Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Band of brothers defeats adversity with their uplifting music
By Tim Holek
Some people see the beauty of the world in nature. The Holmes Brothers experience how wonderful life is via their soul transforming music. “I hope that we can make a change in some people’s lives even if it is only for a moment,” asserts Sherman Holmes. Ask anyone who has seen or heard The Holmes Brothers and they will tell you this treasured American institution effervescently performs joyful roots music.
The Holmes Brothers music touches our souls while their lyrics challenge us spiritually. The trio has been living and breathing the benefits of a hybrid world of music for years. They smoothly combine heavenly vocal harmonies with stirring soul, brazen blues, sanctified gospel, rugged country & western, and timeless R&B to create some of the most funked-up music available today.
Originally from Christchurch, Virginia, Holmes Brothers bassist/vocalist Sherman and guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Wendell Holmes grew up listening to traditional Baptist hymns and spirituals as well as country and blues music. With $30 in his pocket, a 20-year-old Sherman was the first one to move to New York City in 1959. He dropped out of school, and he thought it was only going to be for a single semester but he never went back to College to pursue his degree. Soon, Wendell also relocated to the Big Apple. Once together in New York City, the two formed The Sevilles in 1963, often backing up touring artists like The Impressions and John Lee Hooker. The brothers met fellow Virginian, drummer/vocalist Popsy Dixon in 1967. The three of them formed The Holmes Brothers band in 1979. It can only be speculated whether divine intervention brought them together.
Their attention-grabbing instrumental competence is as astonishing as their incredible three-part harmony singing. Dixon’s supreme falsetto trembles like a stone pillar rocked by a gospel choir. It contrasts with Wendell’s surly and coarse tenor vocals and Sherman’s window-rattling baritone voice. To date, they have released 11 albums, have recorded with many artists, including Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, and Joan Osborne, have done numerous radio appearances including National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition, All Things Considered, and World Café, and have gigged all over the world. They have received multiple Blues Music Award (BMA) nominations and have been BMA winners for Band Of The Year in 2005 and Soul Blues Album Of The Year (State Of Grace) in 2008 from the Memphis-based Blues Foundation.
Their easily-likeable songs deal with companionship, faithfulness, kinfolk, becoming old, sickness, politics, and the current state of the world. In conversation with the band members, these topics naturally rise because these issues are at the soul of their very being. In 2008, Wendell was diagnosed with cancer. He kept performing with the band until 2009 when his chemotherapy and radiation treatments began. None of their passion for the music or strength in performance is gone as a result of the illness and the domino effect it has had on the inspirational threesome. In early 2010, they released their eleventh CD Feed My Soul (Alligator). Unsurprisingly, the theme of the disc is about overcoming obstacles. Currently, Sherman and Dixon reside in Virginia within walking distance of each other, while Wendell lives in the neighboring state of Maryland.
The honorable group’s roots are deep in the blues but they’ve never stuck strictly to the blues. Sherman, who listens to jazz and classical music all the time, explains, “That is based on, the music that we were exposed to when we were growing up, since we have been grown, and in New York.” These Virginia expatriates originally made a name for themselves at New York City’s Dan Lynch Blues Bar.
These Virginians have combined joyous sacred music with authentic secular music for their entire career with The Holmes Brothers. Through that combination of musical styles, they move people and touch them emotionally. Artists such as Sam Cooke were tormented via an internal turmoil regarding the sacred versus the secular. Wendell reveals, “It’s a turmoil for some people but it’s not for the Holmes Brothers. I always remind people that in the battle Jesus turned water into wine – not wine into water. Jesus was down [on Earth] for a good time also. We try to do some sacred music on every album because part of the mission is to let people know that we do believe in Jesus. They don’t have to believe. [Laughs] But along with the secular stuff, it’s the big picture we’re shooting for at all times.”
As you speak with the Holmes brothers, it quickly becomes apparent that they are realistic and sensible towards life. Even when life throws a curve ball such as cancer, they remain balanced with their thoughts. “Nowhere in my Bible says that there won’t be adversity – that it will be peaches and cream all the way,” proclaims Wendell, who was diagnosed with cancer in June 2008. “The thing is to believe that no weapon formed against me, shall be able to prosper. It don’t mean that it won’t come against me.”
