Remembering Kevin Mahogany
Updated: Apr 4
I met Kevin Mahogany sometime in the late seventies or early eighties; he was a doorman at Blayney's, a popular nightclub in Kansas City, where I played occasionally.
He was a big man, I would guess 6'4" and at least 260 lbs. He had played football in college (he graduated in '81 with a BFA in Music and English Drama) so his size notwithstanding, he was in good shape. He was physically intimidating, which made him a good doorman. However, personality-wise, he was good-natured, laid back and gentle.
He would sometimes sit in with the bands that performed at Blayney's. My initial impression was that he was pretty good, but was basically another wannabe singer working in a nightclub, hoping to get in with the musicians. For all I know, that might've been true, but little did I know how wrong I was about his prospects!
In the early days of the Saturday Afternoon Jam at Harling's ('84-'86) he would sit in with us now and then. His abilities had grown dramatically from just a few years before and he was beginning to work professionally as a singer around town.
In late '86 or early '87 I got a call from my friend and bassist Bob Blount, soliciting me to join a new band that Kevin was putting together. The keyboardist was Ken Lovern and the drummer was Don Mumford. The group was to be called, "Mahogany" and was going to play a mix of classic and contemporary R&B dance music and jazz.
I had known Bob since the seventies; he was a monsterous musician and it was because Bob was involved that I immediately accepted.
Ken was a newcomer to me; he was younger than any of us but he had studied with John Elliott so I felt a kinship with him right away.
Don Mumford was one of those characters that make life in the music business "interesting" - to put it diplomatically. He had moved to Kansas City from New York (although he was originally from Lawrence, Kansas) and had what I call a "New York attitude" - in your face, competitive and given to braggadocio, hyperbole and exaggeration.
One night we were setting up in a club. It was a half-hour till showtime and Don wasn't there. Twenty-till and no Don. Quarter-till and still no Don. Finally at 10 minutes till showtime Kevin in desperation called another drummer. The other drummer would be a little late but would be there.
At 3 minutes till showtime Don pulled up with all his drums in the backseat of a taxi. Kevin says,
"Where the hell have you been?"
"What time is it?" says Don.
"We're supposed to start in 3 minutes! I called somebody else!"
"But I'm not late yet!" - spoken in an offended tone with absolute sincerity and conviction (it would take him at least 10 minutes to set up his drums).
The other drummer showed up shortly afterwards. Kevin paid him out of his pocket, sent him home and worked that night for nothing. That tells you all you need to know about Kevin's character.
Don was one of the best jazz drummers I've ever worked with; he could drive the whole band with nothing but the ride cymbal. Plus his groove and time on the Funk/Pop stuff was impeccable. He and Bob were a hell of a rhythm section. I loved playing with him, but the offstage, behind-the-scenes drama could be stressful. However, it turns out that Don was an integral part of the band being what it was; it wouldn't have been the same without him.
Don played with us for a few months and left with little notice to go on the road with Sun Ra. For those who don't know, Sun Ra was an American jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, as well as a poet known for his experimental music, cosmic philosophy, prolific output, and theatrical performances. He had a jazz big band called, "The Arkestra." Oh yeah...Sun Ra claimed to be 5,000 years old and originally from Saturn. For real!
I'm sure Don fit right in.
Next thing I heard was that Don had called his old roommate in Kansas City asking for money. He had been arrested in Miami for jaywalking! He didn't have any identification on him. Turns out there was a Don Mumford wanted for murder in Florida. Don was held in jail until it was determined that he was not the Don Mumford they were looking for. In the meantime Sun Ra moved on and Don was stranded.
He died in 2007 in Ames, Iowa after being struck by an automobile while riding a bicycle.
I could tell more Don Mumford stories (that time he copped a New York attitude with a car full of soldiers in Leavenworth, Kansas and got shot!) but this blog is about Kevin Mahogany.
