June 17 2009 12:00 AM

Guitarist talkin’ blues, reggae and family


He’s traveled the world with legendary musicians such as Bob Marley and Albert King, but talking with guitarist Donald Kinsey, you get the sense that as long as he’s playing music, he’s always been close to home.

Last Friday, Kinsey, 56, was back in his hometown of Gary, Ind., visiting with family and friends on his way home to Grand Rapids from blues singer Koko Taylor’s funeral in Chicago.

Kinsey’s father, Lester “Big Daddy” Kinsey, was a musician and music lover who Kinsey said was the man parents brought their children to if it seemed they had an interest in music. He started teaching Kinsey the guitar at age 5. By age 10 he was playing out. “We’d play the social clubs or Elks or we’d be at the Ramada Inn, stuff like that,” Kinsey said. “I’d do that on a Friday and Saturday, and then on Sunday, I’d go to the local radio station and play live behind gospel groups, then go from the radio station and play at my grandfathers’ church all day and all night. That was my life until I was 17 years old.”

When he was 17, blues legend Albert King caught a show by Kinsey and his dad in Chicago, and followed up to see them the next night in Gary. He asked Big Daddy about taking his son on the road.

“‘I think it’d be good for you, so you go upstairs and pack you some bags,’” Kinsey said his dad told him. “The next morning, I was on the bus. After playing for six months, I became his bandleader. Being a bandleader for Albert King is about the toughest thing after being James Brown’s band leader.”

Kinsey, who hadn’t spent much time away from home, save for a few trips to Mississippi in the family car for a music engagement with his dad, spent the next three and a half years traveling the country with King, recording at the legendary Stax Records in Memphis (where they tracked 1973’s “Blues at Sunset”) and eventually making his way to Europe. When he felt like he’d learned everything he could, he told King it was time for him to move on.

Back home in Gary, Kinsey put together a band with older brother Ralph and a former bassist for King. They called themselves White Lightning, and Amtraked it to Manhattan in search of a record deal. “We happened to knock on Island Records’ door, and they opened the door,” Kinsey recalled. “I saw these posters for a guy named Bob Marley. I’d
never heard of Bob Marley before.”

While the guys got their record
deal, Kinsey walked away with something that proved to be even more
fortuitous: a couple of reggae cassettes. “It was like an automatic
connection with me,” Kinsey said. “I could feel what they were doing in
these songs, and the flavor of these songs, it reminded me of some of
the gospel hymns you sing in church and some of the old Sam Cooke.
had a different kind of beat on it, but it was really, really
heavy-felt, like gospel music to me.”

Soon after that, Kinsey met
Marley and his band, The Wailers, including guitarist Peter Tosh, who
was about to step out on his own with his first solo record. “It was
like we just vibed really good together,” Kinsey said. “He invited me
to come into to the studio with him. That’s when he was recording
‘Legalize It.’ It’s like things just kind of happened.”

released White Lightning’s selftitled LP in 1975, but Kinsey said the
band “fizzled out” soon after, and he went on to tour with Tosh on
“Legalize It,” which went on to become a seminal reggae recording.

he got back from touring with Tosh, Kinsey’s family told him, “You got
a call from some people. It sounded like they had an accent.”

had called to ask if Kinsey would play on his next record. “The timing
was right, boom. I flew down there,” Kinsey said. “After doing the
recording, he asked me to tour with him. Everything kind of snowballed.
I just take it that that’s what was meant to be.”

In addition to
“Legalize It,” Kinsey’s guitar can be heard on Marley’s “Rastaman
Vibration” (1976), Tosh’s “Bush Doctor” (1978), as well as “best-of”
and live collections of both artists. “We had a good time. Reggae music
at that time was an underground thing, so we were struggling. We were
working hard, on the road all the time trying to break this music
around the world.”

In the ‘80s, Kinsey produced his father’s
first record “Bad Situation” with backing by The Kinsey Report, which
included himself and brothers Kenneth and Ralph Kinsey. Big
Daddy passed away in 2001, but his sons’ funky blues rock combo still

About two and a half years ago, Kinsey moved to Grand Rapids,
where he said a new crop of talented musicians inspired him to put
together a new band. On Friday, he’ll join local favorites The DeWaynes
for a benefit concert on the Michigan Princess Riverboat. “I’m pretty
much just going to be having some fun,” he said. “We’re just going to
have some fun and play some roots music, man.”

Friends of the River Fundraiser

The DeWaynes & Donald Kinsey 8 p.m. Friday, June 19 Michigan
Princess, docks at Grand River Park, across from the Dispatch $15 in
advance, $20 at the door (517) 627-2154 www.michiganprincess.org