Willie Kent

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Chicago Loses Another Blues Great

Willie Kent, 1936-2006

Born February 24, 1936 in the tiny town of Inverness, Mississippi, Willie Kent couldn't have started life farther away from international acclaim. He spent his childhood working hard on his mother's sharecrop farm and left home at the age of 13. Three years later he was living in Chicago as a self-sufficient young man, lying about his age so he could earn a living.

That was 1952, the shining height of Chicago's golden age of urban blues. After work each day, he would plunge into a night of smoky bars, training his own receptive ear with the live sounds of Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buster Benton, and J.B. Lenoir. By the end of the '50s he was working with musicians -- first as a driver, then as a singer. One night he filled in onstage for an absent bass player, and the path of his future was suddenly traced clearly before him.

By 1961 he was playing bass behind the great Little Walter, an association that brought more depth to his music and more contact with the business world.

The 1970s found him on his first European tour, then settled in as the longstanding leader of the house band at Ma Bea's Lounge on Madison Avenue.

In the 1980s he joined Eddie Taylor's blues band, and their comfortable, polished style suited his own. He continued playing with them until Mr. Taylor's death in 1985.

In the mid-'80s he moved fully into work with his own band, and the rich ensemble sound he forged with them made Willie Kent and the Gents a popular, constant presence in Chicago blues clubs for more than twenty years.

A natural teacher, his professionalism and generosity helped many younger musicians start their own careers. His name appears in the credits of countless recordings as he lent his bass lines to both new musicians and old friends.

Under his own name, he released twelve major recordings over a span of thirty years. His recorded works attracted a long stream of honors: from the Library of Congress, from the City of Chicago, and from blues magazines in both North America and Europe.

His blazing, passionate vocals caught the ears and hearts of blues fans throughout the world; but it was his distinctive bass playing that would earn him formal recognition as a truly great artist in the blues world. In addition to repeated "Critic's Choice" awards from the international blues press, he received the prestigious W. C. Handy Award for Best Blues Instrumentalist - Bass not once, but ten times.

Those honors have been capped by two Lifetime Achievement awards, the most recent of which was presented in November 2005.

Willie Kent lost his battle with cancer on March 2, 2006. He is survived by his wife of 49 years, Ruth; by nine children, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and by a brother, Walter, of New York.