Any student of the blues knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s the root of all forms of Western music. Its tendrils nourish country, jazz, rock – and reggae, too. Just ask Donald Kinsey, who carries forward the blues tradition laid down by his father, Lester “Big Daddy” Kinsey.
The leader of The Kinsey Report – the family band he established in Gary, Ind., Big Daddy left us in 2001 with Donald picking up the baton in a unit that also includes elder brother Ralph and younger brother Kenny.
They’ve been quite successful through the years with releases on Rooster Blues, Alligator and Capitol’s Point Blank imprint. But there’s a much larger part to Donald’s story. Not only has he served as bandleader for Albert King and toured and recorded with the Roy Buchanan, but he’s also one of the most important musicians the world of reggae has ever known.
That’s no understatement.
You’d have to be living in a monastery for the past 45 years not to have heard his work. The albums he produced as a member of Bob Marley & The Wailers, Peter Tosh and other giants have spread the message of peace and love atop a rock-steady beat.
Talk to Donald today – as Blues Blast did recently while he was in the midst of a major tour with the current incarnation of The Wailers — and he remains both humble and grateful.
And despite having made major contributions to some of the most life-altering music the planet has ever known, he still has a blues man’s heart even though his approach has undergone subtle changes because of the world vision that’s enhanced his life.
His back story is one of the most interesting in the blues world.
Like many folks in the industry, his family’s roots were planted in the soil of Mississippi. Big Daddy grew up in Pleasant Grove, the son of a Pentecostal pastor. He played gospel in his father’s church and caught the blues bug after sneaking out of the house one night and seeing a very young Muddy Waters captivate an audience.
Newly married, Big Daddy relocated to Gary in 1944 in his 20s. He worked in a steel mill and developed his career as a guitarist and harmonica player in the clubs scattered among the factories at the southern end of Lake Michigan. His parents eventually joined him. In later years, he supported his wife and three sons by operating a charter bus service that brought folks to Southern casinos.
Donald was born to play the blues on May 12, 1953. By the time he was six or seven, he was already playing guitar with Ralph on drums in a band billed as Big Daddy Kinsey and His Fabulous Sons, a unit formed before Kenny came into the world.
“We played Elks lodges, Ramada Inns — the hotel circuit back durin’ that time was goin’ good – and juke joints, ya know,” he recalls with a chuckle. “And then on Sundays, I’d go to this radio station, WWCA. They did live gospel broadcasts, and I’d play behind a few different vocal groups. I would leave there and go to my grandfather’s church, the Church of God in Christ, and play there, too.”
Like most musicians who grew up in families with deep spiritual beliefs, both Big Daddy and Donald experienced some backlash for walking with one foot in the church and the other in the blues., noting: “At the time, the only problem was with my grandparents, mainly my grandmother. She had a big problem with my brother and I out playin’ clubs and stuff at such a young age.”
They were doing the Devil’s work with gifts bestowed by God, she believed. “That was somethin’ I had to hear in my younger days, and I was confused about it because I was really too young to understand what she meant. It always stuck in the back of my mind to find out what she was talkin’ about – and, eventually, I did.
“It was even harder on my dad,” he says, “because he was the only child. I remember when my dad recorded his first record (the 45 “Can’t Let Go”/”Movers and Shakers” on Stormy Turtle Records). He was very proud of it and wanted his father to listen to it and give his blessin’s.
“I remember that day very well. My grandfather stopped by the house, and my dad, he had a couple of friends over. My dad put the record on. The next thing you know, my grandfather’s boppin’ his head and pattin’ his feet. After a couple of songs, he said to my dad: ‘Ya know, that’s really good, son!’
“I think that’s all my dad really wanted to hear. You always want your parents’ blessin’s.”
Big Daddy was both a friend and huge fan of B.B. King, whose LPs frequently played on the Kinsey family turntable. The Kinsey home was filled of photos of them together, and Big Daddy caught King in action whenever he was in town. Donald learned B.B.’s songs note-for-note at his father’s insistence.
About the time Donald was ten or 11, he started being billed as “B.B. King Jr.” – a moniker he picked up while gigging on the road during a summer break.
“I was in elementary school still – in fifth or sixth grade, and in the summertime, we’d go down to Mississippi – Pleasant Grove, Crenshaw, Sardis, Marks — where my mother’s parents and my dad’s family still lived,” he remembers. “My dad would load the station wagon full of equipment and stuff, and he’d try to get us a few little gigs.
