Johnny Kemp… Missing a Beat

“Hey you know Johnny Kemp died.”

“What? How did he die?”

“They don’t know. They found him in the river.”

“Was it Friday night?”

“Yep, and he just got paid.”

If you go back to 77-78, on a lot of Saturday nights you could find Johnny Kemp singing and walking the bar at the Cellar and knocking folks out. He was that good!

I used to hang in the Cellar but I was doing better paying cabaret gigs with two of the girls from ‘Sweet Honey and the Rock’, and another girl who went on to be one of the best and ‘workingest’ background singers in NY. She worked with Sting, Stevie Wonder and all of them.

Johnny was a natural showman. His father was some kind of pop star down in the islands. Kemp was light skinned and had straight hair before he got dreads or locks or some shit. Buddy, he could sing and was one of the 10 or 15 best entertainers I ever saw. Though he had a few hits and a couple great NY videos, nothing ever captured the excitement of seeing him live in a small club with him playing and singing to any and all the ladies in the house. We would hang out between sets and I would occasionally see him at one of my gigs. When we later both signed over six figure deals, we would laugh about the old days.

Johnny was a peaceful guy so ending up in the river doesn’t figure. Stardom is fleeting and you can only be the flavor of the month but for so long. A normal life is mostly just that. I often can’t substitute for the rush and high of turning out an intimate nightclub or rocking a 10,000-seat arena.

A sixty-something year old man can no longer walk the top of any bar with dignity. You can still play and you can still sing, but face men and singers die hard. That winning smile that may have wooed the multitudes is often now gap toothed. The youthful cut to your jib has softened and what you are left with is not what you want or remember!

I play better now than I ever did (vibes); conga is a young man’s game. I was never the brown-eyed boy. That is the guy you send out that can ‘sang’, dance and is the best looking one in the band. That was Johnny Kemp.

Don’t ask why or how I know certain things or even why it matters… but it does. I don’t know whether he was found in the Hudson or the East River. The Hudson suggests accident or suicide. The East… well that somehow means nefarious.

There is some shit in this life you can’t cry, play or sing your way out of.


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