Friday, June 19, 2015

Righteous Rhythm & Blues - The Holmes Brothers

The Holmes Brothers (L to R):  Popsy Dixon, Wendell Holmes, Sherman Holmes

Way back in 1990, I was browsing in a record store, checking out the new releases in the blues session, when I ran across an interesting album from a band called The Holmes Brothers.  On the cover were three guys sitting at a bar, having a beer and what seemed to be a generally good time.  I was in the market for some new music, so I picked up their album, In The Spirit, on cassette.

From the opening notes of their first tune, "Please Don't Hurt Me," my doors were blown off.  Their vocals harmonies were just incredible and they not only played blues, but they also did soul, gospel, and R&B.  While they wrote their own material and it was pretty impressive, they also took old songs.....gospel, blues, and soul...and basically transformed them into something totally different from their original incarnation.  It was quite an ear-opening experience.

The Chambers Brothers

While in college, I had discovered a band of Mississippians called the Chambers Brothers, an underrated 60's-era band that combined blues, funk, gospel, and psychedelic rock in a similar manner, with intriguing cover tunes, insightful originals, and the same type of ragged but right harmonies.  They even had a hit on the pop charts with "Time Has Come Today," but they had some great tracks on their albums that were even better than their chart hit.  To me, those tracks have stood the test of time even better than "Time Has Come Today."

When I first heard the Holmes Brothers, my first thought was of the Chambers Brothers with a few differences.......first was the incredible multi-octave vocals of drummer Willie "Popsy" Dixon.  I rarely heard Dixon without getting goosebumps.  It was unlike any voice I'd heard before or since....just breathtaking in it's range and clarity.  The fact that he did that while masterfully manning the drum kit made it even more impressive.  He was particular impressive on many of the gospel tunes, whether as a lead vocalist or with his ghostly falsetto providing exquisite backing for Wendell Holmes gritty lead vocals.

Dixon's life partner, Isobel Prideaux, told Ellen Robertson of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "A producer once told me, 'Not every singer can sing every note.'  Popsy could sing anything.  When he was finished singing and was signing autographs, a lot of people would ask, 'Where did you get such a beautiful voice?'  His answer to everyone was, 'It was a gift from God.'"

GIb Wharton

Another difference, at least in the first few recordings by the band, was the presence of Texas pedal steel guitarist Gib Wharton.  Wharton played on three of the Holmes Brothers' recordings in the early/mid 90's.  His soaring, swooping, screaming guitar practically added a fourth "vocal" to the ensemble.  Wharton played with the band until the mid 90's.  In 2001, the guitarist nearly died in a house fire that left him with 3rd Degree burns over half of his body and resulted in him losing most of the fingers on his left hand.  However, he recovered and continued to play pedal steel, using a steel socket over his thumb and retaining his own unique voice on the instrument in the process.

Another key factor to the band's sound is singer/guitarist/keyboardist Wendell Holmes.  Holmes also possesses a distinctive vocal style....on the blues numbers, he shows a rough-hewn growl, some of which bleeds over to his soul and gospel numbers, but he also shows an honest warmth on the ballads, especially those with a country flavor.  His guitar work is versatile and often overlooked by fans who can't get past those wonderful harmonies and singing.  In 2008, he was diagnosed with cancer, but he battled back fiercely and was able to overcome it.  The experience enabled Holmes to develop further as a songwriter.  He told Tim Holek, "It made me realize what's important in life and what's not so important."   Music played a big part in his recovery, as he would play music and sing hymns with his family while recovering, as he told Holek, "Music is therapy.  I can sit down feeling sad and get up feeling glad."

Last, but certainly not least, is older brother Sherman Holmes (who sang the above "I'm So Lonely"), who learned piano and clarinet before teaching himself bass as a teen.  He migrated to NYC, where he eventually backed R&B singer Jimmy Jones (of "Handy Man" fame).  When Jones needed a guitarist, he returned to his native Virginia and drafted  Wendell the night his younger brother graduated from high school.  They played together with Jones and other bands and were soon joined by Dixon.  The Holmes Brothers became an actual band in 1979, combining Sherman's rumbling baritone with Wendell's gritty tenor and Dixon's ethereal falsetto to form that incredible three-part harmony.

The brothers have always written interesting and sometimes intriguing original tunes, but what really stands out to me is their awesome reinterpretations of songs that you may think you already know, but are completely transformed by the trio's amazing vocals and musical arrangements.  Each of their albums contains at least a couple of these songs, usually old pop favorites that are completely, for a lack of a better word, renovated. There's a good chance that you will hear all of these songs in a different way after you've heard the Holmes Brothers version.

Sadly, the band recently suffered a huge loss when Popsy Dixon passed away on January 9th of this year from Stage 4 bladder cancer at the age of 72.  A few months later, Wendell Holmes announced his retirement to battle his own health problems.  He issued a statement this week stating that he was going into hospice care and thanking all of his fans and fellow musicians for their love and support.  Sherman Holmes is continuing the band's legacy, forming The Sherman Holmes Project, which will continue those three-part harmonies and that far-ranging repertoire.  

For newcomers to the Holmes Brothers' sound, you can start just about anywhere and discover some fantastic music.  They released four albums on Rounder Records between 1990 and 1997:  In The Spirit (1990), Where's It At (1991), Soul Street (1993), and Promised Land (1997), plus a compilation (2002's Righteous!  The Essential Collection).  My favorite of these, by a narrow margin, is Soul Street, but Righteous is an excellent overview of all four albums, plus a bonus track from their lone release on Stony Plain Records, Lotto Land, the soundtrack to the movie of the same name.  During their tenure with Rounder, they also released a wonderful all-gospel album, Jubilation, on Peter Gabriel's Real World Records label in 1992.

In 2001, the band signed with Alligator Records, kicking things off with another outstanding all-gospel effort, Speaking in Tongues, which was produced by their longtime fan Joan Osborne.  They released five subsequent albums with Alligator, 2004's Simple Truths, 2007's State of Grace, 2010's Feed My Soul, and 2013's Brotherhood.  Of this group, my personal favorite is Speaking in Tongues. The fire and passion has always been there for the band, but this disc is just loaded with energy and power and sheer joyful exuberance!

Trust me when I say that your musical existence is incomplete unless you give the Holmes Brothers a listen.  They were good on so many different levels with their talent and versatility.....simply one of the finest ensembles not just in blues and soul, but music in general.

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