“We were in Memphis, and this lady, Mrs. Walker, was related to B.B. King some way, somehow. She owned the club where we were playin’. I used to play a lot of B.B. songs when I was young. She comes up after we played and told my dad: ‘Big Daddy, you oughta call that boy B.B. King Jr.’
“That was it, man! That went on until I was close to graduatin’ from high school.”
Not long after Donald walked the stage to accept his diploma, Albert King recruited him to join his band. “He used to come to Gary quite a bit,” Donald recalls. “I think he had a girlfriend that he was comin’ to see from time to time.”
The Kinseys played the Zodiac, which frequently hosted major acts one night, and – unbeknownst to Donald – King Albert stopped in for a listen. After they returned home, Big Daddy told Donald that he’d been in the audience – and that he was in the market for a rhythm player.
“Albert liked the way I played…he axed my dad about me comin’ out and playin’ with him,” Donald remembers. But the offer came as quite a shock.
“I’d never played with anybody outside of the family at that point. So my dad said: ‘I think that’ll be a good thing for ya — but they’re leavin’ in the mornin’. You gotta go upstairs and pack some clothes,” he remembers with a big laugh. “I was like…whoa, man!
“That was a drastic change in my life right there.”
As scary as the move might have seemed, young Kinsey was ready. He’d already decided that his life would be a career in music. There was no question in his mind after graduation. He’d taken a steel mill job, but quit suddenly with his father’s permission after his boss wanted him to leave the day shift and work nights.
Before Donald knew what was happening he was literally circling the globe with one of the world’s top artists of his era and living out his dream. The transition was smooth because, like Big Daddy, Albert was a very powerful presence – so much so, in fact, that people were sometimes frightened simply to be in close proximity to them.
Kinsey recalls many incidents where folks would come up to and ask if it would be all right to approach both men for their autograph. “I’d say: ‘Just axe ‘em,’” he says, noting that they were very accommodating to fans despite the perceived wall.
“For me, workin’ with Albert, man, it was somethin’ else. After six months, he appointed me as his band leader because, one thing about me: if I’m a part of somethin’, I’m 150 per cent part of it.
“I was all the way into the music, and I wanted things to be right.
“My dad had trained me in that band leader position growin’ up. I’ve always had older guys around me, and got a lot of great teaching from them. They might not have been big names, but they were great teachers.”
Several characters who lived and played in the Gary and Calumet City area made major impressions, he says. “There was one guitarist named Trudy Austin, Blojo Evans, Baby Boy – his real name was Fred Robinson – who played harmonica with my dad a long time, Big Daddy Rogers, Big Daddy Simpson – there was quite a few Big Daddys floatin’ around! (laughs)”
Many of them would show up at the Kinsey home after a long week at day jobs. “They’d have a little wang-dang-doodle, man. They’d move the furniture back in the dinin’ room and set up shop. It was literally a Mississippi-style house party in northern Indiana.
Kinsey and King parted company in the best of terms after about three years. “I knew that, when I joined Albert, this was gonna be an educational experience for me,” he says. “But I knew it wasn’t somethin’ that was gonna be long-term.
“He took me into the studio to record, and I traveled abroad and did the Montreux festival (in Switzerland). I did quite a bit, but felt that I’d pretty much got the lessons and it was time to do somethin’ else.
“Albert and I had a real great relationship, but I gave him my notice, and he gave me his blessings. He was truly like a godfather to me.”
The two men kept in close touch until King passed in 1992, often appearing unannounced at each other’s shows whenever they had the chance. “Whenever he popped in to one of my gigs, it made my whole night,” Kinsey says.
Now out of Albert’s orbit on a daily basis, Donald hooked up with brother Ralph — who’s one year his senior and had just separated from the Air Force — to form a blues-rock band they named White Lightnin’. The lineup also included bass player Michael “Buster” Jones, who’d immigrated to England after playing alongside Kinsey in the King band for a year.
Their rise was both meteoric and tragic – and a good lesson for anyone with dreams of a music career, too.
“The three of us came together and started writin’ some new material,” Donald remembers. “We made a cassette, which was the thing at the time, and saved a l’il taste of money – and jumped on the Amtrak and went to New York, lookin’ for a deal. We was determined and believed in what we were doin’.
