Featured Interview – Joseph “Smokey” Holman

“There is a thing about me and music that nobody knows. That is – without it I would perish. Music saved my life.  I’ve had plenty of ups and downs, but I have always come back to music”.

Powerful words from Joseph “Smokey” Holman, lead singer for Tweed Funk, the blues & soul band based out of Milwaukee. Like many of his generation, Holman started singing in church. One of ten siblings that included three sets of twins, Holman has a twin sister. His mother was raised in Mississippi and his father was born in Alabama. They met in Chicago shortly after his father completed his military service.

“My mother was a church-going lady all her life. My father didn’t have much education but he was a provider. He was kind of hard on us – but he also took care of everybody. I grew up with a mother and a father, what we used to call a nuclear family, which isn’t so prevalent these days. Now mothers have the most influence over the children. We always take care of each other. We are a really close-knit family. I talked to my mother about it once. She said it might be because at one given time, all of the kids slept in the same bed. If one of us came down with the measles or chicken pox, she would put us in the bed so that we’d all be sick at the same time. That way she wouldn’t have to go through it over and over again”.

On Sunday’s you could find Holman sitting in the front row of the Zion Temple in Gary IN. “The pastor had a son who could sing and play piano. His daughter sang like a songbird. They were really talented – had me singing my little butt off!” At age thirteen, Holman started singing acappella with friends in the school bathroom, doing songs by the Temptations and Major Lance. A friend, Robert Griffin, was there to provide instruction on harmony singing. “We used to hide in the ventilation system. The janitor had a little spot up there over the gym with a small TV and a bottle of whiskey. We would ditch class and be up there singing away. They never could find us! The secret was for each of us to hold our pitch. Grif knew all that stuff and was really good at teaching us. That was a long time ago but I can remember it like it was yesterday”.

Eventually Holman and his friends formed a band originally known as the Domestic 4 – later changing to the Domestics. They were a hot band around Gary, getting selected to open a show for a revue featuring Rufus Thomas and Willie Mitchell.  Thomas was suitably impressed by what he heard from the band, telling Mitchell to bring them down to Memphis to record. So the group loaded up a station wagon belonging to the bass player’s father and headed south seeking fame and fortune. The sessions were held at the famous Royal Studios for the Stax-Volt label. But when their manager went down to Memphis to work out the contractual details, it was made clear that the manager would have to step aside. The Domestics decided to pass on the deal out of loyalty to their manager for all of his work to get the group to that point.

Holman’s next brush with fame came in 1967 when a new lead singer, Charles Simmons, was added to the band. A first cousin to Stevie Wonder, Simmons was able to get the band an audition with Motown Records. But an issue with the label’s executives sent a potential deal flying out of the window.

“We were getting ready to break-up. But we went to Chicago to play at a club where my brother had a band. He was drawing big crowds, so they put us on the bill. That night, after the first set, we got back to the dressing room to find Curtis Mayfield and his bass player waiting there. They had heard a lot about us. After hearing our show, they wanted us to come in and sing for Eddie Thomas, the President to Curtom Records. Once we did, Thomas signed us up right away. We knew that we were on our way.”

“I don’t know if you have ever seen the movie, The Five Heartbeats. That was basically us. We had an awesome singer named Ernest Thomas. Sometimes he would get mad as we were going on stage. He would get into it with our manager because Ernest thought the manager was trying to replace him.” Mayfield got the group to change their name to Love’s Children, releasing several singles on Curtom including “Soul Is Love,” “This Is The End For Us,” and “Why Should I Stay” before the group’s run came to an end.

One memorable moment during this period occurred in Columbus, Ohio. “We were at the Sheraton Hilton – the company had bought the whole top floor of the hotel. After our show, I was thinking here we come, Jackson 5! I come from dirt-poor people, so that night was fascinating to me. I looked around at all the people, the media, the bodyguards – everybody was there. It kind of moved me that I was actually, finally somebody”.

After graduating high school, Holman spent time in the Gary steel mills before a stint in the U.S. Marine Corp handling different vehicles including tanks. During that period he acquired his nickname, “Smokey,” for participating in amateur, unsanctioned boxing matches referred to as “smokers” due to the thick haze of smoke that filled the small halls & gyms were the fights took place.

In 1986, Holman made a trip to Milwaukee for a visit and never left. “I met some cats singing Temptations tunes over a bottle of Wild Irish Rose wine. I joined in and started singing. One guy looked over and asked for my name. I said they call me Smokey. He said we need to do something together. So the two of us and his cousin starting going around singing acapella, singing for whatever money people would put in our hat.”

His new partner was Charles McCurtis, better known around town as Marvelous Mack. Originally from Chicago, Mack was a singer, songwriter and self-taught keyboard player. The duo did well until Holman got caught up in drugs, entering a truly dark period in his life. “It was really bad. I was out of it for several years until 1990, when I finally woke up and got my life in order. At that point, Mack was kind enough to invite me back into the band. So we are on stage with Mack playing keyboards. I came in and started singing. I was surprised at what came out of my mouth. I was wondering where it came from but it seemed like my head had finally gotten hooked up with my ass. I was singing as a whole entity”.

