Didn’t a lot of us want to be rock stars when we were teenagers? Maybe we pretended in front of the mirror, or in the car, or maybe like Tom Cruise in his underwear airin’ out to Bob Seger in Risky Business. Such humble beginnings! In Gary Indiana, in his junior high school days, Joseph Holman learned how to sing harmonies… In the school bathrooms. “It just sounded good in there,” he says, matter of fact.
Holman grew up in a family where his mother sang in the church choir and wanted her boys to do the same, though that didn’t quite prevent Joseph from getting into a little bit of trouble. When a teacher/probation officer heard what he and some others could do vocally, however, that was the direction they were encouraged in. The group became the “harmony fellahs”. “We didn’t have a name yet. We just liked to sing!” says Holman about the early group.
After some talent shows, and some connections, the group traveled to Memphis, the birthplace of soul music, to record at it’s epicenter: Stax Records. This was in the days when Al Green was just emerging. They went to Stax Records to cut tracks twice. Booker T and the MGs were the house band, and the label sported the likes of Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding, among other soul and blues icons. The famous studio had such a unique sound that real critics can pick where a track was laid out from the sound alone. Isn’t this every junior high schoolers experience?
Then came high school, more talent shows, and some gigs. By this time the “harmony fellahs” had become a full production of singers and a band, known as The Domestics. “Originally it was The Domestics 4, but we had the band, and that sounded like it left them out, so we left it at Domestics.” Along the way they picked up a new singer who happened to be Stevie Wonder’s first cousin. Stevie invited them to Detroit, up to Motown to record, the other place where soul was born. Interestingly enough, they find themselves in a bathroom practicing a song, and getting stuck on how to fix a particular part. A man happened to be there washing up, and he turned, put on his glasses, and said, “try this,” and gave them a little riff that fixed their problem. Turns out it was David Ruffin of The Temptations. What can top that? During one take, who should walk into the sound booth but Gladys Knight. Remember those days when Led Zeppelin walked into the studio while you were recording as a teenager?
Connections, experience, gigs, recording, school. Every teen music star’s dream, even though the Memphis and Motown recordings were never released. Joeseph recalls without any negativity, “The business stuff didn’t work out right.” From his musical family Joseph had a brother in Chicago with his own gig, and asked if The Domestics would come up and support them and be on the bill. So off they went. After they played, they went back to their dressing room, and who was there? Curtis Mayfield and his bass player. Curtis liked what he heard and The Domestics were invited to record under contract for CurTom Records, and under a new name: Love’s Children. Mayfield wrote four songs that Love’s Children recorded, and they went out on tour. One of their opening acts was the Ohio Players, just when the Players were an up-and-coming local Dayton, Ohio band.
What could go wrong?
Individual careers paths, high school ending, college beginning, and the everyday life. Despite all the celebrity, recording, touring, and connections they had, Love’s Children dissipated like a morning fog before the sun. So in 1972, Joseph Holman joined the Marines — and began the path to becoming “Smokey.”
There was a gymnasium where the Marines could get into the ring for a bout, and the fights were called “smokies.” So Joseph, feeling full of himself, joined in and found himself in the ring “with a skinny white guy.” Holman assumed he had him all figured out and was “bouncing around like a butterfly, waitin’ to sting like the bee, Mohammed Ali style.”
“I remember opening my eyes, and all I could see were bright, round lights,” Joseph said. “I had no idea what was going on, and then I realized I was lying on the mat looking up at the lights in the ceiling. The skinny white guy had knocked me out.” When Joseph woke up, so did his personal demons. Although he went on to enter the ring to the chant of “Smokey, Smokey!” and didn’t lose another fight, after he got out of the Marines, Smokey’s personal demons ruled his roost for several years.
Blessings come in disguises, it has been said. One day, a relative invited “Smokey” Holman to Milwaukee to see if he could get himself on track, with a one way, non-refundable (“I wanted to cash it in”) ticket. Smokey left Gary, Indiana for the beautiful city known as Brew Town.
Smokey never lost his singing gift, righted himself, and he eventually landed a gig with Marvelous Mack Some work was a cappella, some with a band. One night, Smokey was invited to a jam at a local club, and as fate would have it, he met JD Optekar, who at the time was in a band called Hound’s Tooth.
Optekar recalls, “The first time I heard him sing it was like, ‘wow, this guy is amazing, how come I have never heard of him here in Milwaukee!?'” So after putting together a video of a jam and a website, the decision was made to actually put a band together and practice. Tweed Funk was born. “Smokey’s smooth vocals capture the magic of the classic ‘soul era’ and contain a sweetness and joy that evokes memories of a simpler time. Meanwhile his journey and life experiences contribute to the grit and emotion” that Holman also demonstrates on stage.
Through all this, Smokey tells this story with humor, with grace, and no hint of bitterness or regret. While he may regret some decisions, it doesn’t ring in his voice. Instead there is gratefulness, a positivity. A “Look what I have,” attitude instead of “Look what I threw away.” There’s a declaration of loyalty and dedication to Tweed Funk; a quiet determination laced with joy.
Joseph “Smokey” Holman has beaten his demons and has his groove back. Maybe it’s spirit, or that he’s simply blessed. Perhaps all of the above. But Smokey is alive and well, using the powerhouse soul gifts he was given and making his mama proud. A man can’t do too much more than that to call himself successful.