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The Traditional Delta and Country Blues

Featured Interview – The Holmes Brothers

Sherman Holmes and the Holmes Bros are motoring from Virginia to Boston for a gig and he kindly takes The Blues Blast call. They are riding power trio three deep.

Sherman Holmes, Wendell Holmes, Popsy Dixon, plus one, DJ (Daniel Hurd), the roadie who might double as a body guard if pressed.
Sherman’s infectious baritone voice is quick to inflect a self described sinister laugh that reminds one of the 50?s jive talkin’ hip comic Lord Buckley. He uses it like euphoric oral punctuation at which the listener is totally disarmed.

Born in a heavy laden burg that was then called Christchurch, Virginia, Wendell and Sherman absorbed through their supportive parents much of the traditional Gospel canon as well as Blues and Country music.

Even as children the brothers Holmes focused on performing while at play as Sherman relates. “We would pretend to play guitars and sing songs. Sometimes we would do it in the yard at night saying’ ‘we going to play nightclub tonight,’ he says slipping into the vernacular of perhaps a seven year old. “Some folks played cowboys and Indians. We played nightclub. That was our own unique game.”
As they came up in Christchurch of course they sang in church but as teenagers played Blues in their cousin Herman Waits Juke Joint. They were fond of saying they “rocked them on Saturday night and saved them in Church on Sunday. The building where the Juke Joint operated still stands and is now used as a storage shed. Cousin Herman passed many years ago.

In 1959 after a couple of years at VirginiaStateUniversity, Sherman Holmes secured a gig in New York with Jimmy Jones, co-author of the hit “Handyman”, (later covered by Del Shannon and James Taylor). Upon graduation from high school, brother Wendell was picked up by Sherman and taken straight to New York where he too joined Jimmy Jones. By 1962, short money led the brothers to form The Sevilles. They interned as house band for about a year at Gibson’s in Great Neck, N.Y. and honed R&B skills backing the likes of Jerry Butler & The Impressions, Shep & The Limelites, Boogie King John Lee Hooker and many others.

Wendell worked with “Wild” Jimmy Spruill, a semi-obscure forerunner of Hendrix, whose rock & roll guitar solo’s can be heard on Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City”, Bobby Lewis’s “Tossin’ & Turnin’” and King Curtis’s “Soul Twist”, to name a few. Wendell Holmes and Jimmy Spruill became very close.

Wendell also worked and toured with Inez & Charlie Fox for three years, touring in the U.S. and abroad. He met the future third Holmes Brother Popsy Dixon doing a ten year stint in The Tommy Knight Trio.

When Tommy Knight left New York for Florida, he and Popsy caught up with Brother Sherman who, by then was working with harmonica ace Bill Dicey who fronted the house band at Dan Lynch’s. That 1979 meeting was the genesis of the Holmes Brothers Band as we know it
today.

Dan Lynch’s was kind of a fellowship hall for the sparse New York Blues community. The Holmes Brothers made secure connections there, including their record deal with Rounder Records. They met a young Joan Osborne there and she has since produced two of their albums.

“We met her when she was a teenager. We’ve known her for a long time. She produced Speaking In
Tongues and Feed My Soul on our current label Alligator.”

Shifting the subject back to their association with Rounder Records, Sherman reflects on a couple of the band’s former label mates that were on Deep Blue: The Rounder 25th Anniversary Blues Anthology, (a 1995 release that Sherman hasn’t seen or heard yet)

Champion Jack Dupree - “I knew Champion Jack Dupree. He was a bad man! Give Me The Flowers While I’m Living. That’s when you need’em!”

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown-“I knew him well. We were good friends. He wanted to be classified as a Jazz musician. I think he thought Blues was a derogatory term. He was kind of cantankerous. A good friend of ours though. He used to do crochet on the road. My daddy did too. Yeah, they made some nice stuff!”

According to Sherman, the recent economy woes have cut back the number of live dates the group is able to perform per year. At one time the trio did well over 200 dates a year. That number has diminished in part over the last two years. They are hoping that the number of gigs will yet rebound to their former levels, though they remain hugely popular in Europe. “Europe is our stomping grounds,” declares Sherman. In a satirical jab at being under-appreciated at home he continues, “My brother Wendell says we are in the music protection program!”

