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Members include Popsy Dixon (born in Virginia Beach, VA), vocals, drums; Sherman Holmes (born c. 1940 in Christchurch, VA), bass, vocals; Wendell Holmes (born c. 1942 in Christchurch, VA), guitar, vocals. Addresses: Record company--Alligator Records, P.O. Box 60234, Chicago, IL 60660, website: http://www.alligator.com; Rounder Records, 1 Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, website: http://www.rounder.com.
With decades of experience in the music industry shared by three primary members, the Holmes Brothers worked steadily on the blues scene in New York City during the 1980s before making their recording debut in 1990. Four albums and a soundtrack followed over the next decade. With stellar reviews for their recorded and live performances, the Holmes Brothers became a sought-after act among international audiences. The fact that all this acclaim came so late in their respective careers has not been lost on the group's members, one of whom commented in a National Public Radio (NPR) interview, "I feel very blessed to be able to make a living and feed my family and travel around the world and meet all kinds of nice people in different cultures. So I feel blessed."
Born in the early 1940s, Sherman and Wendell Holmes grew up in Christchurch, a small town on the banks of the Rappahannock River in eastern Virginia near the Chesapeake Bay. Their parents were school teachers who encouraged their early interest in music. In addition to singing in the church choir as they were growing up, Sherman studied the clarinet, piano, and bass, while Wendell played the trumpet, organ, and guitar. The brothers also got some experience as professional musicians that exposed them to a broad range of music. "We were very fortunate to have a cousin that was right up the road a piece that had a club," Wendell Holmes told NPR, "so we could rock them on Saturdays and then save them on Sundays." Later, the combination of secular and gospel musical styles would become evident in the brothers' recorded work as well.
In the late 1950s, Sherman Holmes attended Virginia State University in Petersburg to study music theory and composition. However, his days as a university student were limited. In 1959 Holmes headed for New York City to work with singer Jimmy Jones, who would have two big hits the following year with "Handy Man" and "Good Timin'." Just out of high school, younger brother Wendell Holmes soon followed in his brother's footsteps, and in 1963, the brothers formed their own group, the Sevilles.
In the mid-1960s, the Sevilles toured as a backing band for the Impressions--who, under leader Curtis Mayfield, were enjoying a string of R&B and pop hits--as well as Johnny Lee Hooker and Jerry Butler. By the end of the decade, the brothers disbanded the Sevilles and joined forces with drummer Popsy Dixon, another transplanted Virginian. Together, the trio played in a number of New York City-based bands over the next decade, until they started playing together as the Holmes Brothers in 1980.
Fixed on New York City Blues Scene
For a decade, the Holmes Brothers built a loyal following around New York City. With Dixon on drums, Wendell Holmes on guitar, and Sherman Holmes on bass, the three combined their voices to bring a distinctive style to their blues songs. As one of the Holmes brothers told NPR, "We kind of brought harmony to the blues. Instead of it being just one lead singer singing, we do lots of songs that it's no lead singer, but we are all singing in harmony together." With the addition of an array of guest musicians, the trio also expanded their repertoire to include classic Hank Williams songs, traditional gospel works, and their own original blues compositions.
By the end of the 1980s, each member of the Holmes Brothers had been playing around New York for over 20 years. As singer Joan Osbourne recalled to Billboardin 2001, "They were sort of the elder statesmen of the East Village and downtown New York blues scene, and everybody looked up to them and respected them." Building a broader fan base was hard work, but their perseverance was rewarded with a recording contract with Rounder Records in 1989. The following year, In the Spirit was released. Although its mix of blues, R&B, country, and gospel did not make a breakthrough on commercial radio play lists, In the Spiritwas a hit with reviewers. The group was soon conducting a series of international concert dates before returning to the recording studio for a follow-up album, Where It's At. Once again, the Holmes Brothers enjoyed almost universal critical acclaim, including four-star reviews in Rolling Stoneand Qmagazines.
