Wendell Holmes of The Holmes Brothers on letting his light shine

The Holmes Brothers have received accolades from critics far and wide, from the New York Times to the London Times. They have toured with legendary acts like The Impressions and John Lee Hooker.

The band consists of the two Holmes brothers, Wendell (guitar and keyboard) and Sherman (bass) and fellow Virginian, Popsy Dixon (drums). The brothers grew up in the small Virginian town of Christchurch. Wendell, 69, is Sherman’s younger brother by two years. He remembers his childhood fondly, at least most of it. There was a small, sad incident involving bicycles.

It was one of Wendell’s first memories of his musical partnership with his brother. Wendell and Sherman’s family encouraged them to perform in churches and local venues.

But they got off to a bumpy start when their grandmother thought it would be a good idea for the boys to perform at a talent show. She used bikes from Sears, Roebuck and Company as an incentive to get her grandsons to sing together. This was a new concept for 8-year-old Wendell, and a scary one at that.

“I remember my grandmother told my father that if my brother and I would do a duet for a school program. She was going to buy us both a bicycle,” said Wendell.

Wendell liked the idea at first, but then backed out leaving his brother to perform alone. That broke the deal as far as his grandmother was concerned.

“It was supposed to be a duet,” said Wendell. “The bicycles went back to Sears, and I never forgave myself for not performing.”

Wendell got over his shyness. The boys performed spirituals and hymns in church on Sundays and blues songs in the local nightclubs on Saturdays. They quickly started making money. Wendell was successful enough by the age of 12 to buy his own bike, and he did. Before long, the brothers ruled the roost.

“There were so very few musicians in the area. I felt like a big fish in a little pond. We got chances to do all of the school dances and the community things. It was a good feeling,” said Wendell.

By 1963 the brothers relocated to New York and formed The Sevilles. They toured with gospel legends The Impressions and blues king John Lee Hooker. They made ends meet over the years. But the next stroke of luck didn’t happen until 1979 when the brothers joined forces with fellow Virginian, drummer Popsy Dixon. They christened themselves The Holmes Brothers.

In the new incarnation The Holmes Brothers once again gained a reputation as a strong live act. In 1989 the band was offered a recording contract with Rounder Records. Wendell said the band was comfortable with its gig as the house band at a Manhattan club, but Rounder made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“We went from the band making $100 a night to $1,500 a night We were very comfortable in our little cocoon. We did well for local musicians. We were not actively looking (for a recording contract). But, hey, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Wendell.

They have been a successful recording act ever since. All the while, there has been a theme running through Holmes Brothers albums. Their blues-rock is infused with reverence. A gospel background shows through on every song. That’s because Wendell believes it’s important to mix the spiritual with profane.

“If you are a believer, and you believe that Jesus is coming back soon the great commission is to go out to all of the world and spread the Gospel. We try to spread it in our shows and everywhere we go,” Wendell said.

His faith has even transformed his relationship with music over the years.

“As a kid, I enjoyed the adoration of my playmates and my fans. Being able to play the boogie-woogie on the piano made my chest bulge out. Now it’s more of a spiritual thing. I realize that God gave me some talent and that is a blessing. I try to take it as seriously as I can and perform to the best of my ability at all times. It’s not a joke anymore. It’s serious business,” said Wendell.


About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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