Article contributed by Sean McCarthy.
When he sangs, Willie Kent’s voice blazed out from the heart of the blues.
Below the singing, his bass guitar, flawless and rich.
Between these two runs the music, a deep, honest blues that flowed from rural Mississippi to urban Chicago and remembers everything it learned along the way.
His family moved to Shelby, Mississippi soon after he was born and Willie never knew his father.
Willie says, "I used to want a father so bad. If I could have ordered one out of a book, I would have."
The blues ran all through his childhood while he worked hard (enlisted to pick cotton at the age of six) on his mother's sharecrop farm.
However his first experience singing came in church, where he went "all the time" with his mother and brother.
“My mother she didn’t drink, she didn’t smoke, she didn’t do nothing but go to church. We sang in the choir. So that’s where it came from” Willie told the Chicago Tribune in 2002.
"Blues and gospel come from the same place. They're both from the heart."
But the blues always called to him.
Dewitt Munson, a neighbour wending homeward late at night with a guitar in his hand and a bottle in his pocket, would stop a while at the Kent porch to rest, letting the young Willie hold his guitar while he told stories.
“He’d sing ‘Big Leg Mama Turn Your Damper Down’ and that would sound sooo good to me, just beautiful, and what a tone out in that still country night air.”
The radio station KFFA’s famous "King Biscuit Time" broadcast served as Willie's introduction to formative influences, and he basked in the sounds of Arthur Crudup, Sonny Boy Williamson, and especially Robert Nighthawk and John Lee Hooker.
“When I heard John Lee Hooker do ‘Boogie Chillen’ I thought – This is IT! It was the baddest thing I ever heard.”
By the time he was eleven, he was regularly slipping out to the Harlem Inn on Highway 61 to hear it all live: Raymond Hill, Jackie Brenston, Howlin’ Wolf, Clayton Love, Ike Turner, Little Milton.
Willie (unjustly sent to the county prison work farm) left home at the age of thirteen for Memphis.
“I had eighteen months of hard labor. I was a kid when I went in.
When I can out at fourteen, I was just as grown as I am now, mind-wise. Strength-wise I was probably a better man. I learned a lot from bein’ there.”
It was in Memphis that he first saw B.B. King and others perform on Beale Street.
After a brief tenure at a Florida gas station, during which time he saw Roscoe Gordon perform, he arrived in the windy city in 1952 (the shining height of Chicago's golden age of urban blues), and was living in Chicago as a self-sufficient young man, lying about his age so he could earn a living.
He was working all day (landing a job plating, buffing and polishing side legs for tables) and listening to music all night where he would plunge into the smoky bars and clubs, training his own receptive ear with the live sounds of Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buster Benton, and J.B. Lenoir.
One of his co-workers was cousin to James, and Willie (still underage) took to following that famous bluesman from club to club, absorbing his music.
“I was working with some of his relatives; I think it was a cousin of his. And the guy said he know him. I didn’t believe him, because Elmore was an idol of mine. When we got home that evening, who was there but Elmore? Oh, man, that did it for me. So that weekend, he was playing over at Sylvio’s. So I got with them and went in.”
His love for the blues led him further and further into it and each weekend he’d go out looking for blues music, soaking in the sounds and learning the rules.
“You played a little of everything that was on the ’box,” Willie said in June 1999. “If it was hot, you played it.”
He bought himself a guitar, and in 1959 through guitarist friend Willie Hudson, linked up with the band Ralph and the Red Tops, acting as driver and manager and sometimes joining them onstage to sing.
He made a deal with Hudson, letting him use the new guitar in trade for lessons on how to play it.
With Ralph Rainey in the Red Tops were Bob and John Stroger and Hudson’s brother Banks.
One night’s show was decisive: Banks (the band’s bass player) showed up too drunk to play, and because Willie had already spent the $50 deposit the club had given the band, it meant they couldn’t back out of the gig; so Willie made his debut as a bass player, on the spot.