There was no pathos when Wendell, a very positive individual, recalled the prognosis and told the tale of woe. “When I was diagnosed, I had no symptoms. I'm just a guy. I’m 66 years old. I go for regular physicals. I went to my primary physician and he told me ‘Mr. Holmes, I see a little blood in your urine’. I never saw any of it. It was that microscopic that I couldn’t see it. The Doctor said, ‘it might be cancer and it might not’. So they sent me to a specialist and the verdict was not good. He climbed his big butt up on the table and said. ‘Wendell, you have bladder cancer and we gonna remove your bladder.’ I say Wait a minute, I don't think so buddy. I'm going to go to a second source. So I went to the best hospital in my area which was John Hopkins. [It’s] one of the best in the whole world. Got the best bladder specialist in the world, Dr. Mark Schoenberg and they were able to salvage my bladder. I took chemo [therapy] and radiation, and had lots of time to think about how blessed I was, not lucky, but blessed. My daughter was going through breast cancer while I went through bladder cancer. We all came through with a victory on the other side. God has been good to this family. I thanked God Almighty that I was able to beat this thing at least so far and to write my music.
“I did some gigs after [I was diagnosed] because I was never down like a lot of people are where I just could not work. There were some tours I could not go on because I had to stay here and take some treatment. I worked until 2009 when the band had to go to Europe. I found a replacement for me for six weeks. You can never give up, when adversity comes around. You gotta stick to your guns.” Sherman admits, “It wasn’t the same [without Wendell] but Ray [Schinnery] brought us through. He did well.” The fact that Wendell continued to perform until he started into therapy is a strong testament to him as a man and the fervor of his spiritual inner being. He certainly is not a quitter. He doesn’t feel guilty about feeling good and he never has.
Although the experience did not result in hair loss, baldness, or the need for surgery, it did cause Wendell Holmes, over and above anything, to write more meaningful songs and to reprioritize some personal goals. “It made me realize what’s important in life and what’s not so important. My family, my wife, my children, my grandchildren – they are important. So it was important for me to stop smoking cigarettes. I didn’t realize until after the fact that bladder cancer is also caused by cigarette smoking. So after 45 years of smoking – that’s been a big issue for me – I have also conquered that so far. Also, the cancer made me realize to be good to my family, take care of my family, make sure they have some security, exude love at all times, and appreciate them being there. Barbara, my wife, we’ve been married for 35 years. It is important to acknowledge the blessings that you have and the people that have blessed your life. You know all these things before [you get sick], but you're into your way of life, like it’s never going to end. Cancer makes you realize that it will end.”
Music played a huge role in his healing process. “My wife is a great singer. All my kids can sing. Some of the best times that I’ve had, not just during this cancer thing, over the years, has been just gathering around my acoustic piano in my house. We sing hymns, and not just hymns, we sing a lot of good music. I can just pick up my guitar in my basement, sit down, and play to myself. Music is therapy. I can sit down feeling sad and get up feeling glad. I recommend music to anyone.”
Wendell Holmes was open and upfront regarding all the topics presented in this feature. His faith runs deep, so naturally questions about his faith were not going to be avoided. More than any other topic, Wendell was the most frank when it came to questions about his faith. “I don’t mind the questions, as long as you don’t mind the answers,” he exclaims with the conviction of a Christian missionary. He recommends Jesus Christ to anyone.
Sherman Holmes did not falter in his beliefs during his brother’s trial and tribulation either. “It made me stronger in my belief. It made me pray harder. I maybe had more faith because that was the only thing that was left. When he [Wendell] got sick, it sorta hit me in the face. I didn’t know what to do because I couldn’t help him. I felt helpless. When you can help someone it’s a different thing. But when it’s out of your hands and it’s in the hands of the Lord or whatever. It caused me to do a lot of serious thinking of what would happen if we got separated. I would probably just stop playing.”
Getting cancer made the two brothers face their own mortality, which neither one can ignore any longer. “Nobody gets out of this life alive,” says Wendell, who is the group’s youngest member. Seventy-year-old Sherman thought about “trading places” with Wendell. “That’s how much I love my brother. A lot of people are dying around me all the time like people that I grew up with, older people, [and] people that I played with. We must remember as there is death, there is also birth. There are young kids that are being born all the time too that maybe we are not aware of that will replace us.”
On their latest CD Feed My Soul (Alligator), you hear rootsy sounds, bluesy shuffles, fulfilling lullabies, and acoustic stomps. You also hear those trademark real three-part redemptive vocal harmonies. Feed My Soul has the greatest number of original songs ever recorded on a Holmes Brothers album. Doing so was not a calculated or conscious effort. Wendell continues, “We put more of our inner selves into writing it. It’s no more just meet me behind the bar tonight baby. It’s about life’s experiences. So it’s deeper and more real and it’s more of our inner being. The cancer issue was a shot across the bow, and praise God; I have received a victory so far. Everything is free and clear but during that time, it gave me plenty of opportunities to realize my own mortality. I wanted to get out things that I wanted to say in my music. I had a lot of time ’coz I was taking the chemo and radiation stuff. Cancer played a big part in a number of the [original] songs. I think I wrote seven songs for the album.
