea in his grip.
The ensuing tour is brief but full of surprises; the two identical front rooms serve as a living room and an office, and it's here that Holliday's upright piano sits. He bends down to the baseboards and pulls back a piece of trim to reveal a hole in the floor that Holliday used to sneak microphone cables up from the basement, which houses the rest of his musical and recording equipment.
Home is important to Holliday, and he treats his modest south-side spot as an expansive, creative space that serves as the headquarters for his ten-person R&B group, the East Side Rhythm Band. So it was fitting that his third album, 4963, simply bears the address of his abode. For Holliday and his band, those four numbers contain multitudes.
Once we descend into the unfinished basement, the scope of Holliday's home operation becomes apparent. Ignore the washer, dryer and slop sink, and there's enough vintage equipment to make an analog purist weep. Holliday's keyboard rig gives him a perch over the rest of the band, with a Fender Rhodes at his left hand and a Hammond organ at his right. And in between his Leslie speaker and mixing desk sits the secret weapon of 4963, a two-inch tape machine that allowed the band to record direct to magnetic tape. It's a format that is antiquated and expensive, but Holliday prefers it to modern digital methods.
"That was the whole spirit of the record — capture a good performance," Holliday says.
4963 is the East Side Rhythm Band's third record, and it finds Holliday and company at a place of assuredness in their sound and approach. This particular group of ten players is about to celebrate its second full year together, and that inter-band communication — amid horn players, in the rhythm section, and among Holliday and the three women who sing alongside him —shows up on the tracks.
Corralling a band the size of a baseball team isn't easy, and while Holliday pulls liberally from the playbooks of his heroes — Leon Russell, the Band, Allen Toussaint — his skill at arranging keeps the horn-heavy, harmony-laden tracks from feeling overstuffed.
"I don't know how I figured out music theory; I basically had a few lessons as a kid," Holliday recalls. "I just kind of figured out music by learning the Beatles and learning how music and theory all worked."
He didn't study music full time while he was a student at Mizzou, but his year-long course in jazz harmony and arranging — which he calls "the coolest, hardest class" of his college years — terminated in Holliday charting a song, by hand, for a big-band. That almost makes writing for the East Side Rhythm players a breeze.
"It's kind of unique to our band because it allows me to put my fingerprint on it and it empowers me to create with the band," he says, "to just put things that are in my head on paper for people to play."
But if writing music and arranging horn charts is a technical skill, composing music and lyrics taps into a different part of his brain.
"Writing songs is such a mysterious thing, and it just keeps getting more mysterious," Holliday says. "I'm never the person who says 'I must sit and write a song today.' It just comes from out of nowhere. I just try to come as organically as I possibly can with the lyrics and from the places that I am and the places that I feel like people can relate to."
One of those lyrics inspired the album's title and another thread to Holliday's broad, welcoming concept of "home."
"I think the seed of it came from a lyric that says 'you can find me at 4963,' and that lyric in itself, to me, is empathy. Like, I'm here if you need me; I'm here where I am, and I am the way that I am.
"That's the whole credo of the spirit of this music," he continues. "Really, it's where we cut the record. It's my house, it's where I live, it's where our band has its world headquarters. I legitimately have my animals on the record; you can hear my wife on the record; there's the family that lives upstairs. It's all in the tracks."