Kevin was not just a great singer. He could scat in the finest Bebop tradition. I've worked with some amazing singers but he was a cut above. I considered him to be as strong a musician as anyone in the band. There were times when he was scatting a solo and I would alter the chords behind him; sharping and flatting 9's and 5's, using tritone subs and whatnot. He would alter what he was singing on the fly, responding to what he was hearing behind him.
This snippet of Duke Ellington's, "Take the A Train" recorded in June of 1991 in my home studio will give you an idea. This was a later version of the group - Jack Mulligan on Keys, Phil Brenner on sax, Bob Blount on bass and Chip Lewis on drums:
In April of '87 the original lineup went into the studio to record a 3-song demo. We played live - no overdubs and no "fixing." We did two instrumentals - illustrating the generous character of the man; as far as Kevin was concerned, it wasn't all about him.
Stella by Starlight:
All through the eighties and early nineties I had a big ol' ghetto blaster boombox; a portable cassette recorder/player/radio. I would set it in front of the stage and record gigs to listen to later. I have hundreds of tracks from different bands during those years. Keep in mind that the original recording is a boombox; it ain't studio quality! Nevertheless, it gives the idea of what this band was like live, and how Kevin gave the band tons of room. He wanted to feature the band and would insist that we play multiple instrumentals on every gig. Even on the songs that featured Kevin's singing, there were lengthy solos from the band that pushed the boundaries of the song, and the genre in general.
From April 27, 1987 at The Hurricane in Kansas City with the original lineup; myself, Ken Lovern, Bob Blount, Don Mumford and Kevin:
After Don left we played out our remaining gigs with a couple of different drummers but the mojo just wasn't there anymore. Ken left to play with Ida McBeth and the rest of us went separate ways.
For the next couple of years I worked mostly with my own trio, The Regular Guys. I worked a few weeks with Ida McBeth, subbing for her guitar player at the time, Paul Evans, while he was out of the country on a USO tour. The late 80's was also the high water mark for my teaching; my student roster was almost a hundred a week and 3 dozen on the waitlist.
During this period Kevin had The Apollos. That group was more R&B/dance music-oriented and worked steadily. The history of that band will have to be written by someone else; I was not involved, other than I would occasionally rent Kevin PA gear.
In 1991 I went through an IRS audit. I decided to do it myself after consulting with my accountant. This entailed the auditor, who happened to be a woman, spending two days at my home office (my house!) going through all my stuff. One of the things my accountant told me was that the auditor would see from my mileage log that I went to my teaching studio across town every day, and she would try to establish that that was my primary place of business instead of my home office, and then disallow all the business miles I was claiming from home office to teaching studio. If they did that I would owe thousands.
My counter to that was that I do a lot more than teach; my home office is where all my business records and files are kept. It included a recording studio/rehearsal space and storage for my gear.
She did exactly as my accountant predicted and I stated my case. The second day of the audit I told the lady,
"My wife and kids and I are going over to my parents for lunch. It's only about two minutes from here. I'll lock you in when we leave. Here's the phone number, call me if you need anything."
In the middle of lunch, I get a frantic call from the auditor,
"There's a BIG black guy here who knocked on the front door! I didn't answer and now he's walking around the house looking in the windows! What do I do?!?!"
"Oh yeah" I said, "I forgot about that. That's Kevin Mahogany. Let him in. He's there to pick up some monitor speakers I'm renting to him that I STORE IN MY HOME OFFICE!
I told Kevin his timing was perfect!
BTW: I owed the IRS $170 as a result of that audit. Haven't heard from them since.
In 1990 I again heard from Bob Blount. He was putting another band together with Kevin and they wanted me for the guitar chair. And again, because it was Bob and Kevin, I took the gig. The drummer was Thomas Walker and there was now a sax player in the mix - Phil Brenner. This version of Mahogany was where I met Phil and we are still working together on a regular basis over 30 years later.