Just after Where It's At was released, the Holmes Brothers completed Jubilation, a work that resulted from their participation in Peter Gabriel's world music festivals in England. Recorded live in collaboration with the talent of numerous guest musicians, the album offered blues versions of gospel works such as "Amazing Grace" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," along with some original compositions. The delivery of spiritual songs through a more secular style was effective; a Rolling Stonereview described the album as "an electrifying mix of traditional and original gospel tunes in a manner that suggests a church service in a Texas brothel." Wendell Holmes put it more delicately in an interview with Guitar Player: "Music--whether it's blues or opera or whatever--all has common ground. When you bring it together with people from different cultures, it's one of the greatest experiences."
The group continued its series of albums for Rounder Records with Soul Street in 1993 and Promised Land in 1997. The group also expanded its resume by taking on the soundtrack work for the independent film Lotto Land, in which Wendell Holmes appears in the role of a street musician. By now, critics were outdoing one another in heaping praise upon the group's efforts. Typical was a 1997 People review that began, "It's difficult to define soul, but the latest CD from the Holmes Brothers might be a pretty good way to start." Q agreed, saying that Promised Land was "more heaven-and-earth-shaking sounds from a group that transcend the polarities of the musically sacred and profane."
Returned to Gospel with Speaking in Tongues
With a touring schedule that took them to music festivals around the world, the Holmes Brothers did not return to the recording studio until 2000, when the group began work for Speaking in Tongues, released on Chicago blues label Alligator Records the following year. In memory of the Holmes brothers' father, who had recently died, the band returned to its gospel roots for the first time since Jubilation. "As you get older, you become more spiritual, and values change," Wendell Holmes told Billboard. "Rather than 'Meet me down at the bar tonight,' it's 'Thank you, Jesus.' We get into the blues, too, but the spiritual side is becoming more potent all the time." In that same article, producer Joan Osbourne--a fixture on the New York City blues scene before making her mainstream breakthrough with the pop hit "One of Us"--called the effort "a cross between a Pentecostal church meeting and a Mississippi roadhouse.... The Holmes Brothers are so rooted in the American gospel tradition that they can do modern songs which hark back to that tradition." As one of the group's members commented in a NPR interview, "That flavor of music we do is a part of us because it's that old down-home and country flavor that we grew up with, actually."
With combined experience as professional musicians spanning over a century, the members of the Holmes Brothers are well known to gospel and blues fans around the world. In 2001, the Holmes Brothers continued to take blues and gospel to international audiences, with concerts in Norway, Germany, England, and the Czech Republic in addition to a series of American dates.
by Timothy Borden
The Holmes Brothers's Career
Members sang with several bands in Virginia and New York, 1960s-1970s; formed Holmes Brothers, 1980; became part of the blues scene in New York City's East Village, 1980s; first album, In the Spirit, released on Rounder Records, 1990; three albums followed on Rounder Records, 1990s; Speaking in Tongues released on Alligator Records, 2001.
- Selected discography
- In the Spirit Rounder, 1990.
- Where It's At Rounder, 1991.
- Jubilation Real World, 1992.
- Soul Street Rounder, 1993.
- Promised Land Rounder, 1996.
- (Contributor) Lotto Land (soundtrack), Stony Plain, 1996.
- Speaking in Tongues Alligator, 2001.
- Billboard, January 27, 2001, p. 14.
- Guitar Player, October 1996, p. 22.
- People, February 10, 1997, p. 26.
- Q, February 1992; April 1992, April 1997.
- Rolling Stone, February 20, 1992, p. 45; August 6, 1992, p. 59.
- Stereo Review, June 1992, p. 87.
- "The Holmes Brothers," Alligator Records, http://www.alligator.com/store/bio.cfm?ArtistID=069 (September 14, 2001).
- "The Holmes Brothers," Rounder Records, http://www.rounder.com/rounder/artists/holmes_brothers/profile.html (September 14, 2001).
- Weekend Edition Saturday, National Public Radio, March 17, 2001.
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