By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Ever since the guitar filibuster got elevated to sacrament, blues fans who love great singing and concise songs have been screwed.
To their rescue come the Holmes Brothers--Wendell and Sherman Holmes on guitar and bass respectively, and Popsy Dixon on drums. The Promised Land, their newest album and fourth release on Rounder, is praiseworthy for its head-spinning blend of lowdown blues and sanctified soul: Popsy's gilt falsetto, Sherman's baritone, and Wendell's woody shout combine to offer more fine singing than your average mass choir, and their tripartite vocal front is bolstered by their conviction. From them, even Paul McCartney's "And I Love Her" sounds like it was forged in a Deep South Baptist church.
It's not just the expected R&B conservators who laud the Holmeses. Peter Gabriel had them cut a gospel album, Jubilation, for his Real World label and included them on the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) tours he fronts. They've even been in a movie, John Rubino's Lotto Land. Arguably, they were the movie: Their music was a central motif, Popsy and Sherman had cameos as themselves, and Wendell co-starred as musician-building super Milt. Though the gush of renown for the threesome began but recently, they're not exactly newcomers.
Sherman and Wendell were born in the Tidewater region of Virginia, their surroundings as rural as Li'l Abner but never lacking for culture. They took piano lessons, sang gospel in church, grooved in a cousin's juke house to local blues bands, and listened to C&W on the radio. "The white stations had more kilowatts than the black stations," laughs Wendell. "We'd be listenin' to the blues, and all of a sudden, poom!--you'd get Hank Williams!"
These multicultural roots served them well when they moved to New York. "Sherman got there first," recalls Wendell. "He went to Virginia State University a couple years and in 1959, went to New York because he had a gig with Jimmy Jones of 'Handy Man' fame--he did [the song] before James Taylor or Del Shannon or any of those people, the original 'Handy Man'. So Sherman was workin' with him, and when I got out of high school, he picked me up on my graduation night and took me straight to New York. So I got a gig playin' with Jimmy, and I thought I was a big star. But he wasn't payin' much money, so that didn't last long."
The brothers left Jones around 1962, formed the Sevilles, and settled into a year or so as house band at Gibson's in Great Neck, Long Island. As integration was far from complete, the club was a bottleneck for black road shows going to and from the inner city. This meant the Sevilles worked with notables as diverse as Shep & the Limelites, John Lee Hooker, and the Impressions.
By himself, Wendell also toured the East Coast, Canada, and the UK with Inez and Charlie Foxx, who'd had a hit with "Mockingbird" (later covered--not at all well--by James Taylor and Carly Simon). But even before that, he played dates with one of New York's true "alternative" heroes, guitarist "Wild" Jimmy Spruill, who had played guitar on two million-sellers ("Kansas City" by Wilbert Harrison and "The Happy Organ" by Dave "Baby" Cortez), a blues-bar standby ("Fanny Mae" by Buster Brown), and records by Little Anthony & the Imperials, the Shirelles, Tarheel Slim, and others. By the time Wendell came along, Spruill had soured on studio work and had taken his music to the clubs, developing a stage act that harkened to seminal guitar gymnasts T-Bone Walker and Guitar Slim.
"I knew Jimmy very well," says Wendell. "He was a good friend of mine, and we used to do gigs together. Wild Jimmy Spruill! He was a great showman, played guitar with his teeth. He had a special sound; he used Standel amps--which they don't even make anymore--and he'd customize 'em. He just died [February 3, 1996]; had a heart attack on a bus or something."
Wendell teamed with Popsy Dixon in a trio led by singer/keyboardist Tommy Knight for well over a decade, playing blues, black Top 40, and organ jazz for dances in New York state, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Dixon, also Virginia-born, had an even more extensive gospel background than the brothers. The trio disbanded when Knight moved to Florida, but Popsy and Wendell found that Sherman had a berth for them in the city, at a place in the East Village called Dan Lynch's.
Dan Lynch's--which closed last August--was probably the only honest-to-God juke joint in Manhattan history. Run by an Irishman who rarely went near the place, it staged weekly blues jams hosted by Sherman, who was assertive enough to winnow out the morons, but not so gruff as to run off the few tourists who managed to find the place. It appealed to boozers who came in for the generous daytime drink specials, to blues fans who thought it was high time they had a bar of their own in New York, and to cats--if you can trust your nose, hundreds of them went out of their way to piss there. Popa Chubby, Satan and Adam, Little Mike and the Tornadoes, Robert Ross, Mark the Harper, and other notables played there, as did Popsy and the brothers. It was there, in 1979, that they officially adopted the name the Holmes Brothers.