“There is a difference between singing and just emulating someone else. I’m a soulful singer due to all of the things I have been through in my life.  It took time to learn to control my emotions because I almost passed out a couple of times singing on stage. The singers I learned from, my all-time favorites include Aretha Franklin, Sly & the Family Stone, David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson, and George Clinton.”

Fast forward a few years to point where Holman was contemplating discontinuing his singing career. “I was frustrated because the band I was in, I found myself getting pushed further and further to the back. A friend asked me to go to a jam with him at the Painted Parrot in Milwaukee. I got up and sang a few tunes. Afterwards, a guy named JD Optekar introduced himself, asking me where I had been! JD was putting a project together that would be built around a female vocalist. But he really liked my voice. He said it would be an honor if I checked them out.”

“I was going to pass on it at first. I was tired of people constantly telling me that I wouldn’t be this place or that without them, blah, blah. I sat down with JD and discussed this with him. So we decided to give it a try. That is the start of Tweed Funk. It overwhelmed me at first because we grew by leaps and bounds. I didn’t expect people to receive me the way they did. It has worked out very nicely”.

“The group of guys we have now is awesome. I’m the oldest guy in the band but the other guys have “old” souls. They aren’t overly influenced by new music. They really get into stuff from the 1970 decade. JD is genius at the marketing and booking. He is very persistent, too! He is an outstanding songwriter in addition to getting better & better on guitar.  We brought horns onto a show one time. It sounded so good the band had to have live horns. Our sax player, Jon Lovas, is a music instructor. It took him a while to come out of his shell. Now he is blowing his horn real good. On trumpet, we have Kevin Klemme, who has a real knack and feel for R&B. He also plays in a New Orleans style brass band”.

“Nick Lang is our drummer and a music instructor in the jazz field. He has a Master’s degree in Music so he is really in-tune with the things you have to do because he understands the theory of it all. On bass, we have Eric Madunic, who is versed in quite a few instruments. He started playing in a band with his father when he was eight or nine years old. That bass guitar is an extension of him. I look over at him and his fingers are moving so fast it looks like something from the Matrix! He really works that bass”.

The band members sing the praises of Holman, well-aware of how Holman has influenced the band in a variety of ways. Madunic recalls meeting the singer for the first time at an open jam at the Astor Hotel that was his audition for the band. Having never played at a jam, the bass player had no idea what to expect.

“Smokey was quiet at first. When I was called to the stage, he called for a shuffle in the key of G. On the last song, he broke it down and then gave me the solo. I had never done a bass solo! I just went with what I felt – it was a real trial by fire. There is no more auto-pilot for me on stage because we never know where Smokey is going to take the train”.

“When we were recording our First Name Lucky album, I was very nervous about doing the lead vocal on “Knock On Wood”. Smokey picked up on that, so he pulled me aside and put his arm around me, then gave some words of wisdom on vocal inflections and phrasing. He coached me through my nervousness. Some of our best moments happen post-gig when we are just hanging out listening to Smokey some of his hilarious stories, which the band calls “Smokeyisms”! He has lived a lot of life, which has given him plenty of wisdom and that really helps the band bond together.”

Lang thought he was thoroughly prepared for the recording sessions. He had done his homework, writing out notes and planning every detail. “And, of course, nothing went according to plan. Every take was live. Something or somebody was a little off on each take. But Smokey nailed the vocal every single time. We could have used any one of his takes. He taught me a lesson that day about what mastery really is. He is the same way on stage. If we had a slow night with a small crowd, the long sets used to make me a bit salty. Smokey always keeps it going, no matter what. Another lesson learned for me – how to be humble”.

No one has spent more time with Holman than Optekar. “Smokey is loyal and good friend, whether he is supporting us or bailing somebody out of jail. My favorite example occurred when my daughter, Grace, was eight years old. She was performing at Summerfest as part of the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Youth Showcase. Smokey was having car problems, so he hopped on a bus, made to Summerfest to hear Grace sing one song. That is how committed he is to supporting his friends”.

Holman appreciates the band and relishes the opportunities that continue to come their way. The band has steadily built up a presence on the festival circuit with their dynamic live show.  They were nominated for a 2014 Blues Blast Music Award in the Soul Blues Album category in addition to a number of WAMI Awards for the band and its individual members. Holman has been nominated four years in a row for Male Vocalist of the Year, taking the award home in 2013. But don’t think for a minute that all of attention has gone to his head.

“If you let things get out of your hands, it can tear you down. I try to stay humble. I’m a simple person who doesn’t believe in getting above himself. Sometimes when we have a few shows back-to-back, JD will ask me to hold back a bit. But when I open my mouth, what comes out is all me. If I can get it up, I can get on!”

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