When Kenny, a lanky guy with a craggy face, winsome eyes, and a wry smile, relates this to me, he nods knowingly, like a guy who still believes in a just universe, but is having his faith tested.
Kenny White is a terrific piano-playing singer-songwriter.
I met Kenny 30 years ago, when I moved up to small-town Massachusettes in 1980. I had been a successful recording engineer in New York City for close to a decade, and I gave up the big time for a more balanced, bucolic life. I quickly entered the music scene around Boston, engineering and producing folk albums and the scores for John Sayles’s films, composed by a local guy named Mason Daring. Mason was a fixture on the scene and knew all the best local players. Kenny was his keyboardist of choice.
We worked on some wonderful projects together. Coming from New York, and used to working with the heaviest cats in the biz, I was a wee bit snobby. But Kenny impressed me. He was right up there with the top players.
Kenny was doing everything a musician could do in the Boston area, but got tired of making small bucks in a small pond. He asked me for some connections in the studio and jingle scene in New York, which was very hot in the 80’s. I turned him on to a few names, and he made the big move. He started out by providing tracks for his buddy, Robin Batteau, who was writing for a jingle house owned by one of the biggest names in the industry, Joey Levine.
When one of Kenny’s first tracks, made on a little home-style 8 track, was bought by an ad agency, Joey wanted to meet the guy. He gave Kenny a gig. Soon after, Robin wrote the theme for “Heartbeat of America” for Chevrolet.
Within a year, Kenny, Robin, and a guitarist, also from the Boston area, named Jeff Southworth, were the hottest guys in the business. One day Kenny would be conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The next, his band, called the Supreme Court, and featuring the singer, Marc Cohn, were playing at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding in Hyannis. (He also worked on Marc’s hit “Walkin’ to Memphis.”) Some of his tracks, played on the Super Bowl, reached billions of people.
This was a big change for Kenny. At 19, he had dropped out of college to move with his band to Boston. He struggled for a few years, took just the right amount drugs, got food anyway he could, and eventually worked at a manual labor job. He played crappy gigs in the worst parts of town, making $12 for six sets worth of music. Eventually he was “discovered” by local legends Livingston Taylor and Jonathan Edwards, but it was always a scuffle to make ends meet in the rather small Boston music scene. So the New York jingle scene was a wonderful thing, but it meant that he put his goal of doing his own music away.
Kenny always liked making the music in the jingle world, but he grew tired of the advertising clients and their senseless demands. After 15 or so years of non-stop work he found himself getting “ornery,” and knew this was a signal that it was time to do something else.
Besides, the very digital technology that Kenny used to become successful had grown into a monster that ate the industry. Anyone could make music on their Mac, and everyone did. Though there are still a few guys earning big bucks in music for advertising, the business has suffered a similar fate to that of the music business in general. Now you can buy tons of great music cheap at the push of a button on the internet, so there is little reason to pay a premium for a guy like Kenny.
This shift in the industry, and Kenny’s orneriness, coincided with the break-up of his marriage. Kenny got into therapy and realized he needed a new direction. He was avoiding something important. His talents led Peter Wolf of the J.Geils band to ask him to produce his records, which was terrific. He got to work with greats like Keith Richards. But he knew there was still more he had to do.
Kenny was flush, and he had the time to figure out what was lacking. Through his self-exploration, songs started coming out of him. For years, he had been saying that he was going to do his own thing, but when the next jingle client called, he would put his music back on the shelf and it never got done. Now there was no excuse. He made an album. What was he going to do with it? He decided it was time to go on the road.
That was about ten years ago, now. In that time Kenny has made three full albums and does about 100 shows a year.
Along the way, Judy Collins heard his first album. Judy signed him to her record label, Wildflower Records, after one listen. Judy’s imprimatur carries some meaning. Judy has unerring taste. She could always pick a great song and songwriter, having virtually discovered Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, among others. Kenny’s second and third album are on her label.
