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.
Two of the weirdos they met at the storied bar were Len Kunstadt and Gib Wharton, the latter a Texas-born pedal-steel player who sat in with them and soon joined the band. Pedal steel is rare--to say the least--in soul and blues, but it made the band unique, particularly when they added such country cornpone as "There Goes My Everything" and Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light" to their repertoire.
As for Kunstadt, he'd married legendary "classic" blues singer Victoria Spivey, and they started the low-budget Spivey label. Skewed, cut-and-paste covers, production values miles below lo-fi, and vinyl softer than Velveeta hallmarked Spivey's LPs in the label's prime, when Victoria's cronyism could still reel in Lonnie Johnson, Willie Dixon, Big Joe Williams, and even a young Bob Dylan for living-room recording sessions. One of these is quite rare, an effort by harp blower Bill Dicey and the Holmes Brothers, although it's not as rare as Wendell Holmes would like it to be.
"I hate that record," he says. "I'm surprised you know about it. We recorded it on a li'l ol' four-track machine right in Dan Lynch's, and the sound was terrible! I played it once and never played it again."
It was at a jam in a club called Wonderland that Popsy met a real record man, Andy Breslau, and invited him to hear the Holmes Brothers at Dan Lynch's. He was impressed enough to juice their signing with Rounder, which released their debut In The Spirit in 1990. Its mix of blues, soul, gospel, and tight but unostentatious musicianship was a hit with blues critics, who chided society for letting them go undiscovered for so long. In 1991 they issued the follow-up Where It's At, and the next year they hooked up with Gabriel.
"We were doing a Benson & Hedges Blues Festival," remembers Wendell. "Peter Gabriel had--I guess you'd call 'em scouts--there, and they hooked us up with him. He invited us to a 'recording week' at his [Real World] studio in Bath, England. There were musicians from all over the world there--Africa, the Laplands--and the Holmes Brothers were there as 'R&B guys from the states'. We cut a compilation album (A Week in the Real World) with some other people, and then everybody had the chance to record the album of their choice, so we did Jubilation. Peter was always there during production, and you wouldn't believe--he's just a down-to-earth, regular person. But man, that studio's fabulous! They say it cost 20 million bucks to build, and I can believe it."
It was again through the connections of Breslau that the three got involved with Lotto Land, a shaky little movie shot on the fringe of Brooklyn's Park Slope in which four people (including Wendell as "Milt") find love despite the hardness of their 'hood, all to the tune of fluid, citified soul from the Holmeses. It's a wistful if chatty flick, and it's not completely fanciful to compare Wendell's role to jazzman Dexter Gordon's in 'Round Midnight. Both played themselves in a large sense, but brought credible, intuitive acting to the table. (One rather humorous flaw: When Milt faints in a basement, Wendell proves he's a far-from-convincing pratfaller.)
With the release of the Lotto Land soundtrack, the Holmes Brothers had made five CDs in not quite five years. Such prolificacy would've depleted many bands, but Promised Land is their strongest display to date. Wendell wrote five songs, Sherman two, and Popsy's take on Tom Waits' "Train Song" is breathtaking. Past distractions have been avoided: There is no weepy, distracting pedal steel and no tacked-on horn sections. Virtually all the instrumental work is by the core trio, and their musicianship is deliciously sparse, their self-containment all the more remarkable for the broadness of their palette. Their diversity has been more of an advantage than a straight blues hardline would be.
"Up until recently, blues wasn't a big thing in New York," says Wendell. "It's only in the last few years that there's been a 'blues scene' with clubs like Manny's Car Wash and Terra Blues. All those places make it a much better place than it was for guys like me and my brother's generation. Although we worked all the time, [it was] because we could do black Top 40, country and western, gospel, and whatever it took to do a lot of club dates. We had day jobs from time to time, but I supported myself mostly on my music, and so did Sherman--it was always, always the highest priority."
With a sly laugh that might've come from Lotto Land's Milt, Wendell adds, "That's one thing that's not likely to change!"
The Holmes Brothers play Poor David's Pub on Friday, April 25.