Studies & Facts

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Kenny Marco

Soul Sauce: Recipe for Success

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One of a Series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
By Steven Ross Smith


Kenny Marco, who's been living in Saskatoon for the past seventeen years, is a remarkable guitarist with a star-studded, international, near-forty year career that has its roots in the formative milieu of Canadian blues, rock, and pop music. He's played on billings that featured John Lennon, Chuck Berry, Paul Butterfield and BB King.

Growing up in Brantford (west of Toronto) Ontario, where his Dad owned the only music store, Kenny, like his older brothers, was expected to play the accordion. But he knew it wasn't for him. At thirteen or fourteen he bought his first guitar, a $59.95 hollow-body Exquisite with a pick-up attachment, along with a beginner lesson book.

When his brother showed that he could play better than Kenny, sibling rivalry focussed his motivation, and "by age fifteen I was hooked," Marco says. "I knew then what I wanted to do with my life."

Almost right away Kenny Marco began playing in a high school band, the Galaxies. Soon he joined his first road band, the Beau-Keys, and he can still remember the anxious look on his mother's face when he was going out the door, leaving home at 17 to go on tour.

Oddly enough he was going just down the road to the hotel where the band was staying, because the first gig of their tour was right in Brantford. But he was itching for the whole experience.

This was the beginning of what would become a stellar career that would take him from the smallest, roughest venues in northern Ontario to legendary stages in North America and abroad.

In 1968 Marco co-founded a band that would jump-start his international exposure. That group, started along with Steven Kennedy and William Smith, was Motherlode, a band that has been called the first Canadian supergroup. If you're old enough, you might remember their 1969 hit single When I Die, from LP album of the same name. When the single couldn't get airplay in Canada, the band's management decided to release the album first in the USA. It took off. Enjoying the success south of the border, Kenny hoped for equal acknowledgment at home. But Canadian response remained relatively luke-warm. "It broke my heart," says Kenny. Motherlode in the original formation stayed together two years and recorded three LPs. One still sits 'in the can', likely never to be released.

When I went to speak with Kenny for this article, I didn't expect part of our histories to merge, but they did. In my teens and early twenties growing up in Toronto, I saw perform, or was well aware of, bands like Grant Smith and the Power, Motherlode, Dr. Music, Ronnie Hawkins Band - all bands that Kenny played with. And I frequented that amazing late night R'n'B club on Yonge Street, the Bluenote.

The Bluenote was famous, because musicians such as Stevie Wonder and the Supremes would come there after their Toronto concert gigs and jam with the house band. Kenny Marco played in bands at the Bluenote. So I probably saw him play somewhere in those days, but I can't be sure.

Even more surprising is a specific pilgrimage that Kenny and I undertook separately in the sixties, in the days when 'soul' music received little attention on Canadian radio. We each, with our buddies - and completely unaware of others doing this - used to drive from Toronto to a Buffalo, New York record store called Audrey's and Del's in a black neighbourhood to buy the blues and rhythm 'n' blues records we couldn't get in Canada. We'd often stop at blues clubs to see live acts like the Temptations before crossing back over the border with LPs and 45s stashed under our floor mats. And Kenny and I used to listen to the same gospel and blues radio stations from Buffalo (WUFO) and Nashville (those call letters escape me) at night on our portable radios. These were important and formative music rituals. But I was just a listener and he was a player.

Almost forty years later here we are on a snow-jammed wintry day in Saskatoon where we both live now, and I'm sitting in his studio-office amidst concert posters and LP recordings, and leafing through his old photo album.

Kenny came to Saskatoon, apparently for love, and in preference for a humane, relatively unpolluted place to live. On arrival in 1985 he began scouting music venues. Then, he says, there was only folk, country and rock being performed, and "there were a lot of drum machines" but no blues. He saw an opportunity, and with a yearning for what he calls "soul sauce" he began the search for like-minded musicians. He found Glen Stace, Brent Burlingham, George Tennent, and Sheldon Corbett, and formed Cotton, a band named after the cotton fields where so much of blues music was born.

