Tuesday, July 26, 2011
The Groove Behind Frankie Beverly's Maze: Part One of our Interview with Bassist Larry Martin Kimpel
When he was about 12, Larry Martin Kimpel received a six-string acoustic guitar from his brother.
Even at that young age, Kimpel was no stranger to music. Inspired by Ramsey Lewis songs such as “Wade In the Water,” he had started piano lessons at the age of five, but eventually lost interest. Tinkering with his new gift, he began talking about becoming a guitar player.
But one day, while listening to Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, still another instrument caught his attention.
“I’m sitting in my room, listening to that, trying to pick the guitar parts out and this bass is just jumping off the vinyl,” he recalled. “It’s jumping out at me the entire time. So I’m like, ‘Gee, I’m really gravitating towards that.’ So after a while I took the top two strings off of the guitar and started playing E-A-D-G. And I started picking the stuff up by ear off the record.”
Now 51, Kimpel has since become an A-list bassist who has shared the stage with the Staple Singers, Anita Baker, George Duke, Yolanda Adams and Edwin Hawkins, among others. And for the last nine years, he has played bass for Maze, a popular rhythm and blues group headed by singer Frankie Beverly that is noted for its energetic live performances.
A deeply spiritual person, he has also become a force in the Christian and worship music industries, releasing his latest CD in that genre, Be Still and Know, through his own record label, God’s Voice Records & Entertainment.
The Chicago-raised Kimpel is also making his mark on the blues world through Outlaw X, a guitar/bass/drums/keyboards ensemble whose first album, Out of the Box takes a hard-driving, jazz-inflected approach to the genre. The album is mostly original music with only one cover: a version of Rod Stewart’s “Stay with Me.”
“What I want it to be was not really a traditional blues record,” said Kimpel. “I wanted to pay homage to those past influences but I also wanted to put a newer kind of a spin onto an old form.”
When not on stage or in the recording studio he mentors youth through a variety of programs, including the California-based Christian Mentors and the Music Exchange, a Las Vegas-based program targeting at-risk youth.
“What I do is speak on the history of the blues in modern music and the influences that…young people, they don’t even know what they’re hearing,” Kimpel said. “Because they’ve not been given that history, they’ve not had a chance to know what’s come before them. And that’s really, really hard to understand, as to why we’re cutting off our nose to spite our face by not giving these kids the knowledge that they need on any level. But definitely on the music side.”
He also represents three companies that make basses: Yamaha, Xotic and Atlansia, a guitar company bassed in Japan.
For whatever he wants to do in music, Kimpel has a family tradition to draw from. During the 1920’s, his great-grandmother was known for sitting on the back porch of her Arkansas-Delta home, playing blues on an old weather-beaten guitar.
When Larry was an infant, his father, Allen David Kimpel, who led the local church choir, would put him on his knee and sing him soft melodic ballads.
Kimpel was two years old when his mother died and he, his brother and two sisters went to Chicago to live with their Aunt Ruby. A university cleaning woman who was “not wealthy by any means,” she nevertheless saw that her new charges had whatever they needed to reach their potentials.
In addition to piano lessons, Kimpel studied drawing and painting as a child. When he reached high school, George Hunter, a music teacher who, as a sideline, played saxophone at recording sessions around the city, took him under his wing.
“He was responsible for getting me my very first session, which was with Gene Chandler, you know the ‘Duke of Earl?’ I got to meet all of the prominent musicians in Chicago at that time. George Hunter, I cannot say enough about him. He recognized the potential early on, and he only rode those kids that he saw the potential in. If he didn’t see it, he’d just leave you alone, let you go your own way.”
When Kimpel was 16, Hunter hired him to play in a big band he led, “George Hunter and the Moonlighters.” “The reason it was called the Moonlighters was because they were all teachers and doctors and lawyers and they were moonlighting musicians at night,” Kimpel said.
From them he learned about both music and life, he recalled.
