Night has already fallen on October 28, 1990, when 60-year-old David "Junior" Kimbrough sits down to play guitar for the regulars at his juke joint in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Behind him is his drummer Calvin Jackson. To his right is Little Joe Ayers, his electric bass player. He looks at the crowd and then past them. His mouth is open and he looks lost, even though he owns the place in every sense of the word. Within a few months he will have a stroke. In a year he will record his first album. In time, his son and musical heir, David Kimbrough, will be imprisoned. He will be awarded a $5000 Gibson Les Paul guitar, his most prized possession. In seven years, he will die of heart failure. But right now, Junior knows none of this; he's just getting ready to play guitar.
As he begins to play, he moves his head as if he is receiving radio transmissions from deep space. He says that his songs come to him in his dreams, and listening to him play them, you can believe it. The bassist and drummer tighten up behind him, so that everybody can dance. Over their muscular, repetitive rhythm, Junior's electric guitar floats and bounces, moving at about half the speed of his rhythm section, but guiding it through his songs just the same.
His solos almost always use the same groups of notes, but they never cease to beguile the dancers. He watches them move, then turns to watch his bass player, his drummer, then back to the bass player again. He wears an expression that is delighted and perplexed, as though he has never seen a guitar before, but inexplicably knows how to play one.
The late Robert Palmer, a New York Times journalist and university instructor, produced Kimbrough's first two albums, All Night Long (1992) and Sad Days, Lonely Nights (1994). In the liner notes to All Night Long, Palmer said that "you'll hear (Junior) sing something that sounds like a pre-blues field holler while he's playing a guitar rhythm like Memphis soul music, and when the bass and drums come in on one of Junior's riffs, the music might sound like some kind of hillbilly-metal-funk that hasn't been heard yet - except around Junior's place."
"Junior's place" was an institution in the hill country of Northern Mississippi. Originally, it was his house. Kimbrough and his band, the Soul Blues Boys, would rehearse on Sunday afternoons and people just began showing up. "The people there seemed to be the disinherited, the poor, and sometimes wayward individuals looking to ease their pain from the pressures of everyday life," said Sylvester Oliver, a professor at Mississippi's Rust College. "There was a natural tendency of these people to divest themselves of phoniness and pretentiousness and let it all hang out, so to speak. There were usually more people outside engaging in merrymaking, who never entered the house and were content to listen from afar." Kimbrough's house has since burned down.
In the '70s Junior's place became a small wooden shack in the hills. In the early '90s, his reputation began to grow, first with his appearance in the documentary Deep Blues (1990) and then with the release of All Night Long, which received 4 out of 5 stars in Rolling Stone. Prior to recording All Night Long, Kimbrough moved his juke joint to an abandoned church, and there, his reputation was really made.
The band would set up in a corner of the church (there was no stage) so the dancers could have the floor. The building was decorated with surreal murals and knick-knacks, probably the closest anyone would ever get to a visual representation of Junior's mind and the subconscious that played music for him in his dreams. On the walls were homemade paintings, the products of a rural black culture. On one wall there's a painting of Oprah Winfrey as an African princess. It's bright reds and yellows make it look as if it might have been painted by Van Gogh after he mastered the velvet Elvis technique. Another painting shows a horse as it rears up and paws the air beneath a desert sun. In other paintings, African American women hold babies and bottles of perfume. A landscape shows black children running through deserts and across mountains. Grandest of all is the seascape that stretches out behind Kimbrough and his band. In the mural, alien beaches and uncharted islands frame a churning sea, and it's difficult to tell from the sky above whether it's day or night. This was where Junior held court, "his university" as Sylvester Oliver called it. Supposedly, members of the Rolling Stones once visited the place and sat in with the band. Although Junior was too nice to ever kick anyone off his "stage," the crowd apparently booed them off because they couldn't "swing the music."
"It was the only place (in the area) where it didn't matter if you were black or white," said one of the white regulars at Junior's place. "There was no tension at all."
This was the place that Kimbrough was running when he died at 67. He was with Mildred Washington, his companion of 30 years and mother to some of his 36 children, sitting on her couch and watching TV when his heart failed him.
"Junior Kimbrough still kept a one-room bachelor's apartment at the time of his death," read the liner notes from God Knows I Tried, his fifth album. "(The apartment was) immaculately clean, with nothing whatsoever on the walls or tables, no pictures, no tour posters, nothing."
Recently, his juke joint burned down, as did the houses of his bass player, Gary Burnside, and drummer, Kent Kimbrough. This adds to the mystery of the man, something Kimbrough never discouraged. He once told a story about Eli Green, a local blues musician who had a profound influence on Kimbrough. Green was a firm believer in voodoo and allegedly could throw a pack of cards in the air so that they all stuck on the ceiling. Once the cards were in place, Green could call out the name of a card, and that card would fall to the ground. Kimbrough's talent was equally inexplicable and, like the seemingly random array of images in his juke joint, seems to have no precedent. But his music is still the best bet for finding out what Kimbrough was all about.
His lyrics are simple, mostly about love and sex, drenching with an eroticism that manages to be deeply intimate without being self-conscious. He sang about what he knew, and after fathering 36 children by multiple partners, he knew sex pretty well. His music is not terribly dynamic either, although it is immensely complex. His songs are rarely built out of more than one chord (they are meant for dancing and have a deliberately hypnotic quality) but their rhythmic subtletly and freshness of vision are overwhelming. Kimbrough weaves in and out of key, layering his stock melodic phrases on top of the already dense rhythmic layers put down by the other two members of the band. Solos and vocal breaks alternate regularly, phasing past and into one another (a distinctly African musical technique) so that the listener can't remember how the song began and when it ends, the effect is often shattering. Junior's voice, high and plaintive, drips with soul and emotion.
When he spoke, which he did not do often, he was quiet and "dreamy" as one of his ex-sidemen put it. When he saw something amusing, like two of his women arguing for instance, he chuckled quietly to himself. He was fond of flipping his middle finger at people for no reason. There is video footage of him throwing a cigarette off the stage of a local blues festival. He does it with a long, slow gesture and when he finally releases the spent butt, he wears an angry expression, like he's casting out a demon.
Junior Kimbrough existed in a self-made bubble. His music seemed to rise from the dust or descend from the clouds. It existed without any help from anybody, and now that Junior's gone, it can't be explained. There was no reason for Junior Kimbrough: he came, baffled the world, and left it before anyone could catch on. Charlie Feathers, a recording artist and contemporary of Kimbrough's who was deeply influenced by his unique style, called Junior "the beginning and end of all music." This is perhaps the best way to describe a man whose songs were too small for more than one chord, but big enough to put his world inside.
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