December 26, 1969 - January 15, 2016
It is like I just do not have any more tears to shed over the loss of artistic public figures that I have loved and admired, especially as the loss of David Bowie was, and remains, so tremendously crushing. But here I am, ready to shed a few more...
In the Winter of 2007, as I returned to Chicago to visit my parents, I performed the same rituals I tend to do when re-entering their home (as it it the house that I did not grow up within, but one where I spent a few Summers during my college years). I walk into the family room, set down my travel bag, walk around the kitchen allowing myself to take in the "lay of the land," re-aquainitng myself with the photos, items and iconography that has made up the images of my life. Finally, I sit at the kitchen table and grab the Chicago newspapers, instinctively heading straight for the Arts sections. On this particular trip home, I stumbled upon a Chicago Tribune article entitled, "A CHAMBER STRINGS SECOND CHANCE: From homelessness to a heartening comeback."
I immediately began to read and became instantly fascinated by the story of the Akron, Ohio born and Chicago based Kevin Gerber, known professionally as Kevin Junior, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and creative visionary behind the band The Chamber Strings, a figure who delivered two gorgeous albums by the early '00s, and despite modest sales, both albums were adored by listeners and critics, proving that Junior's artistic vision possessed a certain resonance. The Chamber Strings once held a three night sold out event in Los Angeles and even The White Stripes opened for the band at one point.
But with the unfortunate mixture of record label shake-ups, meager sales plus the disillusion of Junior's marriage, his mounting depression and drug addiction and also reeling from the death of his close friend and musical co-conspirator, the oddly named Epic Soundtracks in 1997, Kevin Junior found that the musical world he had built piece by piece was falling apart and he ended up as a homeless drug addict on the streets of Los Angeles. It was also during his decline where Junior was diagnosed with a heart valve infection, complicating the matters of his health even further. Yet, over time, Kevin Junior cleaned himself up, returned to songwriting, his bandmates and Chicago to slowly try to revive the majesty of The Chamber Strings one more time, and by the time of this particular article, the band was set to perform at Chicago's famed Double Door.
I am certain that to some of you, this odyssey may sound like just one more episode of "Behind The Music" with the same cliched rise-fall-rise trajectory that we have seen time and again. But that perception would be wholly unfair to the man, his demons and the intense struggle he did indeed undertake to pull himself back from the brink. But his story and how it informed his artistry is what really spoke to me within the article, as were Junior's own words when he stated plainly:
"It always felt like music takes you because you're not in control of the decision. I'm a songwriter whether I like it or not. But the ultimate reward is I always wanted to touch people and basically take them to church. Songs can heal people. When I would get myself through these hard times, I would just start singing songs in my head. That was the difference between me wanting to commit suicide and wanting to stay alive."
Compelling and powerful, the article propelled me to my parent's basement computer where I performed some quick internet searches and began to go on the hunt for the two albums by The Chamber Strings, which I did indeed discover, quickly purchase and was thrilled to see them awaiting my arrival upon my return to Madison several days later.
Within both of those albums, you will hear the distinct musical voice of Kevin Junior who has seemingly been cut from the same cloth that produced the likes of The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, for his songs contain that achingly bittersweet, melancholic soundscape and soulful core punctuated by a true rock and roll swagger and spirit. Upon first listen to both albums, I was instantly swept away by the melodies, harmonies and that certain inexplicable fragility that was housed at the center of Junior's voice, most specifically on tracks like "Telegram," "It's No Wonder," "The Fool Sings Without A Song," "I Can't Lose," and easily my favorite Chamber Strings track, "Last Lovers," which to my ears sounds like a late Summer's haze haunted longingly by an unrequited love. In the simplest terms, for me, the songs just STUCK and I was an instant fan, kicking myself for not having known a thing about this music anytime sooner!
But, as I always have expressed, music chooses you, and it is never wrong when it does.
If only the world would hear it.
Since becoming a fan of Kevin Junior's music, I have taken on the mission of what I think most of his fans have also performed: ensuring the world hears the music of Kevin Junior even if it means converting one listener at a time for his music is indeed that worthy of your attention. I have often "played" tracks upon my Facebook page and in my scant returns to radio airwaves over the years before my current Savage Radio program. In all instances, I just wanted to be yet another person to wave this music around, imploring you to give it all a chance for I am just certain that you will love it as much as myself.
On a whim, I searched for Kevin Junior on Facebook and to my surprise, I found him and after sending him a Friend Request, I received the even greater surprise that he accepted it. Over the years, I began a small correspondence with Junior as I didn't wish to bother him, but every single time I ever wrote to him, he responded with good cheer and enthusiasm. He would sometimes respond to songs I posted from other artists, signalling to me his musical passions (he was an avid fan of Bobby Womack for instance), and his own frequent postings also displayed the subjects that drew his ire (he had a vehement dislike for Dave Grohl--something of which I never asked him about for I didn't want to poke the dragon). He left me birthday messages each year as well and just last month, I heard from him again. I wanted to tell him that I had played his beautiful song "Everyday Is Christmas" upon my radio show, to which he was most appreciative and then, he informed me that new music was hopefully going to arrive over the next few months after a lengthy period of silence. All of this correspondence was more than I could have ever wished for because all I ever did wish for was to have the chance to tell him how much his music meant and means to me, that his artistry was being cherished, that his voice was being heard and to that, I can only hope that he felt my authenticity.
I am writing to all of you at this time about Kevin Junior because I found out, on my birthday no less, that Junior had passed away on Friday, January 15th due to unspecified causes. Yes, he had been ailing for quite some time and several years ago, he was in desperate need of a surgical procedure, to which I am not sure if he ever received. Yet, no matter the cause, another musical figure has departed this world and I am sent reeling ever still. I wish that he were just able to read these words and I am sad that it had to take this moment for me to finally sit down and write them. Yet also, in his passing, I am also now able to see the wide reach he had among fans and musician friends, who have all been writing and posting very emotional, lengthy, heartfelt tributes to this figure who is unknown to so many...and undeservedly so.
Shortly after David Bowie's passing, Kevin Junior posted on his Facebook page a photo of the "Gospel Morning" album with a link to his own song entitled "Flashing Star" and stated this song was originally inspired and written after he had been listening to Bowie's music for eight hours straight. It will never cease to amaze me what happens when one artist inspires another, when one life touches another's. Kevin Junior's music touched my life very deeply and if you give it a chance, I sincerely believe that it will touch yours as well.
Rest in peace, Kevin.