“Here I am this 16-year-old kid—and I’m playing with these 40-year-old men! And hanging! As best I can, but I’m hanging. I learned so much, and being around those guys, how they handled themselves. Yeah, all of those influences, they’re still with me today. I cannot say enough about Mr. Hunter. He’s the man.”
It was just a few years later—in 1977—that Kimpel made his professional debut as a bassist for the Staple Singers. We started our interview, which is divided into two parts because of its length, with a discussion about his time with them.
BPP: I saw the itinerary of people that you played with: Staple Singers and George Duke, Larry Carlton, Anita Baker. Staple Singers. What was playing with them like?
Kimpel: The way I got with that thing, I was working with another artist in Chicago and we opened up for them at a club called The Burning Spear on the south side. And Pops heard me with the group and I didn’t even know that he was listening. I didn’t even know that he was in the house when we were doing our set. But he did hear me. Apparently he liked me. And I guess it was a good four or five months later, in the summer of, I guess it was 1976, or 1977—right after I got out of high school—he called. He got my number from somewhere and called me. I answered the phone—I’m living with my sister—and the phone rings and I run in the kitchen to answer the phone and he says “Yes, is Larry Kimpel there?” And I said “Yes, this is Larry.” And he’s like “Hey Larry, this is Pops, Pops Staples.” And I’m like, ”uh-huh”(laughs). And he says, “Listen, I like the way you play. You know, we’re looking for a bass player. Would you like to come down and play?” And I said, “Of course!” And he said “Listen, we’re also looking for a drummer. You know if you can get the guy that you played with when I heard you at The Burning Spear? That would be great.” So I got off the phone and ran through the house basically, you know, “Oh My God! Oh My God! Oh My God!” And they were just the tops in Chicago at that time. They were just great. They had done those great hits, you know, “Respect Yourself,” and “Let’s Do It Again,” all of that stuff. And I’m like: “Oh My God! This guy, he actually called me! He actually called! I talked to him on the phone!” So I tried to call my guy and I couldn’t find him. He wasn’t at home and that was before cell phones, they didn’t have pagers, so he just missed the call, so I had to call another friend of mine, Dana Goodman and he picked up the phone immediately and we went down and he liked both of us and he hired us. And so we stayed with them for five years, ’77 t0 ’81. And we toured all over the world. They were really, really great people. Sweet man. And he taught us a lot about—here’s another positive male influence, which was great for me because I came from a single parent home. My mom passed when I was two so my aunt took myself and my three siblings, my two sisters and my brother, so I didn’t have that male influence in the house. So God saw fit to put these people in my life that could teach me about life and about music. So Pops was a really, really sweet man, and I definitely miss talking to him and listening to his take on life. He was a real country gentleman, he was really something else.
BBP: Wow. What was it like to play behind Mavis?
Kimpel: It was great, man. Mavis is one of the great artists of our time. And it was almost surreal sometimes when you’re standing behind them, looking at them do what they do and it was an amazing time because it was formative years. I was about age 18, just getting out on my own, so to be traveling with them and doing some recording with them, and just being around them, watching how they dealt with their public and they were respectful…I mean they truly lived that song. I never once saw any of them out of line with the public. So they really showed us how to be people, how to be good folk and just have fun. They were entertainers, but it was great. She’s still killing people (laughs). I still hear stuff from and about her and she’s still knocking them out.
BBP: I understand also you played with George Duke?
