Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
The Secret History of Chicago Music has often had to contend with the question of geography. I’ve counted artists as “from Chicago” even when they’ve been based as far away as Champaign, Illinois, provided they have strong ties to our city. Oddly, I’ve rarely done this across state lines, even for near neighbors in Gary, Indiana—which is about two hours closer by car than Champaign. In any case, I set my own rules here (and there are rules!), so I’m rewriting them to declare Lester “Big Daddy” Kinsey the greatest Chicago bluesman from Gary.
Like so many great local bluesmen, Lester J. Kinsey Jr. was born in the south, near Pleasant Grove, Mississippi, on March 18, 1927. Lore has it that Kinsey picked up the guitar at age six, and because his pastor father didn’t condone the devil’s music (that is, the blues), he started out playing gospel. While still in Mississippi, though, he caught a glimpse of Muddy Waters through a crack in a farmhouse wall.
By the time his family packed up and moved to Gary in 1944, Kinsey was just getting started on his own musical career, playing the occasional local party. His father became pastor of Gary’s Chase Street Church of God in Christ, and Kinsey did a stint in the military and then went to work in the steel mills.
In 1946, Kinsey married Christine McNeal, and for a few years he put music on the back burner while they started a family. By the late 50s he was gigging in Gary and Chicago alongside Windy City legends such as Jimmy Reed, Albert King, and his idol and muse Muddy Waters. Kinsey also played live in those days with guitarist Lonnie Brooks, who’d moved to Chicago in 1960 but was still many years from becoming a blues legend in his own right.
In a Kinsey obituary published by the Times of Northwest Indiana in 2001, Brooks explained his bond with the older man. “He used to call me up and talk with me all the time,” he said. “He used to live not too far from this club I used to play in Gary. The place was called Big Steve’s. He’d say to me ‘I heard you, boy. I listened to you from on my front porch’. He had a big voice, and he could play the hell out of his guitar. I loved his style.” Kinsey was a formidable slide guitarist, and his gruff, booming voice recalled Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Kinsey also raised a musical family. Sons Donald (born May 12, 1953), Ralph (April 26, 1952), and Kenneth (January 21, 1963) all played the blues too, and their dad made his return to live music only when they were old enough to join in. Kinsey started Donald on guitar at age four, and Ralph was hitting the drums by six. When Donald was six and Ralph was seven, they began gigging with their father as Big Daddy Kinsey & His Fabulous Sons. Because Donald had learned a lot of B.B. King songs, by the time he’d turned 12 he was being billed as B.B. King Jr.
Kinsey himself is quoted in that same Times of Northwest Indiana article, sounding very much like the proud father he was. “When Don was ten or 12 years old, he could play any blues that you could think of [on guitar], and sing it, too,” Kinsey said. “I knew Ralph was going to be a drummer, because he’d get a knife and fork and go and beat the bottom out of all the chairs around here. They learned too fast; it had to be in their genes. They picked it up and ran with it.”
Straight out of high school, Donald would hit the road with Albert King. The family band broke up in 1972, but by then they’d grown popular enough around Gary that Kinsey had quit his day job. Donald and Ralph played in a short-lived but successful blues-rock trio called White Lightnin’, and Donald toured and recorded with the likes of Peter Tosh, Bob Marley & the Wailers, and the Staple Singers. In 1984 the brothers rejoined their father as Big Daddy Kinsey & the Kinsey Report, adding Kenneth on bass. The elder Kinsey brought a roaring mix of Delta blues and golden-age Chicago electric blues, and the kids added elements of funk, rock, reggae, and soul.
Big Daddy Kinsey & the Kinsey Report got a huge boost from the participation of beyond-legendary Chicago pianist Pinetop Perkins, who’d played with basically every famous bluesman who’d ever lived. The band signed to Rooster Blues for the lauded 1985 LP Bad Situation, Kinsey’s debut album, and they toured internationally to support it.
Kinsey probably enjoyed his greatest commercial success in the 80s, and throughout the 80s and 90s the family would appear on a flurry of releases under various names. As Big Daddy Kinsey & Sons, they issued the heavy blooz-rockin’ 1990 record Can’t Let Go on Blind Pig. The Kinsey brothers also put out several albums on their own as the Kinsey Report, beginning in 1987 with Edge of the City on famed Chicago label Alligator. Big Daddy made several solo albums too, including a raw, traditionalist 1993 release for Verve Records called I Am the Blues, whose all-star cast includes Perkins, Buddy Guy, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton, and Sugar Blue.
In 1995 Christine Kinsey passed away, and by ’97 Big Daddy had stopped touring. He focused instead on a business he’d started: a charter bus company called Kenites Coach Lines that took tour groups on casino trips to the south.
Kinsey had recorded his final album, Ramblin’ Man, in 1994, enlisting guests such as Carey Bell, John Primer, the Memphis Horns, Johnnie Johnson, Koko Taylor, and his son Donald. He died following a struggle with prostate cancer on April 3, 2001. The big man left behind an impressive musical and family legacy—at the time of his death he had 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Though Chicagoans often make Gary the butt of jokes, they didn’t make a dent in Kinsey’s huge love for his town. “He was from the Mississippi Delta and never left his roots behind. But at the same time, he was dedicated to putting Gary, Indiana, on the [musical] map,” explained Kenneth to the Times of Northwest Indiana. “He lived in Gary, and he raised his family in Gary. He would do anything he could to bring attention to Gary.” So here’s to including Gary in Chicagoland and combining their huge musical histories! v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.
- Big Daddy Kinsey’s first album combines his old-school vocals and lead guitar with his sons’ more contemporary style.
- Kinsey didn’t play much lead guitar on this 1993 record, but it still expresses his commitment to traditional Chicago electric blues.
- Big Daddy’s discography doesn’t capture much of his decades-long career—his final album was recorded ten years after his first.