This past Thursday March 2, 2006, legendary bluesman Willie Kent passed away after a long battle with cancer.
Willie Kent was one of my favorite performers. The first time that I saw him was at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted in the mid 80's. He was working with Eddie Taylor. Since that time, I had seen him perform countless times in and out of Chicago.
1991 saw the release of his first record on a major label. Delmark Records released Ain't It Nice to a great deal of critical acclaim. The album won the Library of Congress Award for the Best Folk/Blues Album of 1991. It featured a cast of great Chicago-area musicians. It's an awesome recording that demonstrated that the deep Chicago Blues was still live and flourishing.
I always felt that he was one of the few practitioners of a trade that seems to be disappearing. Willie Kent was a real deal bluesman. He wrote excellent songs and he was a fabulous old school singer in the tradition of Muddy Waters. His blues were deep and they told a story.
Willie made the trek from Chicago to the Bay Area a few times in the mid 1990's. He performed at the now defunct, Blues on B in San Mateo. His bands were schooled in the classic Chicago Blues mold dipping into material from the kings of the South and West Side styles. Those performances were like finding a rare jewel. I think that I attended every one of them.
While he was out here, he did an interview which appeared on public television in San Mateo. He spoke a great deal about his life and the struggles that he faced as a very dark skinned black man. In a
magazine interview, he spoke felt that people steered clear of him because of his skin tone. It was their loss. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with him on more than one occasion. He was one of the nicest guys that you would ever meet.
When I made annual trips back to Chicago, seeing Willie Kent perform was always at the top of the list. He was simply that good.
One time, I was visiting my family in suburban Chicago in 1999. There was a small festival going on called the Taste of Westmont. Westmont is a nothing happening town. It's claim to fame was that Muddy Waters, Eddy Clearwater and Larry "Big Twist" Nolan lived there.
The festival had a day dedicated to Blues and the memory of Muddy Waters. The lineup was: Johnnie B Moore, James Wheeler, Lester "Mad Dog" Davenport, Little Smokey Smothers, Bonnie Lee, Pat Scott and Pinetop Perkins. Willie Kent and his band backed all of these guys with a short break which was filled by the Lonnie Brooks Blues Band. It was a free, small, little unadvertised Blues Festival that put most festivals to shame. Willie Kent and Baldhead Pete were the ironmen of the day. They played almost continuously for four hours in the street on a hot, humid and sunny summer day.
The last time that I saw him was in the winter of 1999. It was freezing cold in Chicago. I had been searching for a copy of his CD entitled Everybody Needs Somebody. I asked him if he had a copy for sale. He said that he was out. A few minutes later, he mentioned that he might have one in his van. We walked a couple of blocks in the freezing cold night and he sold me his last copy of the CD. I was pretty impressed that he was willing to go to that trouble for a fan and a $15 CD sale. The next day, I returned to California.
Throughout his career, he appeared on over 45 recordings as a featured artist or as a sideman. He was a great performer, an excellent musician and a really nice person.