“You gotta have that attitude or you don’t stand a chance. And we were blessed. After knockin’ on about four or five doors, man, one of ‘em let us in. And it was Island Records!”
Formed in Jamaica in 1959 by Chris Blackwell, Graeme Goodall and Leslie Kong and now a wing of the Universal Music Group, Island was one of the largest independent labels ever. Its roster included the Spencer Davis Group, Fairport Convention, King Crimson, Free, Cat Stevens and Traffic as well as best lineup of reggae artists imaginable.
“There definitely wasn’t no lookin’ back after that, man,” Kinsey says. “I definitely landed on a rollercoaster then, man.”
White Lightnin’ only put out one self-titled LP, which was laid down in Memphis at Sam Phillips Recording Studio and produced under the direction of Felix Pappalardi, who’d risen to fame as the bassist, songwriter and vocalist for the band Mountain in the ‘60s before launching a production career that included Cream’s Disraeli Gears and plenty more.
Before they knew what was happening, White Lightnin’ – which made a name for itself with big musical hooks and huge solos — was touring as the opening act for ZZ Top, Uriah Heap, Black Oak Arkansas and Aerosmith.
“Immediately, we was on William Morris booking agency,” Donald says, a little surprise still in his voice today. “We was flyin’ all over the place. We were movin’ so-o-o fast – but we was as green as green can be.
“We was developed in our craft as a musician, but never really had anyone there to direct us in the business of this thing. And the guy who opened the door for us, Gary Kurfirst, when we signed that contract, we signed him up as our manager, as our publisher.
“It was such a conflict of interest, man, but…
“The real sad thing about that is…instead of somebody seein’ you have a gift for the music, man, and helpin’ you, directin’ you in the right way, instead, they try to take advantage of everything you don’t know.”
Kurfirst, who’s now deceased, was lining his own pockets at the band’s expense – something that became evident as they hopped, skipped and jumped across the country and played in front of huge arena crowds. Their run came to a sudden, dramatic end when the band touched down in Santa Cruz, Calif., for a gig.
“This guy, Gary Kurfirst, met us at the airport – him and somebody else,” Donald recalls. “We came down into baggage claim, and this guy walks into the airport with a bi-i-ig watermelon in his arms, man, to greet us.
“Ralph and I looked at each other, man: What the hell is this dude…what’s with this… That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Not only were the Kinseys offended and shaken to the core by the offering, which in retrospect was an unstated, but still obvious expression of slavery and racism. In that moment, they finally came to terms with the conditions they’d been enduring for the previous 12 months.
“I said to my brother: ‘You know what, man? We’ve been goin’ through all this stuff and we don’t even have a dollar for a meal. All this money’s bein’ spent around us, but we ain’t seein’ nothin’.’
“It was time to get a lawyer – and time to do somethin’ else!”
Today, however, Kinsey still appreciates the positive aspects of the experience and notes that, years later, he encountered Kurfirst again in L.A. “He was at the pool, and I walked behind him and scared the shit out of him, man! He was shakin’ like a leaf on a tree. (laughs)
“But I told him: ‘The price I paid to learn from that experience, I don’t think it was all that bad, bro. But it really could have been a good thing if you had just not tried to take advantage of what we didn’t know.’”
Donald literally discovered reggae by chance because of his relationship with Island Records, an event that’s changed his life dramatically ever since.
He was walking down the hall in their offices one day when he noticed all the Bob Marley posters peering down at him from the walls. Curious, he picked up several Marley cassettes for a listen, and was instantly hooked. His sound, he quickly discovered, was somewhat similar to what Kinsey felt in gospel, but very different. The rhythm was refreshing, and the lyrics were packed with spiritual messages and a heightened sense of spiritual consciousness.
Donald subsequently met Bob, who was already a god in Jamaica, and on the verge of world fame, at a New York City press conference, but the meeting was fleeting.
That wasn’t the case with Peter Tosh, a founding member of The Wailers. Kinsey had befriended Tosh’s manager, Lee Jaffee, who insisted Donald accompany him when he stopped at Peter’s home.
Tosh was cooking a meal when they arrived and about to head to the studio where he was working on what would be his debut album. After breaking bread, he insisted that Kinsey join him and lay down cuts. The end result was Legalize It, the blockbuster LP that turned Peter into a star overnight and which is still getting airplay today.