A couple of weeks after I started, Kevin hired Jack Mulligan on keys. Jack and I met, became friends and started working together in 1977. I had moved back to Kansas City after a year away and Jack had come to town after a stint at Berkeley School of Music in Boston.
After a few months Thomas Walker left to tour with Kelly Hunt and we snagged Chip Lewis to fill the drum slot. Chip could also sing, as do I, so we had 3-part vocals on some tunes. Sometimes there's just certain combinations of players that escalate the band into something surprising and unpredictable, and it's not just playing ability; it's intangible and impossible to define. The mojo was back, baby!
This was the longest-lived and most popular version of Mahogany. It was also one of the best bands I've ever been in; actually both versions of the group would qualify. In the original group I was playing my Gibson 175 but in the latter version I had obtained my Charvel/Jackson Model 4. My approach and attitude was much the same as in the previous iteration of the band but the Charvel gave me more variables to work with. Because of the tonal characteristics of the guitar, not to mention the locking whammy bar, the music took on a more psychedelic/funk/fusion flavor. The live performances of this group were incendiary.
One of the clubs we played on a regular basis, The Tuba, had a makeshift recording studio in the attic over the stage. Mics were suspended through the ceiling, capturing the sound of the room in addition to the feed from the house mixer. Here's 4 tunes from a Saturday matinee performance, all recorded on August 3, 1991 at The Tuba:
Cut the Cake:
Kevin would sometimes fixate on a word. He would then insert it at random places in tunes throughout a gig. Usually it was a Caucasian-sounding word delivered in as Caucasian-sounding a voice as he was capable of - I'm thinking of "Farfegnugen" from a popular Volkswagen commercial of the time. Anyway, the word for the day on this particular gig was, "Gerbil"! He managed to get it in twice in this song:
An instrumental written by our bass player, Bob Blount.
Don't Change Horses:
In my opinion, the guitar solo is mixed way too loud. I had no control over the house mix.
Bob would sometimes hook up an 8-track recorder to the board and record a gig here and there. The following tracks were recorded at The Point in Kansas City in February of 1991.
Friday Night at the Cadillac Club:
Down to the Nightclub:
Kevin's word for the day on this gig was, "Spank, spank, spank!"
I can't remember the exact time-frame but it was probably in late '92 that Phil Brenner left to work in Mark Valentine's band. Shortly after that, Jack Mulligan gave notice.
Kevin was discouraged. At a meeting with me and Bob he said he really didn't want to do the work it would take to break in another keyboard player just so we could keep making $100 each on local club gigs. Bob desperately tried to talk him out of his funk but I could see his mind was made up.
What Bob and I didn't know at the time was that earlier in the year Kevin had made a trip to Chicago where he sat in on a jam session at the Green Mill. In the audience was a man named Gust Tsilis, who was an A&R (Artist and Repertoire) scout for Enja Records, a German jazz label. He encouraged Kevin to come to New York and audition.
After the meeting with myself and Bob, Kevin went into the studio and cut a 4-song demo with an upright bass player - just vocal and bass. It was mainstream jazz. He brought the recording over to my studio for me to hear and make him some duplicates that he could give to industry people. He told me,
"I'm gonna take this to New York and I'm not coming back until I have a record deal."
That's exactly what he did. It took about 3 weeks. He came back sporting a 3-record deal with Enja.
From Gust Tsilis' website: "The singer Kevin Mahogany was scouted and produced by Mr. Tsilis and went on to become a top selling CD for enja records."
The above photo was in the Oct/Nov 1993 issue of Jazz Ambassadors Magazine (JAM). This had to be one of the last, if not the last, Mahogany gigs. Presumably in late summer, which would be after Kevin signed with Enja but before the first record came out. Phil Brenner on sax, Chip Lewis on drums, Bob Blount on bass. I'm barely visible over Kevin's left shoulder. I assume Jack Mulligan was playing keys.