“I could play but couldn’t play and sing at the same time. My timing was bad. But I’d already got the money so I had to play. I booked a job for Hudson and Shorty Stallworth. The job paid good money for those days, about $250, of which I got a $50 deposit, which I spent! The night of the job, the place was packed and the bass player was drunk! The owner came up to me, he was mad! He asked what I was going to do, I had no choice, I had spent the money, so I had to play. I managed to hustle my way through that night and have been playing bass ever since!”
Soon, Willie was the bands regular bass player and he never picked up the guitar again.
He never looked back.
From that point on, his credits as a musician read like a "Who’s Who" of Chicago blues.
Willie was a self taught bass player.
When asked why he stuck with the bass Willie replied “I went to every time I turned around I was ending up playing the bass. Other people would come and get me to play the bass. People was always needing a bass player, see there were lots of guitar players already. And besides I had the equipment too. I had gone out and bought and old Kay bass.”
“It wasn’t so much the bass playing it was the person that was signing that I liked. I had a day job and a family. I had to pick up bass playing on my own. I didn’t have a music teacher like some other guys had.”
Willie developed into one of the few bassists to front his own band.
It is no easy task to simultaneously lay down a sinuous groove and relay a convincing lyric.
“A bass player, if he sings, he’s got to keep going all the time. He can’t stop. At first when I started, I could sing, but I couldn’t play and sign. If I played, I couldn’t sing, and if I sang I couldn’t play. It’s a lot different from playing a guitar, because if you are playing a guitar you can hold a chord or you can talk some, and the rhythm section will keep going. Nobody expects the bassman to be out front. Everybody thinks the out-front person has got to be anything but a bassman. Anything but him. It’s hard to stay right there and pick up recognition.”
After the Red Tops, Willie played bass with several bands around the city and stopped in often for Kansas City Red’s renowned "Blue Monday" parties.
“I would be on my way to work and I would stop in. I was gonna get me a beer and just listen at the one song. And I ended up not goin’. Matter of fact I lost a job like that there.”
Willie was increasingly serious about his music and formed a group with guitarists Joe Harper and Joe Spells and singer Little Wolf.
By 1961, he was playing bass behind Little Walter, an association that brought more depth to his music and more contact with the business world.
Little Walter was a genius on the harmonica but a volatile personality onstage and off.
One night in the early ‘60’s Willie got a call from a friend, J.L. Smith, who was working with Little Walter at the time.
Once again the bass player was drunk and Willie was pressed into service.
“When I played with him, I only knew one song – but I had good equipment!” laughs Willie.
“I got there and told Little Walter I only knew one bass line, the Jimmy Reed bass line. Walter looked at me and said that’s okay boy, just play it fast, then play it slow. Man, I got there and I didn’t know no keys or nothing. I’d have to slide down the neck to find where he was playing the harp at. That first night, man, I was scared to death. After that, I thought I knowed everything!’
Willie kept on playing bass and soon began getting more and more calls to play.
By the mid-60’s Kent was renowned as much for his talent as for his professionalism, a rare commodity in the blues world, and he was sitting in with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Junior Parker.
It was with Wolf that Willie picked up what being a bandleader was all about.
“You have to lean to be a bandleader. Mainly from working. No matter what job, you don’t go to work to teach the man how to do what he wants done. You learn to do it his way. In a band if you don’t play what the man who hired you wants then you are no good to him. No matter how good you are. If you want to work you play for him. Once you learn how to do that then you can be a leader. Wolf said one time that people felt he was hard on the people that worked for him but it was that he didn’t have nothing but his name. He didn’t have a lot of money, all he had was his name and if you messed up his music you messed up his name.”
Toward the end of the 60’s, he joined Arthur Stallworth and the Chicago Playboys as their bass player, and worked briefly with Hip Linkchain.
He joined Jimmy Dawkins on his 1971 European tour, but when they returned to the States their paths diverged.