“It was quite a shocker,” Donald says, “because I hadn’t really gotten my fingers wet with reggae yet. But reggae, to me, has a touch of country-and-western flavor – especially when you’re approaching it from a lead guitar standpoint.”
Kinsey toured with Tosh to promote the album for about a year before returning home to Indiana, where, out of the blue, he received a call from Marley and another invitation – this time to come to Criteria Studios in Miami to record what would become the album Rastaman Vibration, still one of the biggest selling reggae albums of all time and the vehicle that propelled Marley and his band into international sensations.
At that point in their career, The Wailers were going through a major transition. The original lineup emerged in the ‘60s, anchored by Marley on guitar, Junior Braithwaite on vocals, Tosh on keys and Neville Livingston – better known now as Bunny Wailer — on percussion. They were joined by multi-instrumentalist Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his percussionist brother Carlton – aka “Carly” – in the early ‘70s.
As the culture in Jamaica became more volatile, The Wailers transitioned from a band that played innocuous ska and reggae tunes to others, including “Get Up, Stand Up,” which delivered a political, counterculture message. They disbanded in 1974 after some members started believing that their continued participation would violate tenets of their Rastafarian faith. In essence, Bunny refused to play what he termed the “freak clubs” they were now booking as a result of their heightened popularity.
The Wailers reformed with Kinsey in the lineup, and Rastaman Vibration went on to earning them Rolling Stone magazine’s band-of-the-year honors. In Kingston, they were in the absolute eye of the hurricane of political strife that swirled around them.
Despite it all, Donald says, “I really feel blessed. I remember lookin’ into the mirror one day and wonderin’ ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ (laughs)
“I never witnessed anything like that in my life, man. Police walkin’ around with submachine guns, curfews and all that – just because of an election. I got involved in a time period, an era that was very important in these artists’ careers. I’m so thankful to have played on some of their recordings. I came around in a time when it (the music) really made a difference.”
And what a career it’s been in both the reggae and blues worlds.
Kinsey’s blues credits include Albert’s Blues at Sunset and Roadhouse Blues LPs, Roy Buchanan’s Dancing on the Edge and Hot Wires as well as multiple albums with his own family. In the reggae scene, he’s been featured on a handful of Marley releases, Peter’s extremely popular Live & Dangerous and Bush Doctor albums as well appearances with Mick Jagger, Burning Spear, Heavy Manners and others.
Probably the best part of it all, though, is that he finally got the approval from his grandmother that he’d been seeking for years. Like scores of other folks, she came to appreciate the spiritual quality inherent to the music he played.
Despite being an anthem for cultural change, it was much, much more.
As experts have come to understand, it’s the first example of the black culture reclaiming as their own the birthright they established during slavery. A combination of African rhythms and elements of blues, soul, jazz and country, reggae has proven to be a vehicle that, for the most part, conveys positivity and light.
“A lot of people don’t understand that,” Donald insists. “Some people still consider it to be a fad. Fortunately, almost every night, I have someone come up to me and tell me: ‘Man, you don’t know how your music changed my life…for the better.’
“For someone to tell you that, it makes you feel that what you’ve been doin’ is really worthwhile, ya know. Music that touches your soul…that energy can’t be beat. I’m just thankful that I do it, recognize it and I can share that.
“At a blues show…a reggae show, the spirit that comes on out from that music is so-o-o overwhelming, so full of emotion. It’s almost like bein’ at a revival. That’s the best way I can describe it.”
The music also changed his approach to blues, too.
“When I got introduced to reggae music,” he says, “it kinda broadened my vision and my whole attitude toward writing. I hadn’t been introduced in another direction (from blues) other than straight-ahead gospel. But when I ran into reggae music, there’s somethin’ there. It all comes from the same source.”
As Donald’s mindset changed, so too did his approach to songwriting. He no longer includes many of the common, deleterious themes that appear in the blues tradition.
“I’m comin’ with the truth,” he says, “and not writin’ music that will ‘kill my next-door neighbor’ or to ‘screw his old lady’ – I didn’t want to be a part of anything like that any longer. I didn’t want to write any songs like that or be a part of any straight-up negative lyrics.
“It helped me find myself as a writer – just tryin’ to be conscious of what my grandmother was always sayin’. It really helped me feel really good about myself. I was really happy when I crossed that path.
“That’s been my rock and my foundation ever since then. I’m not gonna have anything to do with any lyrical content, man, that’s full of real negative energy.”