Since then Kenny has kept extremely busy, playing in many musical configurations and a variety of genres. The pool of musicians here is small and they all play in different ensembles. You might see and hear Kenny with the gospel-based Refiner's Choir Orchestra, the jazzy Roy Sydiaha Quartet, the zydeco band Sanctified Creole, HIP Check, or the Kenny Marco Trio. His talent and unique experiences have enabled him to bring an effective energy to music in Saskatchewan. Though he won't say this, it is apparent that many musicians and audiences here have benefited from his ability.

Talented and ubiquitous Saskatoon percussionist Roy Sydiaha says: "What Kenny has brought to Saskatchewan is a professional work ethic that comes from a place where music is played professionally '24/7'. To say that it is a pleasure to play with Kenny is a gross understatement. He is fun to be around, and always has a smile on his face on stage. He sings great, plays great, and dresses very snazzy! He shows up on time, learns the tunes before the gig, and tries to do his part to make the band sound good."

Angie Tysseland, director of the Refiner's Choir says: "Kenny is a gentleman. Beyond the fact of his world-class musicianship, he is a great guy to work with; humble, exacting, respectful. He brings to us Saskatchewan musicians a link with the world's really big players. I get to say my guitar player used to play with Etta James, David Clayton Thomas - names that everybody knows."

Kenny says his most thrilling experience was playing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Backing up David Clayton Thomas, Kenny played with Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra. And Marco was only twenty-some years old! As well, he also appeared on the Dick Cavett Show.

Kenny Marco can rhyme off more dazzling musical brushes and plucks with greatness, including: Sandy Nelson (K.M. was a session guitarist - his first studio recording session - on the recording of Peter Gunn 1967); Jenny Jones (yes the trash-TV-host-used-to-be-singer. K.M. was in her band Jennie and the Up Set, 1967); Jackie de Shannon (K.M. played on her Atlantic albums, mid-'70s); David Clayton Thomas (K.M. gigged with him often, notably and rewardingly in Las Vegas in the '70s); Moe Koffman (K.M. recorded with him); Gabriel Meckler (producer of Steppenwolf, 3 Dog Night. K.M. worked with him on two LPs with Etta James, the hard-driving, hard-living, American blues belter and 1993 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

And there were big performance venues like the Lincoln Centre and the Houston Astrodome. Kenny says "it's easier to play for 20,000 people than to a handful in a room. There's an energy that carries you."

I could go on. But Kenny isn't a chest-thumper. He says that the real meaning of all his musical work lies in the personal relationships he's been lucky enough to have. Many of his experiences - especially the road tours and the long friendships - have been demanding yet intimate. He feels that each of the people he's shared intense moments with are now a part of him, and he is a part of them. "I'm a weave of everyone I've met," he says. He's found a close community through a passion for music.

Marco keeps touch with that formative community, wherever the individuals are. He's still a close friend and writer-collaborator with David Clayton Thomas who performs and lives in New York. "David and I have been to the wall and back," he says.

Nowadays Kenny performs regularly in Saskatchewan. He has played the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival every year since it started, in just about every venue it offers. He's been in the The Refiner's Choir Orchestra for six years, and he accompanied them on their performances in New York City in 2002.

And he's writing music and trying to place songs through his publishing company Sunny Ridge Music. Recent notable 'crossover' moments for this company have been the purchase of his older recorded songs for use by rap artists The Money Boss Players and Too Short. And one of his songs has been recorded by Quincy Jones.

But it seems that from here on, it's gravy for Kenny Marco. He says, "All I wanted to be was a sideman. And I did it. I've done everything I wanted to do and I got so much in return. I've been so fortunate."

And we're fortunate to have such a fine talent and chunk of Canadian (and American) music history living and playing in Saskatchewan, contributing to our own rich musical scene.

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Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

© For permission to reprint this article please contact the SAA info@artsalliance.sk.ca