Not nearly enough people got the chance (or took the time) to listen to the music Kevin Junior made during his short lifetime, which ended one year ago today at age 46. But there’s a good chance that most of those who did have never forgotten what they heard. And hear still.
Today we’re remembering the gifted singer-songwriter and the gifts he brought, and left, as a relatively brief but brilliant body of work. The Akron, Ohio native had fronted both the Mystery Girls and the Rosehips during the late 1980s and early 1990s before finding and forming The Chamber Strings, the Chicago-based band that would cement his legacy as a striking, even luminous, talent. I say luminous because Junior’s music with The Chamber Strings glowed.
When I saw them at a tiny club called T.T. The Bear’s Place in Cambridge, Massachusetts on a snowy, non-packed night around 1999, they were as terrific as I thought any band would have to be if it was capable of making a stunner like “Gospel Morning.” released earlier that year. They had a confluence of stylistic impulses working for them that maybe shouldn’t have, springing like soft spikes from Kevin’s eggbeater-framed cranium.
An abiding adoration of Brill Building Pop (and songwriting teams like Goffin-King and Barry-Greenwich) mingled freely and easily, for instance, with the soft country soul of Arthur Alexander and the cracked aristocracy of the late artists Epic Soundtracks (ex-Swell Maps) and Nikki Sudden (Junior collaborated with both brothers — yes, they were siblings — including backing Sudden on the latter’s superb “Red Brocade” album).
Elsewhere, there were sumptuous echoes of ‘Odessey & Oracle’-era Zombies and “Sister Lovers”-period Alex Chilton, reverberating through brocade-wallpapered hallways also haunted by the disheveled dandy splendor of the Faces and T. Rex. The fact that Kevin was skinny as a rail and looked for all the world like he was born into the rock & roll life — he could have passed as the son of Ronnie Wood and Johnny Thunders — was a fortuitous stroke of the DNA he’d been dealt. His intuitive knack for songs, writing them and picking them, was another.
I knew it was always an uphill climb for Kevin, getting his music to people directly who were disinclined to take a chance, driving a crappy van hundreds of miles a day to play a show, maybe sell a few CDs and do it all over again another night in another town.
But that night, like a true rock star, he “dressed for dinner,” a phrase Faces’ keyboardist Ian McLagan once used to describe the necessity of showmanship: putting on your finery, getting out there, giving it your all, and entertaining a paying public who made the effort to see and hear you. Junior and his band delivered the goods that evening with panache and professionalism.
My first thought when I saw him up there — no doubt he had just loaded in his gear after an all-day drive from somewhere where they didn’t appreciate him nearly as much as they should have — was: Damn, I wish I could pull off a rooster-cut Faces shag and crimson crushed velour blazer like Kevin. (But I’d need to be about four inches taller and 40 pounds lighter).
Having been knocked to my knees first by the sheer standout beauty of “Gospel Morning,” and then impressed by his strong, self-possessed performance, I lingered after Junior’s show. I introduced myself and told him how much I loved his work, his sound. He was friendly and upbeat if soft-spoken. I bought him a round or two at the bar, and then picked up a couple of CDs I wanted to give to friends, and the LP version of the album for myself. I handed him some bills at the merch table.”Gas money,” he said with a wry grin. Ah yes, the glitz and glamour of real rock & roll.
Early 2001 brought The Chamber Strings’ follow-up album, “Month Of Sundays.” The record marked a dramatic leap forward in terms of expanding the Strings’ sonic palette, utilizing a new brass section with velvet-gloved assistance from Pernice Brothers’ producer Thom Monahan. It was beautiful and lavish and inspired, with Kevin’s sublime songwriting again front and center. Naturally, it didn’t make a commercial dent in the larger rock landscape.
Not long after, Kevin Junior all but disappeared from view. No music. No shows. Rumors swirled that he had been lost to heroin addiction. At some point later, a musician friend of mine, also from Junior’s neck of the woods in Chicago, had been in email contact with Kevin. My friend feared that Junior seemed to be in rough shape, emotionally and physically. Our hearts would inevitably sink when we’d talk about it, usually through the lush melodies of “Gospel Morning” or “Month Of Sundays” floating through the air, like the vapor trails of another time.
Then, like a flicker of momentary light, there’d be some fleeting missive from the mist — a vaguely encouraging message from Kevin to my friend about doing some shows or possibly even collaborating on some new music. Sadly, it never came to pass.
Mostly, Junior continued to be plagued by the demons that can wound or waylay the best of us. Somewhere along the hard road to ruin or recovery, it became publicly known that Kevin, who reportedly had a history of heart trouble, needed major heart surgery. He made it off the operating table, much to the relief of his friends, fans (and no doubt, family). But alas, not too long after surviving that serious health scare, he was gone.
Thankfully, we still have the soulful art — small yet essential slices that conveyed the magnitude of his talent — he left behind. For a few years there (but not nearly enough), Kevin Junior’s songs made up some of the best of what I liked to listen to. So today, now as then, I’m putting some of his wondrous music on the stereo, and letting it fill the room. Kevin, wherever you are, if you can hear me (and even if you can’t) I just want you to know: I’ll always listen to Beautiful You. Thanks man.