Kimpel: I still actually do some work for George. Actually on his latest record that just came out, I think it’s called “Déjà vu” if I’m not mistaken. We just did that last year. And uh, yeah we’re still associated; still do a sub-gig for him here and there when his regular guy Mike Manson can’t do it. But I worked with him steadily for a good four or five years. Actually he was the first gig I had after I left Anita Baker and moved to L.A. in 1991. He hired me, right out the box. Freddie Washington had left the group and he was looking for me and (saxophonist) Everette Harp had suggested me to him. Same thing. George called me up—very personable, very professional—and said “Now okay, I’d like you to come to my studio and do some playing with me. Let me hear what you’re doing.” And we set up a date and a time, and hung up the phone and about ten minutes later, George called me back and said “Man, I heard you. I don’t need to do no audition.” He hates rehearsals. (laughs). He really does. He does not like to rehearse. He’s a jazz guy from the top to the bottom. In other words his spontaneity is what drives him. He doesn’t like to plan so much what’s going to happen. He just likes to hire professional people to come in and do their job. He doesn’t tell you how to do your job. He hires those people that know what they’re going to bring to the table and he trusts them. That’s one thing I can say about George: he’s one of the most trusting artists I’ve ever worked with in terms of he just allows the other artists that make up his group to come in and do what they do. He hired me and said “Man, just be at this studio. We’re doing this recording. Bring your upright.” So my first session in L.A. was in 1991 with George Duke, Paul Jackson Jr. on guitar, and Leon “Ndugu” Chancellor on the drums. And me on the bass. We were playing for a Japanese artist; I think her name was Anri. And I’m sitting in the booth and I’m just looking out and I’m like “Oh my God, this is George Duke here. This is no slouch.” It was a thrill, and I’ve been really blessed to be around a bunch of really great, great people. So it’s been fun. But George is an amazing guy, amazing artist. So he’s continuing to make music and make history.
BBP: Wow. You know you mentioned Anita Baker. One of the things that struck me about her, she seems to pay a lot of attention to detail in her music. Did you find her to be like that?
Kimpel: Yeah, she does. Yeah, Anita’s really, really hands on. She definitely…she listens…she’s a musician. Some singers are just singers; they need to kind of be told where to go, and some singers know what to do. I mean no disrespect to anybody but Anita was definitely hands on. She paid attention to each and every instrument. She knows what’s supposed to be where. She just is…she really is meticulous. I wouldn’t say she’s so much of a perfectionist, but she is definitely hands-on in that she really wants, she really wants and expects the best out of people. You don’t have to be perfect but it definitely has to be up to her standards.
BBP: When did you play with her?
Kimpel: I did two tours with Anita. The Compositions record world tour, which was in 1990, and then I followed that up with the Rhythm of Love album in ’94-’95.
BBP: And were you on both albums?
Kimpel: No, I wasn’t. Those albums, I think…I think those were done by (bassist) Nathan (East). Interesting, I never actually got in the studio with her. We came close a few times, but something always seemed to prevent that. I got a gold record from her. (laughs) Actually, a platinum record, so…thank you Anita!
BBP: Which one was that?
Kimpel: That was for the Rhythm of Love.
BBP: For the actual song “Rhythm of Love?”
Kimpel: No, no. The CD
BBP: Oh, you were on the CD.
Kimpel: No. No. She just gave all the band members the platinum records as a thank-you for helping put it over the top. Because if you don’t go out and play live, you know if people don’t see it live, they’re not going to the store. So that’s what all that was about. The studio cats that she hired, they put together the documents. We brought it to the table live, you know, myself, there was Rayford Griffin on drums, great drummer from Jean-Luc Ponty and George Duke; Ray Fuller and Dwight Sills were guitarists; and then I think we had Keith Henderson also. He’s from Chicago. He came in, I think, midway through that tour. The great(Leonard) “Doctor” Gibbs, percussionist….and then rounding that out I think we had Darrell Smith on keyboards, who’s done Janet Jackson…I mean Darrell’s done everybody. Then we had (keyboardist) Don Wyatt. We had the Perry Sisters (from West Virginia), great background vocalists, and the Ridgeway Sisters (session singers from Detroit) as well. Man, I tell you, just a great, great bunch of artists that rounded that thing out. She felt like she needed to give everybody that acknowledgement, so we were blessed to have those hanging on the wall as a thank-you for doing the job well.
BBP: Wow, that’s incredible. Incredible story. How did you meet Anita Baker?
Kimpel: That’s another interesting one. Each piece fits into the other piece. What happened, was, I was working with the great guitarist Phil Upchurch in Chicago. And if you don’t know Phil, he was a HUGE session player in Chicago.
