Listen now on:
When it comes to blues singers, there are many great ones. You’ve got your shouters, screamers, criers and crooners, but Popsy Dixon—drummer, sometime lead singer, and resident non-brother of the great blues band The Holmes Brothers—was something else entirely. Popsy’s voice was the sound of a Sunday morning. His falsetto went pleading for redemption or celebrating salvation by riding notes that scraped the underside of heaven. When his voice fell back down to earth, it settled into an edge-of-tears tenor that ached with a vulnerability that’s surprisingly rare in a genre synonymous with hurt.
Because he spent his entire (recorded) musical career keeping time for The Holmes Brothers, nobody outside the group’s fans knows his name, but believe us when we say that Popsy Dixon was the best singer on the blues circuit, right up until he left us on January 9. The Holmes Brothers have made consistently great, adventurous music, but when Popsy came in for a verse or, better yet, was given a full song, everything was elevated to something sublime.
The first time I heard Popsy was on The Holmes Brothers’ cover of Sam & Dave’s “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” in 1990. Popsy takes over the lead from Brother Wendell on the second verse, wringing all kinds of pain from a lyric soul fans had already heard a hundred times. But it’s when he comes back in for the third verse, with a falsetto yelp he holds back for an eternity before unleashing, that Popsy truly announces himself. His voice bends, stretches, and soars, switching from piercing highs to gravel-throated growls in an instant. I was hooked. I was also dumbfounded and slightly angry that nobody thought to record this guy until he was nearly 50 years old, denying the chance of his name being uttered alongside Otis, Aretha, Solomon, or Sam as one of the greats of all time.
I’d also beg you to check out the way Popsy brings all kinds of worry to Gillian Welch’s ode to the Internet music economy, “Everything Is Free,” especially toward the end, when he’s reduced to stutters and cries.
Every song Popsy Dixon sang is better for it. After you hear him sing, you’ll not only mourn his passing, but the fact he started recording so late in life. It means there are precious few songs graced with his presence, so we have to treasure the ones we’re left with.