The following is a guest post by folklorist and blues scholar Barry Lee Pearson. It introduces the Sherman Holmes Project, which will play in the Library’s Homegrown Concert Series on Wednesday, April 15. More concert information is at this link!
During the 1940s, job opportunities in Northern industrial centers attracted rural African Americans from throughout the South. They included black musicians who brought their regional musical styles with them, changing rural forms to ones more suited to their new urban environments and constituents. Historians cite several musical “highways,” one running from Houston and the Southwest to Los Angeles and Oakland, another connecting the Delta and Deep South to Chicago and Detroit, and the last running from Virginia and the Carolinas to New York and New Jersey. The legacy of the Holmes Brothers is best represented by this latter route where they followed in the footsteps of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Wilbert Harrison, Clyde McPhatter and Ruth Brown.
Although Sherman and his brother Wendell were born in New Jersey, where their father had found wartime factory work, they grew up in the rural hamlet of Christchurch, now called Saluda, Virginia. Both brothers learned piano and were active in the local Baptist Church. Wendell taught himself guitar and soon they put together a band.
As the brothers put it, “We were a big fish in a small pond. We couldn’t play much but nobody else could play anything.” Their venues included jook joint dances on the weekend followed by church events on Sunday. As Sherman tells it, “We rocked them on Saturday and saved them on Sunday.” During 1956 through 1958 they gained dance hall experience working with a 6-piece band and two guitars, piano, trumpet, sax, and drums playing at their cousin Herman’s local jook joint. Sherman, who also played clarinet, entered Virginia State’s music program playing everything from recitals to half-time shows. He also earned his way into a rhythm and blues band by claiming he could play bass although he had never touched one. Nevertheless, with grasp of music and a week to practice, he played well enough to earn the job and has been playing ever since.
In 1959 Sherman took a break from college and headed for New York City where he began working gigs with a fellow Saluda musician Elgin Dabney. Later he joined Jimmy Jones’s band, who had 1960s hits with “Handy Man” and “Good Timin’.” When Jones needed a guitar player, Sherman recommended his brother Wendell and conscripted him the very day he graduated from high school. Through the 1960s they worked with various groups including Sherman’s band, The Sevilles, and backed various R&B and Soul acts such as Curtis Mayfield and the Coasters.
The final link fell into place circa 1967 when Wendell began to play with drummer Popsy Dixon. Dixon, who had been born in Virginia Beach, moved to Brooklyn when he was three months old. He grew up playing drums in the Pentecostal Church tradition and worked with various soul acts. In 1969 he and Wendell got together with Sherman and the Holmes Brothers began their 46-year tenure.
Initially they worked the tri-state New York, New Jersey, Connecticut region, gaining a local reputation as a topflight band with a seemingly limitless repertoire and a haunting three-part harmony vocal approach. But despite their local renown, they were as yet unrecorded as a group. This all changed in 1990 with the release of their Rounder record, In the Spirit. On the strength of the album’s critical acclaim, they jumped from regional to international artists heading into another 24 years of touring and recording. A second Rounder release, Where It’s At, and a gospel album, Jubilations, for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, cemented their reputation as festival favorites and one of the worlds greatest and most eclectic bar bands.
They moved to the Alligator label, issuing Simple Truths in 2003. Other releases followed, including the award-winning State of Grace in 2008 and their most recent release, Brotherhood, in 2014. That same year they were honored with a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. They played a fantastic set at the 2014 NEA National Heritage Concert, which you can watch in this video and this video on the NEA website.
The Holmes Brothers’ unique sound drew from a wide range of American roots music styles: blues, gospel, rock, soul and country. But the foundational element of their sound came from their shared church background. Whatever they choose to play is infused with their gospel-based three-part harmony, and an improvisational freedom resulting from their long experience playing together. On stage they had a musical conversation, a give and take among three leads, but no leader.
Sadly, on January 9, 2015, Popsy Dixon died, and in April, 2015, Wendell Holmes retired due to health issues. Sherman, determined to keep the Holmes Brothers legacy alive, formed the Sherman Holmes Project with guitarist Brooks Long and drummer Eric Kennedy. Today’s program features an acoustic lineup with Sherman on bass and Brooks on guitar, with special guest Phil Wiggins on harmonica.
Brooks Long served an apprenticeship with Wendell Holmes that was sponsored by the Maryland State Arts Council’s Folklife Program. Phil Wiggins is well known to Washington, D.C. area blues fans through his thirty-year partnership with the late guitarist and vocalist, John Cephas. The duo also issued albums on Rounder and Alligator and shared festival workshop stages with the Holmes Brothers dating back to the 1990 National Folk Festival. Wiggins has worked with Corey Harris, Nat Reese and Dom Turner, to name a few, and currently fronts the Chesapeake Sheiks and the Phil Wiggins House Party.
I have long cherished the anecdotes that continue to serve as examples of the “great migration”. Not only was I the product of a women who moved along that line of African-Americans who left Mississippi and traveled to points north: Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago, I am apart of that line that returned. I often write about returning to my mother’s spawning ground and becoming romanticized with the south she left. My own life echos the past of hundreds of thousands like me and it makes me proud to know that I am apart of this system of weary travelers.
I first saw and heard The Holmes Brothers band play at the Chicago Theater, their music and voices still are with me I have a photo of them taken at the theater, Framed and Hung up on my wall after all these years.
Their music had a positive influence on me in appreciating great music influenced by their youth and various American music styles that they melted into their lives that they heard over their lifetime in the business. A Great Great American musical Group a true heritage for us all is what The Holmes Brother’s band is to me.