It’s a message he conveys to anyone seeking him out for a recording session.
“I tell people that if you want me to do somethin’ with you, it’s gotta be enlightening and positive,” he says. “That’s it!”
Kinsey’s run with Marley ended abruptly shortly after being present in Bob’s home when six gunman stormed the residence two days before the free Smile Jamaica concert Marley had scheduled to help quell the violence raging in the streets as rival gangs raged war after choosing sides with the two top political parties prior to the 1976 Jamaican elections.
One gunman made it into the home, shot Marley in the upper arm and left his manager, Don Taylor, fighting for his life. The bullet was still lodged in Bob’s body when he died years later. But that pre-election show went off without a hitch.
Bob went into an extended period seclusion after the incident and stopped touring altogether. Donald hit the road with the Staple Singers for a while and toured with Tosh for three years while The Wailers were on a break. He didn’t see Marley again until 1979 when a Tosh tour ended in Southern California and Bob started what would become his lengthy, final world tour in the Bay Area.
Donald played The Wailers’ West Coast gigs and split, knowing inside that there was something seriously wrong with his band leader. Today, he remains deeply affected by Marley’s death, which came about after he developed melanoma between his toes. It metastasized throughout his body after he refused doctors’ insistent suggestions that he undergo an amputation of his foot to save his life.
“It was sad for me, man, when Bob got sick,” Kinsey recalls. “I felt so good when Rastaman Vibration hit the streets. I picked up a copy of Billboard magazine every stop we went and saw that (the song) ‘Roots, Rock, Reggae’ had hit the Hot 100 because it meant that reggae had become mainstream after bein’ underground for such a long time.”
In the decades that have followed, Donald has split his time between the blues and reggae worlds. When Big Daddy reformed The Kinsey Report in 1984, he rejoined the family, and has been a key member ever since. He also was very close to Arkansas-born bluesman Roy Buchanan, who was one of the most vastly overlooked guitarists of his generation.
With Donald in tow, Buchanan started drawing the attention he deserved after releasing two sensational CDs on the Alligator label. A deeply emotional man, however, he committed suicide in a jail cell in Virginia in 1987 after being arrested for public intoxication.
For the greater part of this year, however, Kinsey has been reliving a part of his youth, touring the planet with the current incarnation of The Wailers. It’s normally led by Family Man, but he’s currently in rehab, recovering from a stroke.
The band’s currently crisscrossing the U.S. after extensive work overseas with a lineup that includes keyboard player Tyrone Downing, Donald’s bandmate when he joined Marley, as well as Fam’s talented son Aston Jr. on percussion and his American-born cousin Josh Barrett on vocals. A talented group of newcomers round out the lineup to help pass the torch to a new generation.
“We just finished doing a recording with Emilio Estevan,” Kinsey says proudly. “He’s totally behind the band and into producing the next Wailers album, which should be hittin’ the streets sometime around the New Year.”
The Kinsey Report hasn’t done much lately, but fear not, Donald says. They’ll be back better than ever. “It’s sad to say, but it’s a cycle, man, and we’ve been there before. It gets slow, and then, all of a sudden, it gets some more juice in the arm and BAM! Here we are again! We’re still in the game!”
To that end, Donald is working on a new Kinsey release, which is long overdue. And he’s also involved in a solo album as well as book and film documentary projects.
“There’ll be some news,” he assures fans. “You’ll be hearin’ about it.”
After six decades in the music business, Kinsey says, there are certain rules he follows – guidelines that also serve as solid advice for anyone trying to get in the game: “Be honest with yourself. Always challenge yourself. Don’t be satisfied. If you get to the point where you’re satisfied, things are pretty much over.
“I always put myself in a challenging position. And you have to keep doin’ that, man, to keep yourself goin’. You can’t give up. And the most important thing: Do what you love. If you don’t love this thing, don’t get in it – because the sacrifice is so deep, you have to question yourself.
“But it can be so rewarding. And most of all, that feelin’ you get when you play…everything you do, you’re workin’ for that moment when you hit the stage, where you can express yourself, release yourself. That’s the moment for me!
“If you don’t love that, you’re in the wrong business!”
There’s no question Donald loves what he’s doing. Check out where he’s appearing next by visiting the Donald Kinsey fan page on Facebook or by visiting www.thewailers.net