Gospel, Blues, R & B and Country music are the Brothers forte. When asked if they have ever met resistance to their mixing Gospel with secular music Sherman responds, “Once in Sacramento, California when we were on tour with some other people. We were playing Gospel and Blues another group was playing Blues and another group something else. When they heard we were coming to town, somebody rented a hall right across the street from our venue and had a big Gospel show. Tried to kill our gig. But it didn’t affect us too much ‘cuz, you know, we had our own clientele. Even Jesus Christ went into the dens of inequity.”

Sherman Holmes likes to read a lot. Everything, including non fiction, science fiction, novels. Authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald are no stranger to him.

The Brothers do local benefits for their church, the fire department, and hurricane and tornado victims, probably about once a year so as not to over-expose themselves. They Brothers are mentoring an 11 year songwriter named Whitney Nelson who is ‘something else.’ “We are currently working on getting her songs copyrighted songs currently. She’s got the fire.”

When asked about an artist he admires, Sherman without hesitation says the late Eva Cassidy. “She opened for us a couple of times. She died young and was such a nice person. Had sooo much talent. Many artists get in trouble with the pressures of fame and just can’t take it. Whitney Houston and Donny Hathaway come to mind.”

Speaking on his brother Wendell’s cancer free status since being diagnosed in 2008,Sherman says, “Wendell is doing pretty good. He’s my favorite man. And Brother Popsy is my other favorite man.”

As the Holmes Brothers swing through the left coast in late May and early June 2014, their latest release Brotherhood, is riding high on the Roots Music Report.

Blues Blast was able to get backstage before the June 5 show in San Francisco at the Jewish Community Center. We settled in with 4 or 5 harmonious conversations going on at once. There are three women in the large room, singer Emma Jean Foster, Madlyn, a childhood friend of the Holmes Brothers and behind the partitioned curtain, Joan Osborne. After greetings and introductions we continue our chat with Sherman who reflects on how quickly life goes by. “Life goes by so fast. You don’t realize just how fast. One day you’re 20, then you’re 40, 60 and 80, in another 20 years you’re looking at 100, if you get that far.”

When the subject changes to songwriting, Sherman revealed that both he and brother Wendell are old school and use piano and cassette tape to craft songs.

We turn to Popsy. He is reflecting on how it still comes together after 46 years of the Holmes Brothers being a musical force. “We might fuss every now and again but three minutes later it’s like it never happened.”

I ask Popsy about his gear. “Well tonight, I’m playing Yamaha. My practice set at home is a Slingerland model which they don’t make
any more.” (At this point the stage assistant informs us that it’s 10 minutes to show time.) I ask Popsy his opinion of Gretsch drums
and he informs me that they are great for Jazz drummers but the 18 inch bass drum is too small for his taste. “When you put the peddle on it, it’s never in the middle, it’s always up top. You don’t get the same effect as you do on a 22 inch. I love a 22, a regular 22 or a power 22. I really love that power 22. At home, I have a 5 piece Slingerland set that they don’t make anymore. It still looks brand new. They stay in their cases until I need ‘em for a gig or we have a rehearsal at my house.”

Occasionally Joan Osborne parts the shroud and ventures forth to attend to perhaps some mundane business matter only to return behind the curtain where she can be heard meditatively chanting and just before show time practicing vocal scales. I was able to ask her how she came to produce two of the Holmes Brothers albums.

“They were like my heroes of me being on the Blues scene and me doing clubs. Sherman used to run a jam session at the Dan Lynch and I used to go there every Sunday afternoon and be part of that. We just really became friends. I had so much respect for them and they were always generous to me. We eventually did one track together in the studio that worked really and they ended up approaching me about producing an album for them. I hadn’t done any producing up to that point but felt that I knew them so well—knew where their strengths were and had heard them do things that their records hadn’t captured yet. So I set my sights on those elements. We have such a comfortable way of communicating together. I love these guys. They’re not only amazing artists but they’re really good people as well. I mean, I learn something about how to be a good person every time I’m around them. So the Speaking In Tongues record turned out really well. I brought in a couple of extra people to support what we were doing. It’s really one of the favorite things I’ve ever done in my career. Feed My Soul is another great record that I produced that featured great writing from them.