The City Light was a local club here in Kansas City. This would have been with the house band there; probably Paul Smith, piano, Bob Bowman, bass and Todd Strait, drums.
You might think that I now had a ticket into the big-time because Kevin and I were tight, but I knew that's not how the music business works. Bob knew it too; that's why he tried so hard to encourage Kevin to hire another keyboard player and keep the band together. That band was something special and we all knew it.
The problem is, in the era we're talking about (mid-nineties), when someone like Kevin signed a record deal, he's contractually obligated to use only other musicians who are signed to the label. So Kevin's professional trajectory wasn't going to include any of his buddies from Kansas City.
Speaking of Kevin's professional trajectory, I need to talk about Allene Mathews. Between the original lineup formed in '87 and the final version formed around 1990, Kevin met Allene. They were married in 1992.
In the prior version of the band he was somewhat sloppy; baggy clothes, untied hi tops and so on. Not a good look for a man of his size. Allene cleaned him up good. She dressed him in nice clothes and, after his record deal, put him in suits and ties. I remember her saying,
"No man-a-mine is gon' be walkin' 'round lookin' like some ghetto gangsta from da hood!"
She was a photographer; she shot many of his album covers and documented his recording sessions and gigs. I used one of Allene's photos of me taken on a Mahogany gig in my now-out-of-print release, Industrial Moon.
It is my opinion that Allene had as much to do with Kevin's success as anybody. I have no idea how involved she was in the business end, if at all, but she definitely managed Kevin on a personal level. She was image-conscious and made sure his appearance matched his profession: Jazz Singer. She was an anchor; they were a great team.
Kevin's 1993 debut release on Enja was Double Rainbow. The rhythm section was pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ray Drummond, and drummer Lewis Nash. All top-notch, internationally known jazz musicians. So considering the talent at Enja, it made no sense for anybody from Kevin's former band in Kansas City to be involved. That's show biz.
Double Rainbow hit big in the Jazz world. With his second release in '94, Songs and Moments, he managed to get Phil Brenner to New York to play in the horn section on the record. That's the closest any of the Mahogany band members got to participate in his success. He did solicit a tune from Bob Blount; Bob wrote the music and Kevin wrote the lyrics but as far as I know, that tune never made it onto any of Kevin's records (the song was called, Follow Up Your Dream).
Kevin became the happening thing in New York. I was hearing stories of musicians I emulated and was influenced by - John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Gary Burton, Kevin Eubanks, Mike Stern and others - showing up in the audiences to check him out and hear him sing.
We stayed in touch, connecting now and then through the years. During the Enja period I asked him what the money was like. Was he actually making money? I knew how the game was played. The money fronted by the record label was not free and clear, it was an advance against potential future royalties. So the artist doesn't get any royalties until the label has recouped their advance.
His answer was what I expected; just about the time the advance is paid back and royalties start coming in, it's time to go back into the studio and cut the next record, which puts you in debt to the label all over again. The main source of income is gigging. And Kevin was touring worldwide. Still, he once told me his net income at the time was about the same as when we were working clubs in Kansas City; he was paid way more per gig but didn't play as many gigs because of the travel time. Plus there was the overhead of touring.
After his third release in 1995, his contract with Enja was up and the major labels got into a bidding war over him. He wound up signing a 15-record deal with Warner Brothers!
"Holy crap!" I told him, "Why would you lock yourself into a deal like that? It will take years and years to fulfill that contract! It cuts you off from other options that may present themselves!"
I didn't understand it but that's what he did. Maybe it was the prospect of having a marketing and distribution powerhouse behind him for the foreseeable future that did it. Who knows?
His first release on Warner Brothers, Kevin Mahogany (1996), prompted Newsweek Magazine to call him "the standout jazz vocalist of his generation."
Also in 1996, Kevin appeared in Robert Altman's film Kansas City, playing a character said to be based on Kansas City singer Big Joe Turner who was known as "the singing bartender." Watching Kevin in that movie, I was reminded of the days when he was the doorman at Blaney's and would sit in and sing with the bands that played there; he was "the singing doorman."
