The good fight

Keb' Mo' makes the fat ladies get up and dance

Moore was raised in Compton in South Central L.A. Then a jazz and R&B hot spot, it was a middle-class refuge for blacks fleeing the South and would later become the West Coast's rap capital, stomping grounds of Death Row Records. Moore's mother came from Texarkana, Texas, his father from a prominent land-owning family near Shreveport. As a child, Kevin sang in his church choir for about two weeks. "Then I bailed," he says. "I'm sorry I didn't get the training. But I was there listening. When I was coming up, guitar was still considered a sinful instrument in the sanctified church, where the instruments were organ and piano."

In 1980, Moore was signed to the Chocolate City subsidiary of notorious disco label Casablanca Records--then home to Donna Summer and KISS. Chocolate City released Rainmaker, "kinda [an] R&B alternative thing, with one calypso song on it. I really don't know what it was," he says of the awkward project. "At the time, it was a great disappointment, but it taught me about the temperament of the record business. Just because you make a record doesn't mean you got a shot. I blew that opportunity. I couldn't take all the negotiations. By the time I got in the studio, I was so beat up I lost confidence in my musical sense. The people around me made the record for me."

But what separates the men from the boys is an ability to keep on truckin' through lean years. A seasoned pro, Moore had no choice but to play guitar. "The toughest I had it as a musician," Moore recalls, "was having to do messenger jobs. The jobs that weren't music, that kept me humble and questioned every part of my ego. Because I was in L.A., I'd done a record, people knew me, and then I had to go delivering things. Inevitably, people are going to see you, and you just have to bite your tongue and deal with it. Now, whenever I do a gig that isn't going right--maybe the sound isn't there or something's not as professional as I like it--I think back on those times when I carried packages in a little shirt that said 'RPM Messenger Service.'"

Moore credits a 1983 stint in the Who Done It band--put together by late saxophonist Monk Higgins--as having brought him to the blues. "Monk separated the blues for me, opened up the door. He explained it wasn't just a 12-bar progression. The blues was a whole range of different feels--8-bar blues, 12-bar blues, country blues, big-city blues, Mississippi Delta blues, which evolved into Chicago blues. Muddy and Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, that first generation that came up from the farms could all play that country style, but they put it down with electric guitar, which was the new happenin' thing."

Blues was not the happenin' thing within the clubs of South Central L.A. "I was far removed from the rap people. In the beginning, when everyone was sayin', 'Man, you playin' too much blues, we're tired of hearin' blues, play somethin' else,' I just kept playin' the blues, because that's what was callin' me."

Gradually Moore nailed down weekly house band gigs and even contracted a few funerals. But his home-base gig for two years was Tuesdays at Cafe Club Fais Do-Do. According to owner Steve Yablok, Moore wrote and performed the material on Keb' Mo' there. Moore there met Georgina, his new wife and current manager. During a time when business was down at Fais Do-Do, Yablok told Moore it was getting tough to remain open. Moore ordered dinner. "He gave me a hundred-dollar check to pay for it," recalls Yablok. "He said, 'Here, this will start the flow of money back to you.' And it did."

In a tribute usually reserved for the likes of W.C. Handy, a steel sculpture of Keb' Mo' called "Buddha of the Blues" now stands by the fence outside Fais Do-Do.

Moore doesn't deal in guitar licks or flash. He knocks you out with his timing, leaving canyons of space in his playing. A keen thinker, he distinguishes genres by timing: "Texas blues, for instance, is most famous for that good ol' shuffle, with that deep lope in it, like an old washing machine."

When Moore lived in a sparse Turtle Creek apartment in 1993, during his Spunk run, he claimed to want guitar lessons from me. The opposite transpired, and I ended up his student. "You got to make the fat ladies get up and dance," he explained then. "You know you're swinging when they raise their hands."

Moore's greatest musical weapon is the neglected concept of timing. He demonstrated with a metronome, lashing out surprise silences, removing l6th notes here and there. "That's what keeps me eating in L.A.," he said at the time. "Use of time and spaces. Might be a slight difference between me and another guy, but that slight difference is an ocean apart."

"Am I Wrong," his signature slide song on the 1994 OKeh debut, utilizes those fat stops in time in which Keb' Mo' makes the empty air sing. "I didn't invent that, you know," he says. "You have to leave something to the imagination. There's a shape to the rhythm. Once you've established that swing, once you set it up, you don't have to play every single note again."

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