BBP: Yeah, I know about him…
Kimpel: Yeah, a ton of records. And he was also the second guitar player with George Benson for years. So I was working with his band and a good friend of his, Bobby Lyle, great keyboard player, called him and he says “Hey Phil, I’m coming to Chicago in a couple of weeks, but I need a pick-up band. Who do you think I should call?” And Phil didn’t hesitate. He said “Call Larry Kimpel. He’s my bass player, he’s a great cat, great player; he’ll put it together and you’ll be happy.” So, out of the blue, I get a call. It’s Bobby Lyle, calling from L.A., and I’m like, “Oh my God. Great, man. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.” He’s like “Hey, man, I’m coming, blah, blah, blah. I need you to put a band together for me. Can you do that?” I said “Of course.” So I got on the phone and started calling cats, you know. That ended up becoming his band. We did such a great job, he just started hiring us to do his live shows. So we worked with Bobby for a couple of years doing that. Long story short, we were in Detroit doing a show. And we were with Jonathan…Bobby Lyle opened for Jonathan Butler. And Bobby was musical director for Anita Baker back in 1985-86, somewhere in there. So he called her—she happened to be at home—he called her and invited her to the show—her and her husband—and they came to the show and we met back stage after our set. And I’m talking. I’m like: “Man, this is a great honor to meet you guys, I’m a huge fan” and she was like: “Oh thank you.” She was so gracious and nice. She said, “Well listen, if you’re not leaving, why don’t you come upstairs in the balcony with us and watch Jonathan’s show?” So I said,”Sure, that’d be great, I’d be honored to do that.” So we walked upstairs and watched the show and after the show was over I turned to her husband and I said “Once again, it’s a pleasure to meet you guys and here’s my card. If you ever need a bassist for whatever, please think of me and give me a call.” And he took the card and he looked at it and he said, “Oh, okay. Great. Because actually we’re getting ready to get rid of our bass player.”
BBP: (laughs) Wow!
Kimpel: Yeah! So my heart just dropped. I’m like “Oh my God.” So like, divine timing for real. So long story short, about six months later her management called and said “Anita’s going out. She said to call you. Are you available and would you like to come out?” And I was living in Chicago, and I said “Absolutely.” And that’s how that happened. They flew me out a couple of weeks later and we started rehearsing and they put us up in a great little apartment in Hollywood there, and we went to rehearsals and that’s when I met all of these other wonderful people. That’s how that happened.
BBP: And why was she seeking to get rid of her other bass player?
Kimpel: You know, I think it was just…sometimes relationships, they end. And he’d been with her for a while and I guess they were just not seeing eye-to-eye artistically, you know. And it was time to make a change. Sometimes it just is. I never heard the reason, but I’m assuming that’s what it was.
BBP: Frankie Beverly. Now you’ve been with him for how long?
Kimpel: I’ve been with Frankie now for going on nine years.
BBP: Wow. And how did you connect with Frankie? I think I saw you one time. Because you guys play D.C., you have a tradition of playing around Christmas time or Thanksgiving?