Dawkins wanted to keep touring and turned over his regular gig at Ma Bea’s Lounge to Willie, who wanted to stay in Chicago and Willie settled in as the longstanding leader of the house band at the lounge on Madison Avenue.
For the next six years, the house band was known as Sugar Bear and the Beehives, headed by Willie (the Sugar Bear himself) with guitarist Willie James Lyons and drummer Robert Plunkett.
The unusual name was Willie’s whimsical response to the fierce competition among Chicago’s west side musicians.
“I came up with Sugar Bear because bears usually like honey, right? And if you mess with bees you’re gonna get stung. Most of the guys, if they come around and was talking about cutting heads, they was gonna get stung!”
The band backed a virtual Who’s Who of the blues world that included Magic Sam, Hip Linkchain, Luther ‘Guitar Jr.’ Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Dawkins, Jo Harrington, Mighty Joe Young, Jimmy Johnson, Carey Bell, Buster Benton, Johnny Littlejohn, Fenton Robinson, Eddie ‘The Chief’ Clearwater, Johnny ‘Big Moose’ Walker, B.B. Jones, and Jerry Wells and Casey Jones.
Ma Bea's would serve as the setting for Willie's debut LP.
In 1975 he cut his first album there with fellow bluesman Willie James Lyons, the live release Ghetto, and it remained his home for over six years.
After Ma Bea’s closed Willie and his band moved on to Nate’s Neck Tie Lounge and were the house band there until the owner, Iron Jaw Davis, was murdered.
It was then onto Mary’s Lounge where Willie had played occasionally with Eddie ‘Playboy’ Taylor’s blues band and their comfortable, polished style suited his own.
In 1981 he toured Japan with Carey Bell and Johnny Littlejohn.
His relationship with Eddie Taylor was both a solid friendship and a warm musical partnership (evidenced in Eddie Taylor’s fine recording Bad Boy on Wolf Records) and in 1982 became a regular member of the band.
He continued playing with them until Taylor's death in 1985.
After the death of Eddie Taylor, Willie devoted his energies to his own band, Willie Kent and the Gents, with Willie on bass and vocals, Tim Taylor on drums, and Jesse Williams and Johnny B. Moore on guitar.
And The Gents endured... the rich ensemble sound he forged with them made Willie Kent and the Gents a popular, constant presence in Chicago blues clubs for more than twenty years.
As a group they created an electrified and electrifying body of music that would go on to influence not only groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and Fleetwood Mac, but also created the bedrock upon which the foundations of modern rock music were built.
After a series of heart ailments forced Willie to undergo triple bypass surgery in 1989, he spent his recovery examining his life and career, finally abandoning his long time trucking gig in favour of pursuing music full-time.
It was then that he really hit his stride as the impressive and influential leader of Willie Kent and the Gents, playing the blues that kept its authentic Mississippi Delta edge.
“So many people now are playing so much funk, it doesn’t sound like the blues” Willie would later complain.
I'm What You Need, was released in 1989 on the Big Boy label (his first solo LP in 14 years), and proved the first in a flurry of releases that next included his Delmark debut, Ain't It Nice, which earned the Library of Congress Award for Best Folk/Blues Album of 1991.
Willie also signed to the Austrian label Wolf for a pair of LPs, 1991's King of Chicago's West Side Blues and Live at B.L.U.E.S. in Chicago.
With so many new records to his credit, it was inevitable that Willie finally earned the attention of blues fans and critics across the globe, and in 1995, he won the W.C. Handy Award for Best Blues Instrumentalist, Bass.
Two years later, he earned the award again, and went on to claim the prize in nine consecutive years.
Over the years, the composition of the group shifted as musicians joined or moved on, but the music remained as clear, powerful and steady as the bass line that held it true: a pure Chicago West Side blues.
The Gents championed the classic Delta 12-bar tradition, emerging as a favourite of blues purists at home and abroad.
