The two brothers were musical from the start, singing in the church choir and taking piano lessons from a young age — Sherman even majored in clarinet at Virginia State University before dropping out to join singer Jimmy Jones, best known for “Handy Man.”
They turned their music into a job: A cousin of theirs owned the local “juke joint” and recruited the two blues brothers to fill in when he couldn’t attract the big bands. It wasn’t long before the two took their act on the road.
“I left Virginia in 1959,” Sherman Holmes said. “I left to go to New York for one semester and never came home until about 40-some years later. I started playing music, playing all over: doing all the club scenes and all that stuff.”
The two brothers played with several bands after the younger Wendell completed high school, then formed a short-lived group called The Sevilles in 1963.
The Holmeses came out of The Sevilles with another “brother-in-spirit,” Dixon, who shares their love of genre-blending and brings a soaring falsetto to the mix. Though they often moved apart to play with different bands, the three men stayed close and eventually came back together to form The Holmes Brothers in 1979.
The band spent years playing backups for other bands, Sherman Holmes said, until the late 1980s, when they hit upon a winning strategy: blues jam sessions at bars. They would find failing bars and offer them a deal: The band brings more customers into the bar with a jam session, then takes a third of drink revenues as payment. Meanwhile, the bar reaps the rewards of increased business and status.
According to Holmes, the band achieved notoriety by combining this strategy with festival work and press releases until it was picked up by Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. From there, the three have expanded their operation to record with music legends like Willie Nelson and Van Morrison, eventually taking their act overseas to Europe and Africa, where they received a warm welcome.