We got a chance to holler at Wendell Holmes about his association with semi-obscure guitarist Wild Jimmy Spruill.

“Oh my God, he was an innovator, definitely ahead of his time. He did the guitar solos on “Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison, “Soul Twist” by King Curtis and “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis. In addition to playing, he made guitars and modified Standell amps. When he played he’d use a long cord (they didn’t have cordless in those days) and go all out into the audience playing. Sometimes he would leave the building completely. In 1960, I was living in NYC, just me and my little guitar. Jimmy Spruill was the hottest thing entertaining. He was a phenom. He was a great guy. I idolized him. The last time I heard of him working was with Bobby Robinson who took Jimmy Spruill and Sterling Harrison to Amsterdam.”

Continuing on a different subject Wendell injects, “Do you know this woman here?”. He turns to Emma Jean Foster, whom he is sitting next to.

“She’s a sangin’ woman.”.

“Is she gonna take the mic tonight?”, I ask.

“I don’t know. She might steal the show.” (Mock surprise from Emma Jean).

At this point the stage manager summons the band from their sanctum. It’s showtime.

The house is packed. The opening song is “Amazing Grace”, a number they usually close with. They morph it into a duet with Wendell and Emma Jean Foster, highlighted by a great vocal solo by Emma Jean. Wendell solemnly promises to rock later!

They proceed to work up on it one song at a time. Their version of “It Hurts Me Too” was drenched in the heart wrenching paradox of blue unrequited love. It featured fine vocal and guitar work by Wendell.

The band went up-tempo on their second selection with Popsy handling the vocals as well as the Gospel bounce beat. It was reminiscent of how brothers Wendell and Sherman have described how much in awe they were of Popsy when they discovered he could play and sing at the same time.

Joan Osborne comes out next with a soulfully poised version of Sam Cooke’s “That’s Where It’s At”. The song features beautiful, angelic, three part background harmony by the brothers. In her in between song patter she explains her genesis with the band. She notes that they are coming off of 4 dates in Seattle together and don’t get to work together that often. They then segue into the Jim Weatherly penned, “Midnight Train” To Georgia, not to far removed from the Gladys Knight version. When they reach the climax, the song suddenly becomes an audience clap along that becomes quite funky as Popsy and Sherman drive it with drum and bass.

Next up is “My Word Is My Bond” from the new release Brotherhood. It’s a driving ditty written and sung by Wendell. The band and crowd are starting to rock now. Joan Osborne adds a healthy dose of tambourine Wendell gives the crowd a bit of comedic patter with the line, “Statistics show that one can expect a 99.5 year life span by buying the Brotherhood CD. He then turns serious as he relates how the devil tried to kill him with cancer. Cancer-free for some years now, he somberly reveals, “Few came to visit me besides my wife, Sherman, Popsy and Joan Osborne.

He then dedicates “Feed My Soul” to his wife. The Holmes Brothers then temporarily leave the stage to Joan Osborne and her keyboardist/guitarist Keith Cotton. Amazingly, she starts her mini-set with a beat contained on her phone plugged into the sound system. The selections are from her new album Love & Hate which she describes as all about romantic relationships; “Sometimes traditional seduction, sometimes not.” The titles she chose to perform were “Mongrels” and “Raga” from her new album and an Ike Turner cover, “Game of Love”.

The Holmes Brothers then returned to the stage. They backed Osborne on an updated arrangement of her hit, “What If God Were One Of Us” which was emphatically received by the crowd.

At this point Wendell unstraps his guitar and sits down at the grand piano and plays and sings his “Stayed At The Party Too Long” and fulfills his opening promise to rock later. It was intended at the finale and everyone leaves the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

When the Holmes Brothers and Joan Osborne take the stage for their encore, Joan gives a closing gratitude speech and they close with, “May God Be With You Until We Meet Again”. As the crowd files out of the room, everyone single soul is smiling. When Blues Blast leaves the building over an hour later, the Holmes Brothers and Joan Osborne are still receiving well wishers and fans, still signing autographs.

Visit The Holmes Brothers website at http://www.theholmesbrothers.com/
Artist Interview by Tee Watts.
Photos by Marilyn Stringer.

SEE MORE AT BLUES BLAST MAGAZINE