On his beat-up Fender 1958 Precision (strung with nylon-wounds and played through a Peavey guitar head and Ampeg B-15 cabinet) Willie employed a supple double-thumbing technique he developed after a serious hand injury.
“It’s a smooth down-up motion, kind of like a rocking chair,” Willie explained.
The bass itself is worn down through the layers of red paint, where his forearm has polished it down in over 40 years of vigorous playing.
“I got that bass about 1960 or somethin’ like that,” says Willie. “Now I had another one that got stole from me. But I been playin’ that one for years, and I won’t get rid of it.”
In his later years Willie also played a Lakland Duck Dunn special edition bass.
In early 2005, Kent was diagnosed with cancer, but continued his busy live schedule in spite of chemotherapy treatments.
“I just keep playin’ what I enjoy, what the people want to hear,” he said in 1999. “It’s nice to do other things, but it’s also nice to please others.”
A distinctive and solid bass player and a powerful vocalist, Willie was always in demand and became a familiar face to those who frequented Chicago’s many blues clubs.
A natural teacher, his professionalism and generosity helped many younger musicians start their own careers.
In an article that appeared in Living Blues magazine (no.108 – April 1993) Willie said “In order to be a good bandleader, you gotta be a good follower. If you don’t learn how to follow, you cannot lead. With different musicians you have to handle ‘em different. You have to handle ‘em very careful. You have to ‘em how important it is to make yourself look good and try to do your best at all times. When they do somethin’ and you know they did it right, you got to tell ‘em.”
“You pay what you can pay and you help ‘em when you can help ‘em – if they want help. If you try and help ‘em and they refuse help, ain’t nothin’ you can do about that. I just try to treat everybody the same way I want to be treated ‘cause I was a sideman so long myself. I don’t believe in hustlin’ all the money myself. I like to pay a person for what they do and for what they are worth. When you be together as much as when you’re in a band – when you’re workin’ steady, 90% of your time is spent with the band – then you become more than just people who work together. You become friends. You care about one another. And I try to keep it that way but some time it’s hard to do because people don’t accept the fact that you’re tying to help them. They think ‘I can do anything I want ‘cause he needs me’. Well, you might need that person, but if that person don’t work right, it’s just like a part of your car, you got to replace him. It’ll take a while for the band to get to where it was but it’ll eventually get there.”
“I like being on time. I like goin’ to work, checkin’ the instruments out, tunin’ it up. When the time comes to go to work, you can go to the band stand and you can go to work. You can’t play drunk. You think you can but you can’t. When you’ve had too much, it takes away. You might not see it then, but you can see it. You can see it yourself.”
“If you put in your 100%, you don’t have to worry because ain’t nothin’ else you can do anyway. For a small crowd, you supposed to be able to put out just as much as you would with a big crowd. And you really work harder for a smaller crowd.”
His name appears in the credits of countless recordings as he lent his bass lines to both new musicians and old friends.
Under his own name, he released twelve major recordings over a span of thirty years.
His recorded works attracted a long stream of honours: from the Library of Congress, from the City of Chicago, and from blues magazines in both North America and Europe.
His blazing, passionate vocals caught the ears and hearts of blues fans throughout the world; but it was his distinctive bass playing that would earn him formal recognition as a truly great artist in the blues world.
In addition to repeated "Critic's Choice" awards from the international blues press, he received the prestigious W. C. Handy Award for Best Blues Instrumentalist - Bass not once, but ten times.
Those honours have been capped by two Lifetime Achievement awards, the most recent of which was presented in November 2005.
By the end of his life, Willie Kent was well-known and respected in the blues world, but getting there wasn’t easy.
His discography bears witness: before 1989, there were just two recordings to his credit; in the years since, he had ten releases under his own name, recorded behind many other blues artists, and appeared in countless blues compilations.
Despite being a non-smoker, Willie lost his battle with cancer on March 2, 2006 just a week past his 70th birthday.
At that time he was survived by his wife Ruth; by nine children, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and by a brother, Walter, of New York.