Kimpel: Yeah, we used to play Constitution Hall. Yeah, that’s another story. I worked with them…I was referred to the band by Wayne Lindsey, great keyboard player, songwriter, producer who is actually…if you watch “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” right now, you’ll see him on keyboards. And he was in the band; he was in Maze for some years. And Frankie was needing someone to record on his album back in 1994, Back to Basics CD. And Wayne suggested that they call me. We’ve known each other for a few years and done some projects together, so he called, gave Frankie my number and they called me and set up a time for me to come fly up….and start recording. So that happened. It was a great experience and we finished that project and I moved onto other things and that was like ’94, so fast forward to—I guess—2002. The drummer—who was also a fellow Chicagoan, Michael White—I’m driving, doing some errands and stuff and I get a phone call from Mike. Mike said “Hey man, I just want to give you a heads up. Robin Duhe, the longtime bass player for the band, he’s going to go out on his own, so he’s leaving the band. So the bass chair’s going to be open. So they’re auditioning cats now, but I think they’re getting ready to close the audition. So you may want to give Frank a call. Here’s the number, give him a call and try to get them to hear you.” I said, “Okay, thank you my brother.” (laughs). So I called and left a message. I said “Frank, this is Larry Kimpel. You know I worked with you...” and we would see each other periodically through those years. If they were in town, I might stop in or whatever, so we had seen each other. And I said, “Hey man, this is Larry Kimpel. How are you doing? I hear that Robin’s leaving the band and I know that you’re auditioning people. If you wouldn’t mind I would like to be included in that because I think I know what you need. I think I’d be able to give you what you need as far as the bass chair is concerned.” So he got that message. He immediately called his assistant and had him set up a flight. And about a week or so later they’re picking me up from the airport in Oakland to take me over to the audition with Maze. And you know I played. I had somewhat of an unfair advantage because that was one of my favorite bands coming out of high school (laughs). It was my dream band actually. I love Robin Duhe. He was another huge influence on me and so I knew a lot of their stuff already. So I just came in and I played and they were just so impressed. Frank was so impressed that he offered me the gig that night. And I accepted it. And that’s pretty much it. And I’ve been with them—it will be nine years I think in September of ‘11.
BBP: You’ve recorded on a lot of their albums, right?
Kimpel: Actually I’ve done the one record, actually we haven’t had a record out since that record, believe it or not.
BBP: I know. I follow them…I think the last one they did was “Silky, Silky Soul Singer?”
Kimpel: Um-hmm. So that record, we did that one. Since that, a couple of years ago we did a live DVD in Dallas, Texas that Frank’s planning to put out with about six other songs that’s he got. Six new songs. So um, not sure when that’s coming out. Think he’s trying to get that out later this year. So anyway that record’s supposed to be called Anticipation.
BBP: (laughs) Aptly named.
Kimpel: (Also laughs) Yes, aptly named. So we’ll be working on that. Like I said we do the live video which is really, really great. The band lives live, it’s just one of those great live bands. That’s how they made their mark. My wife told me they used to do two shows a night and they would work six nights a week. They were killing, they were just burning up the place. So that’s how they ended up being in the echelon that they are. But yes, in answer to your question, the Back to Basics CD and then this new thing that’s getting ready to come out.
BBP: Have you recorded the new songs yet on Anticipation?
Kimpel: No we’re doing pre-production and we haven’t gone in and cut the stuff yet. But we’ve heard it and it’s bomb stuff. It’s definitely Maze, and I can’t wait to actually track it.
BBP: Wow. And the songs are actually penned and you have versions of it right now that just really haven’t been cut in the studio yet.
BBP: Gotcha. And we’ll hear that when? People are going to want to know that, man! (laughs)
Kimpel: You know what? That’s really up to Frank but I’m assuming he’s going to try to get it out, you know, this year, later this year, maybe late summer. I’m hoping. But that’s all up to that man there.
BBP: I know that, besides Outlaw X and Maze, you’re very into Christian recordings? You have one out, Be Still and Learn
. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Kimpel: Sure. That’s my true passion, you know is praise and worship music and Christian music in general. So the Be Still and Know project is all original material. It was written and produced, co-produced by a guy named Monty Seward and myself...and the background vocals are myself, Monty and his wife Kimia Seward who is the former lead singer for the jazz group Hiroshima. So that’s a real passion, that record. Real close to my heart. I get a lot of good response from people on that record, and I’m working on the next one now. It’s going to be called Reverence and I believe it’s going to take people into a deeper place of worship and meditation on the God of the Universe. Like I said, it’s really passionate; it really is a passion of mine and a calling. So I take it really, really seriously. I have fun with it, but that music is sacred to me. So I really do try to give it that treatment that it deserves. The Be Still and Know project is available on I-tunes, Amazon, all the major on-line outlets. But yeah, look out for Reverence, That should be released by summer of 2011.