Kevin was becoming huge, especially surprising in Eastern Europe and Russia. One morning I got a telephone call. It was Kevin. He said,
"Hey man, you'll appreciate this. I'm sitting in a café in Moscow, listening to a Filipino guitar trio play Country music!"
"Well," I said, "There's an irony in there somewhere!"
After four recordings on Warner Brothers, the last of which was in 2000, the management had changed. Kevin's new boss wanted him to lose weight and record more pop-oriented, contemporary R&B material. In other words, they wanted to rebrand him as a Pop/R&B star.
As is obvious from the Mahogany tracks above, Kevin was more than capable of doing that, but he refused. He had built his reputation and image on being a jazz singer, an interpreter of the Great American Songbook. That's what he wanted to be and do. He had become a stylist, and was "...the standout jazz vocalist of his generation."
I have no idea how he did it - what he lost or gave up - but he somehow got out of his contract with Warner Brothers.
From then on, with the exception of one other album on Enja in 2000, he recorded on small, independent jazz labels (Telarc, Zebra, Cracked AnEgg Records, as well as his own label, Mahogany Music), and they were all single-album deals; apparently he had learned his lesson, probably the hard way.
After a short teaching stint at Berkeley School of Music in Boston, Kevin and Allene moved to Miami. For approximately the next 15 years Kevin spent a lot of time touring and when not on the road he was an adjunct professor in the Jazz program at Miami University. Whenever he happened to come through town we tried to get together, if only for a few minutes after a gig.
In 2015 Kevin sat in at the Saturday Afternoon Jam at BB's with myself, Thomas Walker on drums and Phil Brenner on sax. There was no way to know it at the time but that was the closest we would ever come to a Mahogany reunion.
In August of 2017 Allene Mathews Mahogany suffered a sudden heart attack and died in Kevin's arms. Shortly after that, a traumatized Kevin moved back home - Kansas City.
I was concerned. He was living alone and I knew that he had diabetes and some other health issues. I could tell he was in immense grief and wondered what would happen to him, personally and career-wise, without Allene's stabilizing influence.
At a Celebration of Life for Allene at the Blue Room in Kansas City, I could see that Kevin was surrounded by family, friends and what appeared to be a supportive church community.
"Maybe he'll be ok" I thought, "It looks like he's got a good support network."
Over the following months we had several meetings and conversations. He seemed to be somewhat adrift, casting about for his next move. He didn't look well; ungroomed, facial stubble, sloppy dress etc. He talked about a deal in the works in which he would be based in Spain for half the year, touring Europe during the summer, and living in Kansas City the other half of the year. The deal would have him on a decent salary for the half-year of touring, and would extend through several years.
During the half-year he would have in Kansas City each year he wanted to start a school to teach jazz singers. He wanted to teach much more than vocal technique; he wanted to teach stagecraft, how to be a frontman and also the business end; contracts, record deals, how to deal with agents, promoters and venue owners. He asked if I would consider being involved; "Of course I would!" I answered.
He expressed a desire to do a reunion of Mahogany and The Apollos and tour it. I told him I was up for it and we discussed how to get as many as possible of the musicians that were in those bands involved. He said he was waiting to hear from his guy in Spain about whether or not this booking deal was going to happen - he would know in maybe 3 weeks.
I told him it seemed to me that all his eggs were in one basket. Did he have any kind of backup plan in case this deal in Spain didn't work out? Other than his idea for the school he didn't. I was worried about that.
None of it was to be; approximately 3 weeks after our last conversation, Kevin died on December 17, 2017. Officially, cause-of-death was listed as "effects from diabetes." Personally, I think his grief was the thing that killed him, aggravating his other health issues.
He never recovered from Allene's death and lasted only 4 months without her. He was 59.
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