Feed My Soul debuted at number one on the blues chart and at number 65 on the new artist chart in Billboard. This was their highest debut on the blues chart. “It’s about time,” says the band’s spokesperson Wendell. “We’ve been in the audience protection program a long time [Laughs].”
Sherman Holmes wrote songs that were recorded for the new album too. “The illness of my brother and the economy made us look inward.” Dark Cloud challenges people to think and take action. The Holmes Brothers have taken action against many dark clouds over the years. Sherman affirms, “I wasn’t talking about cancer in that song. I was talking about the plight of the country, the terrorism, and the fall of the economy. By us travelling, I see the impact of how the dollar is losing value. I don’t understand how ours can be so low and everybody else seem to be going through the same thing we are going through. The European Union just tried to bail out Greece. I just don’t understand why the Euro is so much higher than ours. Did I write it for George Bush? No. [Laughs] I wrote about it for any President - anybody in charge. I Saw Your Face was written about my wife who was staying with her mother at the time. She and her sister share taking care of their mother who was old, who doesn’t want to move away from her home. They go there a few months each out of the year.”
As individuals and as a group, The Holmes Brothers have had adversity come across their path for many years. Yet somehow they continue to get strength to keep overcoming obstacles. Wendell, ever the raconteur, explains this aspect of them the best. “Strength comes from loving what we do. I feel that music is our mission and that God put us here to play music and to express ourselves. You have to have the fire in your belly and once the fire in your belly is gone, you can hang up your rock ‘n’ roll shoes. The brotherhood – we are brothers and Popsy Dixon has been with us for more than 40 years and he's just a brother from a different mother – we share the love. When I was going through this cancer thing, hell I thought they were gonna die from worrying about me. [Laughs] The strength comes from within but also from our great belief in Jesus the Christ. Somebody else might believe in Buddha, Mohammad, Confucius, or whoever but I am a Jesus believer and for me, he has worked wonders.”
The band sings a lot about relationships no matter which of their many albums you choose to sit down and listen to. Given the fact he has been married for 35 years, the longest among his band mates, Wendell knows a thing or two about relationships. “[Marriage] has to be a partnership. Preferably, you want to be the senior partner if you can but it’s give and take. It’s forgiveness. It’s a lot of those things, those good things. It’s sticking together through the tough times, the rough times, the no money times, the heart ache times, when you need to pay the rent, and you can’t pay the rent – sticking together through all those things. And like the vows say forsaking all others. That’s the important one.” Sherman has been married for over 30 years with his second wife who is retired now. “I try not to take my wife for granted. A lot of relationships fall when they begin to take each other for granted. I also, think that distance makes the heart grow fonder. Sometimes we’re away from each other a lot.”
Given Wendell’s recent illness, the band members plan to further focus their attention on family life. So what can we expect from The Holmes Brothers in future? For one thing, they all share the same important family values. Sherman’s kids all live in New York but he is real close to them. He talks with them every day and sees them as often as he can. “It’s a love fest,” he says regarding his immediate family. Wendell’s kids are divided between one living in New York City and the other living near him in Virginia. He sees them all on a regular basis. Dixon and Sherman play with the youth choir at their church. When they were young, they spent a lot of time on the water. Then, the favourite pastimes were fishing and boating. Now, all three band members share a common passion for older automobiles and driving around in convertible cars. Dixon loves his Mazda Miata. Sherman has a soft spot for the Mercedes Benz line of cars. His oldest is from 1982. Wendell’s pride and joy is his 1940 Chevrolet that is “hot as a firecracker.”
The younger brother claims, “We aren’t going to tour less. We plan on keep touring at a high rate. We are booked a lot right now since this thing has happened. We constantly getting bigger and better, and gigs offered to us and we’re up for doing those. Playing music keeps you young. It keeps you going.”
Georges Bizet said, “Music, what a splendid art! And what a sad profession.” Yet, when reflecting back on their lives and their career, both biological brothers feel it has been rewarding and richly fulfilling. “I tell everyone” states Wendell, “the best entertainers, the best musicians that I know personally have never ever made a quarter. Being good is just part of the answer. You have to pound the pavement. You have to be diligent. You have to stick to it with this business, and it’s a lot of luck that’s involved also. My brother and I were very fortunate that we had parents that encouraged their kids to pursue a performing music career. They gave us the opportunity to pursue our dreams.” Sherman boldly admits, “We are not wealthy. I don’t need to be wealthy, but I want to be secure in my old age.” Of course these respected men have prosperity in other means. “Yeah,” clarifies the burly Sherman with a friendly belly laugh, “but I need financial [security] too.”