BBP: I know the big song from Be Still and Know is “It’s Good to Know”
Kimpel: Yeah, “It’s Good to Know.” There’s a video of that on youtube and yeah that’s one of my favorites on there. And I’m thinking it’s just good to know that Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith, and it’s just a good thing to know he is where he is, and that he loves us, and so it’s a nice little groove and it just moves forward and it’s a nice little praise kind of a thing. But there’s a lot of good things on there… People gravitate to what they are drawn to and I can’t say….there’s not one song on there that someone hasn’t said, “man, that really touched me,” or “this is my favorite” or “that’s my favorite.” So it’s really…it’s been gratifying. And I’m planning to go out and do more ministry live, you know, doing the record live in churches and various church events and things like that in 2011 and beyond that so a lot more momentum on that side of my career.
BBP: How did Outlaw X come together?
Kimpel: Outlaw X was a concept of mine that I came up with. Coming from Chicago, I was exposed to a lot of different music and one obvious music coming out of Chicago was blues. I kind of ran from that influence while I was there because I didn’t want to get…it was a thing like you were pigeonholed if you played blues because they worked so much, that’s all you’d ever be able to do. You’d just be working doing that. So I kind of put it on the side, didn’t really pursue it while I was there. I was doing a lot more jazz, R&B and a few little rock things here and there. So long story short fast forward about fifteen or so years after I left Chicago it was time for me to kind of revisit all of that: that music, that heritage, that culture. My family’s from Arkansas, so I have a country boy inside me. So I have a real sensibility for that. I just wanted to explore it, so I called up some good friends of mine and they were all happy to come on board. Myself and the guitar player Ricky Zahariades; and then we got Herman Matthews, great drummer, from Houston, Texas; and then from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, rounding it out was Billy Steinway on keys. And so we all collaborated. I brought a lot of the music to the table originally and then everyone put their stamp on it…and that first record is called “Out of the Box.” It’s all original music except for the very last song. We did a remake of Rod Stewart’s “Stay with Me.” What I wanted it to be was not really a traditional blues record. I wanted to pay homage to those past influences. But I also wanted to put a newer kind of a spin onto an old form. So that’s where it came from, you know, that’s what we did with it and we were very pleased with it and since then we’ve done some other songs that haven’t been released yet. That’s basically the history on that one though.
BBP: When did that album come out?
Kimpel: I believe that came out in ’08.
BBP: You’re leading the band, and it sounds like, I don’t know, you were…I heard kind of a Stanley Clarke influence. I’m not trying to read between the lines or anything…
Kimpel: Oh, no, no. Well Stanley was a definite influence on me. He was one of the first bassists that I listened to when I first picked up the instrument. I picked it up around age 12, and so right about the time I was about 14, Stanley Clarke came into the picture. Between him and Jaco Pastorius, those were two huge, huge influences at the onset because they were literally pioneers of—if you want to call it—lead bass, you know. Outside of being great groove players they could definitely stand out front and be counted obviously. So yes, you probably hear some of him and so will a lot of other folks. That’s kind of how I grew up, like I said, in Chicago…it’s kind of an unwritten rule, you basically had your influences and then you put your spin on those influences. And that’s how you got your voice. Nobody ever comes out of the box just by themselves unless they’ve been in a cave (laughs) you know? So you’re definitely going to hear influences. I thank you for having big ears!
BBP: Where did the band’s name come from?
Kimpel: The name came from my guitar player, Ricky Z. And what it is, there was a radio station down on—I think it was the Texas-Mexico border—and it was called, I believe it was called the “X” if I’m not mistaken. And the band Z.Z. Top made a song called “I heard it on the X.” Basically the song talks about the radio station and all of the different songs and the different types of stuff they would play. And they became outlaws as in outlaw radio stations, like an underground kind of a thing. So that’s where it came from….Basically it speaks to the band’s multi-genre kind of blues that we do. Because we do blues and we do have an R&B influence. We do have a rock influence. We do have, obviously, the blues influence. And in some instances on some level we have a little bit of the jazz influence. So it’s all kind of woven into that one thing. But it came from that radio station down in Texas. That’s what that was inspired by….The only thing that I would want people to know is that I do have an independent record label and that’s called GVR entertainment—it’s actually short for God’s Voice Records.