Meet Redd Foxx, the early comic star whose comedy album sold over 15m copies while being ‘dirty’

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Redd Foxx

Redd Foxx, born John Elroy Sanford, was an early American comic star as well as an actor. His style of comedy, which featured foul language and highly adult subject matter alienated white audiences yet influenced generations of comics. As a television actor, he was the star of the hit television series Sanford and Son, which ran on NBC from 1972 to 1977.

A native of St. Louis, Foxx moved to Chicago at the age of 13 and supported himself by playing the washboard in a band. When the band broke up three years later, he moved to New York City, where he met Malcolm X. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he is referred to as “Chicago Red, the funniest dishwasher on this earth.”

In New York City, Foxx performed comedy on the “chitlin circuit” of African-American nightclubs during the 1940s and ’50s. By the 1960s, recordings of his comedy acts had become enormously popular among African Americans.

His comic albums were not stocked in stores with predominantly white customers yet, here again, he proved enduring as his comedy album “Laff of the Party” produced in 1955 sold over 15 million copies.

Joking about everything from sex to color barriers, Foxx, in 1970, gave a memorable comic performance in the hit film Cotton Comes to Harlem, and was soon approached by television producer Norman Lear leading to him becoming a star on Sanford and Son. Foxx played Fred Sanford (the name was taken from his brother), a junk dealer and a widower in Los Angeles.

Sanford and Son, which co-starred Demond Wilson and Lawanda Page, was a big hit. So big, in fact, that it ranked in the top ten virtually every week it aired giving NBC the numbers, according to the comic star’s website. Foxx departed in 1977 joining ABC where he enjoyed a generous salary. However, The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour (1977–78) and The Redd Foxx Show (1986) were short-lived.

Foxx left to Las Vegas, where he instantly became a headliner. He enjoyed performing there. When Foxx and friend Della Reese co-starred in the “Harlem Nights” movie, it triggered the interest of The CBS network who signed the two to act in a new sitcom, “The Royal Family.” While on set on October 11, 1991, he suffered a massive heart attack and died.

It’s curious that the man born on December 9, 1922, who produced over 50 comedy albums, and who often pretended to suffer a heart attack when messing with friends, would actually die from a heart attack.