Long before Eddie Murphy, Andrew Dice Clay, or Howard Stern raised the ire of censors and threatened the delicate sensibilities of mainstream American good taste, there was Redd Foxx, arguably the most notorious "blue" comic of his day. Prior to finding fame in the 1970s as the star of the popular sitcom Sanford and Son, Foxx found little but infamy throughout the first several decades of his performing career; salty and scatological, his material broke new ground with its point-blank riffs and brazen discussions of sex and color, and although his party albums were generally banned from white-owned record stores, the comedian's funky narrative style and raspy delivery proved highly influential on comic talents of all ethnic backgrounds.
Foxx was born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis on December 9, 1922. While still in his teens, he became a professional performer, working as both a comedian and actor on the so-called "chitlin circuit" of black theaters and nightclubs. He formulated his stage name by combining an old nickname, "Red" (given because of his ruddy complexion), with the surname of baseball's Jimmie Foxx. After cutting a handful of explicit blues records in the mid-'40s, beginning in 1951 he often teamed with fellow comic Slappy White, a partnership which lasted through 1955.
Foxx was performing at Los Angeles' Club Oasis when a representative from the tiny Dooto label contacted him about cutting an album. The comedian agreed, and was paid 25 dollars to record Laff of the Party, the first of over 50 albums of Foxx's racy anecdotes. An onslaught of Dooto releases followed, among them over half a dozen other Laff of the Party sets, The Sidesplitter, The New Race Track, Sly Sex, and New Fugg. His records were poorly distributed, and offered primarily in black neighborhoods. When they did appear in white record stores, they were sold under the counter. In the 1960s, Foxx signed to the MF label and his routines became even more explicit, as evidenced by titles like Laff Your Ass Off, Huffin' and a Puffin', I'm Curious (Black), 3 or 4 Times a Day, and Mr. Hot Pants. After a brief tenure on King, he signed to Loma, a division of Frank Sinatra's Reprise imprint. With records like Foxx A Delic and Live at Las Vegas, he became one of the very first performers to use four-letter words on major-label releases.
As the 1960s wore on and long-standing cultural barriers began to crumble, Foxx's audience expanded, and he made a number of television appearances. In 1970, he made his film debut in Ossie Davis' Cotton Comes to Harlem. When the film became a surprise hit, Foxx became a hot talent, and soon signed to star in Sanford and Son, a retooled sitcom version of the British television hit Steptoe and Son. The series, which starred Foxx as junk dealer Fred Sanford, premiered in 1972 and became a huge hit, running through 1977. He also continued recording, issuing You Gotta Wash Your Ass, a live set taped at the Apollo Theater, in 1976. The short-lived programs Sanford, The Redd Foxx Show, and The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour followed; additionally, he starred in the 1976 feature Norman, Is That You?, and became a Las Vegas headliner.
By the early '80s, Foxx's career hit the skids. By the end of the decade, however, his influence on the new breed of African-American comedians was openly acknowledged, and in 1989 Eddie Murphy tapped him to co-star in his black-themed crime-noir film Harlem Nights. Although the film flopped, Foxx's career was renewed, and in 1991 he began work on a new sitcom, The Royal Family. Tragically, he suffered a heart attack on the series' set and died on October 11, 1991. Still, even in death, Foxx's name remained synonymous with off-color comments; on an episode of the hit show Seinfeld broadcast several years later, Jason Alexander's character, George, was chastised for the "curse toast" he delivered at a friend's wedding, prompting an exasperated Jerry Seinfeld to exclaim, "You were like a Redd Foxx record up there!"