Blues Notes: the apprenticeship of Donald Kinsey | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Blues Notes: the apprenticeship of Donald Kinsey 

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"I guess these are the changes that mama told me about," Donald Kinsey sang, closing his eyes and flinging his head back forcefully as he launched into a guitar solo.

Kinsey has been through his share of changes. "Sometimes I look at my life and it's like looking at a movie," says the Gary-based bluesman, who began his career as a hotshot 13-year-old guitarist traveling under the name B.B. King Jr. He played guitar for Albert King, Peter Tosh, and Bob Marley, and formed a rock group called White Lightnin', which opened for Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton in 1975, and another group called The Chosen Ones, which played quite a bit on the West Coast in the early 80s. Kinsey, at the age of 34, has returned to Indiana to back up his father, Big Daddy Kinsey, as part of the Kinsey Report. The band, which includes Donald's brother Kenneth on bass, his brother Ralph on drums, and Ron Prince on guitar, is currently touring to support their first album without their father, Edge of the City. Their father stepped aside to allow the band to do something a little different.

"Our thing goes way back," said Kinsey. "When I was a kid it used to be Big Daddy Kinsey and His All-Star Revue with B.B. King Jr. . . . We were down in Memphis when I was a kid, playing this club, and B.B. King's cousin was there, and she said, 'You ought to call that kid B.B. King Jr. 'cause he plays just like B.B. and he's so young.' Finally my dad when I was 17 said, 'That's enough with this--people gotta know you for who you really are.'

"Man, when you're a kid and you're out on the road you see things that wake you up. You wake up in the station wagon and you say, 'Where am I? And where's my dad?'" Kinsey used to spend his summer vacations touring the south. "You get up in the misty morning and load up the cars and the station wagons. One time we were playing a couple gigs in Mississippi, and every place we'd go would be jam-packed, and the second gig this one guy booked, my dad could feel something strange and he said, 'You keep an eye on this guy 'cause something don't feel right.' And after the second show we looked around for this guy who booked us and he was gone. We never saw that guy again.

"It's a shame people try and corrupt musicians and take advantage of them because it's something really innocent and pure, but you gotta watch out for that. And when you're a kid, you see that kind of thing happen a whole lot. You grow up real quick.

"Growin' up with my dad, he always made it his business to take us places, and one time he took us to the Yellow Dragon in Gary to see Howlin' Wolf. This was back in 1967 and I was young, too young to be inside that place. Two o'clock in the morning, my dad wakes us up and he said, 'Come on--we're gonna see Howlin' Wolf.' And when we got there, the state police came in there with shotguns 'cause there was gambling in the back. They went straight through the bandstand, and my dad threw a tablecloth over me and my brother 'cause we weren't supposed to be in there. The police went through there, the band stopped, and when the police left, the band got back onstage and the party started all over again. I said, 'Wow! What's goin' on here?'"

"The things you see, man," Donald Kinsey laughed. "When I was 12, I wrote my first song, called 'Uncle Willie,' and I sent it off to a publishing house. I got this letter back saying, 'Sorry we can't use this,' and I swear the next week I heard it on the radio. Same song. I didn't cover myself--I sent them my only copy. I didn't know nothing about copyrighting, but now I know why you have to cover yourself."

After he finished high school, Donald Kinsey hit the road to play rhythm guitar for Albert King, who had met him at a TV taping in Chicago. "My dad said, 'This is gonna be a good experience. Go upstairs and pack your bags.' Some people said Albert King was real hard to get along with, but I never saw that except for one time," Kinsey recalled.

"One time Albert fired a whole horn section and I said, 'You want me to go try and find some more horns?' and he said, 'Yeah.' So I called up some buddies of mine who I went to school with--I thought I could get some of my old boys a shot at something. I came home, rehearsed these guys for a week, and everything was great. Our first gig was in Detroit, and the boys got up onstage and acted like they didn't know nothing, horns squeaking all over the place. Then Albert looked at me, and after the first show he said, 'Look, if I point at one of them, tell them to walk off the stage.' Before the second show ended, there were no more horns onstage. So I had to get them all bus tickets back home."

Among the incidents that have transformed Donald Kinsey from wide-eyed, hotshot blues youth to experienced, mature performer, the most striking was when he was almost shot in a 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Kingston, Jamaica. Marley had heard Kinsey while Kinsey was working with White Lightnin', and he asked him to join the famed Wailers.

"We were out in front of his house playing some kick ball," says Kinsey, "and someone came up to Bob and asked him what he thought about doing a show in Kingston 'cause he hadn't played in his hometown for a long time. And they must've caught Bob in a real good mood 'cause he said, 'Yeah--we'll do a show. In fact, we'll do a free show.'

"Then everything started going bananas. Air Jamaica started offering package deals for the free Bob Marley concert. It got out of control, but then again, something else was happening. People were saying they felt something bad in the air about the show. . . . Two nights before the concert, we were taking a break at around 9--and if we weren't taking a break, it would have been a real massacre. But anyway, man, me, Bob, and his manager were in the kitchen when the first shots were fired. I heard "Pow! Pow! Pow!' and all this gunfire and you could hear people freaking out. Eight people surrounded this house and were firing. The kitchen had a back door, but soon as I thought about going out that back door, I see a gun coming through the door and start firing. I hid behind this case, and I peeped through and blood was coming out of this guy like ketchup out of a bottle. Rita [Marley] was on her way out to the car, and they shot through the car window at the back of her head.

"The evening of the concert, it was getting ready to turn dark, and I talked to Bob over this walkie-talkie and he said, "Donald, do you want to do the concert?' And, man, I'm looking, and the things that are going through my mind. It's going to be a concert at night, outside, no police protecting you, and I said, 'The Almighty had to be with us that night at the house 'cause we made it. Yeah, I'll do it.' It was a mystic night. Bob was wearing the clothes he got shot in. Rita was there with her head all bandaged up. It was something else. It was a mystic night.

"The next day we went to the Bahamas, and we were there for two or three days just trying to get cooled out, and I told Bob, 'I wanna go home. I'm goin' back home. I need a break. . . .' I tell you, blues is something that whenever I heard it, it made me feel good, and after those years of being away from it, I was so ready to come back and play the blues. And being able to hook up with my family again and have that feeling was really a great thing for me."

The present incarnation of Big Daddy Kinsey and the Kinsey Report dates back to 1984, when Donald helped to produce their first album, Bad Situation. The Kinsey Report currently tours on its own and with Big Daddy. The new album, Edge of the City, was produced without his assistance. "I asked my dad to play on one song, but he said, 'You don't need me.' He's really proud of what we're doing.

"I have to give my father a lot of credit, because he's the one who put the guitar in my hands, and he was the one who was patient enough to stick with us. To be able to contribute something for what he did for me, and to continue on to do it, is really great. People in the business say it should be Donald Kinsey and the Kinsey Report, but I can't do it by myself. We're a group. We're together. We're tight-knit, and hopefully the people enjoy what we do."

Big Daddy Kinsey and the Kinsey Report will be at B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted, on Thursday and Friday, January 28th and 29th; call 528-1012 for details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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