Smoke and Steel

Don't let these guys' smiles fool you. Their sound can be as tough as a shift in a Gary steel mill.

There's a certain truism that every fifth-grader knows: If you have talent and work hard, you'll be a great success in your chosen field. But just like other myths (Washington chopped down a cherry tree, the Civil War was about only slavery, J. Edgar Hoover wore nothing but business suits), in later years we find it's not necessarily true. Otherwise, the Kinsey Report would be playing larger venues and their songs would be all over the radio.

Perhaps the country's most feloniously underrated blues, rock and reggae outfit, the Kinsey Report, consisting of brothers Donald (vocals/guitar), Ralph (drums) and Kenneth (bass) Kinsey, has performed under that name since 1984. But their musical experience stretches back much farther, and it's filled with an array of interesting side trips that have shaped the brothers into the indefatigable road band they are today.

"Gigging is the name of the game for us. That's what we're about," says Ralph, the eldest. "The bottom line is that the music is the sanctuary. When we get on stage and work with each other and get into the music, all that other stuff just fades away."

The Kinsey brothers have certainly had plenty of time to practice together; it was almost preordained they'd go into the family business. Their father, who passed away last year, was Lester "Big Daddy" Kinsey, one of the most popular bluesmen in Chicago and the family's tough hometown of Gary, Indiana.

His two oldest boys received their first instruments around the age of five. By the late '60s, Donald, in particular, had become something of a prodigy, performing with his father under the dubious name of B.B. King Jr. Ralph and Donald both toured with their dad through the early '70s. They were still in their teens.

"I missed out on normal high school things. I didn't go to proms or anything like that. We were always doing things with older people on the road," Ralph says, chuckling. "But on the other hand, there were a lot of older girls too…It was really interesting." The Kinseys also got the chance to play and socialize with giants like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Albert King, leaving Ralph with no regrets.

Reflecting on what he learned from his father about both music and life in those early years, Ralph sees no point in separating the two. "He wanted us to really respect the music and the history and the potential of the blues. He also wanted us to be good, respectable men and representatives of what we do. For us, the two things have always been one."

For the next decade, the brothers went through different phases: Ralph joined the air force. Donald played with Albert King before moving to Jamaica and hooking up with Peter Tosh and later Bob Marley.

Their orbits realigned in 1975 when Ralph and Donald made up two-thirds of the ironically named power-rock trio White Lightnin', which recorded one album for the Island label at Sun Studios in Memphis. "They were trying to make us the black Cream, but I guess people weren't ready for it yet!" Ralph laughs, though the band's subsequent tour inspired his most lasting memory of Houston. "We played Liberty Hall, opening for Alvin Lee and Ten Years After and Aerosmith. Aerosmith! We were all just fresh guys then, man."

The modern Kinsey Report came together in 1984 with youngest brother Kenneth on bass and family friend Ron Prince on rhythm guitar. After backing their father on his debut, Bad Situation, the four recorded a pair of critically (if not commercially) successful records on their own. Edge of the City and Midnight Drive showcased fiery, intense songs led by Donald's impassioned vocals.

The band then left Alligator for Pointblank and released two records, Powerhouse and Crossing Bridges,that took them into a harder rock sound à la Living Colour or Mother's Finest. Neither one caused much of a stir; by then the short-lived, media-hyped "black rock" phase had already petered out. Of course, many artists bid good riddance to the term they considered oxymoronic given the contributions of blacks to the formation of rock music.

"What is Lenny Kravitz doing that Living Colour wasn't? But you don't hear them call Lenny black rock," Ralph muses.

The side trip obviously did the band good. After re-signing with Alligator, the band released Smoke and Steel in 1998. Their best record yet was a perfect synthesis of rock and blues, of party tunes and socially conscious tracks. It should have been a big hit. Why it wasn't -- and why there hasn't been a Kinsey Report record since -- is a bone of contention between the band and the label.

Ralph is hesitant to lock jaws with the Gator. "We have a lot of tracks completed, [more than] enough good ones for a record. They're ready to go, but…but we're in limbo right now with Alligator. They have a certain sound they want us to be," he says. "But it's 2002, and we'd like to do a lot of different things. We'd like to have more reggae -- I mean, we do it live."

And while Ralph gives Alligator a lot of credit for the band's development, he feels that more could be done on the publicity end. The label, he says, works a record for a short time and, if it's not an immediate hit, moves right on to the next act.

So until something happens, the Kinsey Report will continue to bash it out where it feels most comfortable: on the road. Fleshing out the trio of brothers on this trip is guitarist Nick Byrd, whom Ralph jokingly calls "another white guy guitarist" before giving him kudos for his keen awareness of R&B and funk's finer points. "He has a good handle of rhythm from the black side, if you know what I'm saying," he laughs.

Ironically, given the amount of time he's been on the road, Ralph says that parental involvement is the remedy for a lot of the social ills that the brothers not only sing about but see day to day. "I have a daughter who's going to be a teacher, and she told me that kids four and five years old already have such a despairing outlook on life," he says, noting that when he grew up, he was lucky enough to have an intact family support system. "Kids today don't have that real sense of stability, things like home love and community activities after school. And I'm glad I had a father around to put me in line when I needed to get into line. At a certain age, kids -- especially boys -- need someone to say, 'I know you're coming into your adulthood, but take your time!' "

Ralph Kinsey says he never went into music for fame and fortune, and that is perhaps a good thing. Despite considerable talent, experience and an unfaltering passion for the music, he and his brothers have yet to receive either. But they certainly made Big Daddy proud of them anyway.

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