Having left the business myself to become a psychotherapist (and a blogger) I lost touch with Kenny since our days of working together. In June, I was at the library in my town of Ossining, in Westchester, New York. I was excited to see that Kenny was going to be playing in the beautiful theatre in that building. It was a chance to catch up with an old friend, and to hear what he’d been up to.
Kenny played to a full house on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. I expected a good show, but I was thrilled when it turned out to be a great one. First, I was surprised at what a relaxed and easy performer Kenny is. I always thought of him as a studio guy; I didn’t know about his history on the road. He says that though he had played out a lot in the past, this time it’s been different. He was always nervous before, but now he feels at ease. You can tell: he’s funny, confident, and inviting. He makes it easy to listen to him.
A humble guy, Kenny puts down his piano playing, calling it “eyewash” — pleasant to look at but lacking in substance. No musician I’ve ever met likes his own playing, and I think Kenny is no exception to this rule. His playing is tasteful and deft. He has chops, but he’s not a noodler. He plays his notes for a reason. He’s got enough energy and harmonic weight that he can use the instrument to fill up the space of an entire band, and make it fun, too.
But Kenny says the important things to him now are the songs and the lyrics, and that’s where Kenny truly shines. His songs are for grown-ups. They are intelligent, meaningful, rich, ironic, soulful, and filled with a broad range of feeling.
His vocals fit somewhere in the singer-songwriter mold of a Randy Newman; he doesn’t have the pipes of a Beyonce, but he uses his instrument in a way that conveys the depth of meaning and feeling of his songs. He has a way of reaching out to the listener. When you listen to Kenny you pay attention to the words, and they are a delight.
During the show, when Kenny asked how many in the audience had never heard of him, about 90% of the people raised their hands. For a crowd that had no clue who he was, they loved him. They gave him a standing ovation, demanded an encore, and bought lots of his CD’s.
So we return to the question Kenny hates: why haven’t you heard of him? I can’t really say for sure, but I’m going to make some educated guesses.
First of all, the music business is in critical condition these days. Part of the reason for that is technology. Why pay for music when you can get it for free? Another part of the reason is that music no longer holds the place in our culture that it did in the ‘60’s. Theory has it that people get most attached to music in their teenage years, and the great buying bubble, the baby boomers, are now buying hearing aids instead of Led Zeppelin. With the advent of services like Rhapsody, if grownups are listening to anything, it’s the stuff they listened to in their youth. Teens like music, but they prefer app games and XTube videos. Then there might be the fact that a lot of the music promoted by the industry in the last 20 years has sucked. In this argument, the American music business is like the American car industry. People don’t buy American cars because they just don’t make ‘em like they usedta. All of these things are true, and they make it hard for anyone to cut through the noise enough to get noticed by a larger audience.
But I think it is more than that.
The audience in Ossining was no different than the audiences Kenny encounters most places. When people hear him, they love him. But as a 57-year-old guy who makes smart, funny music for adults, it is hard for him to find promoters in the music world to think outside the box enough to see his financial potential. If you are not the next Adele, they’re not interested. After ten years of promoting himself, he has just gotten an agent.
If there is anyone who still pays for music, it is the very demographic that would love a guy like Kenny. But in this age of Lady Gaga and a 9.2 unemployment rate, most people in the music business are operating out of fear. As one industry insider said to me, when he gets a music business guy on the phone, he’s got about 10% of his attention, because the other 90% is worrying when the pink slip is going to appear on his desk.
There’s something wrong with a culture where there’s a huge audience for a guy like Kenny, but because the business experts who control the purse strings can’t fit him into the tween box, his exposure is limited. The experts will pay for his music if he’s selling cars, but not if he’s giving expression to the deepest strains of human feeling and experience.
That’s the reason why you don’t know who he is.
But that doesn’t stop Kenny. He’s a model for us boomers. Rather than resting on his laurels, and getting nostalgic about the past, he is looking forward, and continues to take new risks every day. This has put him at the top of his game.
For chapters from my music memoir click here, click here.