Music — K.D. Bell - Local Bluesman Dies At Age 61

Local bluesman leaves a legacy of first-class music K.D. Bell, a regular at Manchester clubs and festivals, dies at age 61

By Dan Szczesny [dszczesny@hippopress.com] 

The last time I heard K. D. Bell play was in Salem, in the tiny lounge of a chain hotel.

His band was squeezed uncomfortably behind two pillars and a fence behind the bar. There were, maybe, 10 people at the bar. There was no dance floor.

K.D. appeared, dressed impeccably as always, in a bright red suit and hat. And instead of burning through the set to collect his check, he simply changed his style and music to accommodate the venue. He played the blues, but he played it slow and personal. He walked up to and met everyone in the bar. He sat on a stool next to some ladies and sang directly to them. He introduced his band, and gave them each a chance to play, to explore their sound and instruments. Sometimes, he came over and sat down and watched them, and applauded them.

During an intermission, I asked him if it bothered him to be playing to a nearly empty room this far along in his career.

“I only need one person to play to,” he said, and he laughed.

Frederick C. “K.D.” Bell died of congestive heart failure on Sept. 8. He was 61.

He was a friend of HippoPress and he was a friend of mine. But then again, K. D. tended to become friends with just about anyone he met.

Back in 2001, when HippoPress was previewing the first city Jazz and Blues Festival, we needed one of the performers to pose for our cover for a photo shoot. None of them knew who we were, none were willing to set aside time. Except K.D. He didn’t ask who I was. He asked when he should be here, and what he should wear. K.D. did this because he was a consummate professional. He did it because he never, ever, turned down publicity if he could help it. And he did it because he just liked meeting new people.

We spent three hours shooting K.D. along the railroad tracks and in the Pandora mill building and he never once looked at his watch. Instead he’d pass the time between shots, telling stories.

He was born in Union Springs, Ala. and hit the road as a musician as soon as he could walk, to hear him tell it. His resume was impressive: he studied drums with Sonny Payne of the Count Basie Orchestra; he played behind the drum kit with Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, Wilson Pickett, the Drifters, Ben E. King and Wayne Cochran. He performed with James Brown, LaVerne Baker and the Coasters. But he would never drop those names; he’d leave that to others.

Instead, when K.D. told stories, he’d talk about his love of fishing, his regret at not being able to find his favorite foods, like cow tongue, in New Hampshire. And he had much to say about style.

“We do require you dress properly,” he told us for that first interview with him, which appeared in the June 7-13, 2001, edition of HippoPress. “You have to look good to play good—those are my rules. My hardest problem is deciding what to wear. See, when I perform, I do two shows, two complete changes; three shows the same thing. A total change, suit to hat. I don’t even wear the same hat twice.”

K.D. made such an impression at that first festival that Mayor Bob Baines personally asked him back to the second. But again, K.D. would probably come to play regardless of whether it was a mayor or just a bar fan who would ask. In fact, he ended up in New England because he was asked. In 1968, his then-wife, who was pregnant at the time went to visit her sister in Maine. He got a phone call that the baby was coming, so he came too, and pretty much stayed in New England ever since.

In fact, the only thing more important to K.D. than his music was his family. In the end, when hundreds of mourners gathered on Saturday in Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro for a memorial service, K.D. was leaving behind 20 grandchildren. In all, he had lived in Portsmouth, Laconia and finally Milton, with his new wife Lorane Smith, whom he met at a gig and married at K.C.’s Rib Shack in Manchester.

K.D. cast a towering blues shadow around Manchester, having played regularly at the Charles Club, Strange Brew Tavern, Black Brimmer and especially at K.C.’s. K.D. had a regular weekly gig there and would often stop by unannounced to watch or sit in when other bands were on the stage. He was the godfather of blues to dozens of young blues performers and they all knew it.

At the memorial service, dozens of musicians stepped up to the mike to tell stories of K.C.’s encouragement or friendship, how the older bluesman would always move aside and urge on younger players, regardless of whether they were any good or not. The blues to him was less about the instruments, and more about the soul. A lone drum set sat on the stage behind the speakers, a symbol of K.D.’s beginnings as a drummer. His name is the abbreviation for King Drummer, the title handed to him by the older blues men he played behind. As a testament to K.D.’s blues soul, the memorial service ended with the whole auditorium singing “Amazing Grace” as K.D. himself had wished.

In the end, Mr. Alabama was a classy guy, someone who gave and someone who cared. He was a superstar in his profession who didn’t act like one, and that that made him even more special. “I think a great part of being a good entertainer, beyond expectations, is to be a good person and to be part of the people.,” K.D. said.

K.D. was all three, and he will be missed.

—Dan Szczesny

  

 
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