When your mother, your aunt, and your third grade teacher say you have a beautiful voice, you have a beautiful voice. Ask Bob Kidney. That’s why he sang in the church choir and at school. Well, until his junior high choir director asked the students to learn how to read music. At one point a few years later, a high school friend sat across from him and played his electric guitar. Bob’s never been the same.
“The sound came across and hit me in the middle of the chest,” he likes to retell. “I knew immediately that learning how to play guitar was what I wanted.”
There was no way he could know he would one day become one of the bellwethers of avant-garde music in Northeast Ohio as front man of 15 60 75, popularly known as The Numbers Band, but he went ahead and taught himself to play anyway. Since it was the mid-‘60s, he also took the opportunity to immerse himself in the Beatles-led British Invasion and the Dylan-directed folk music revolution. He sang along with the Sing Along with the Kingston Trio records. He played along with the chords printed inside the album, strumming them backwards, forwards, and sideways so he could play them at will.
Bob shaped himself into a folk singer and talked his way into becoming the opening at for bands at bars like the Hullabaloo Club on the corner of his street. Soon he was opening for Janis Ian and Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Ponies at the now-legendary La Cave folk club in Cleveland. Then, while stationed in Chicago during his Navy service, he frequently patronized the Windy City’s legendary downtown blues clubs, quickly becoming enamored of bluesmen like Lightning Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf.
“I had no problem playing chords to support my voice,” he recalls. “But I didn’t understand how the guitarist could play such complex music and sing at the same time.”
Bob returned from the service and what he thought would be a chance to jam with some friends turned into his first band, when they asked him to replace their lead singer who had quit. He happily accepted. Bob loved performing, but he realizes now that the band represented a way out of the hard construction jobs he was working. One night at the Kove, an infamous college bar in Kent, Ohio, he cemented his commitment to fronting a group when they entered a “Battle of the Bands” contest to become the club band in front of a packed house.
“I had my back to the audience, and I picked up my harmonica,” he remembers. “I said, ‘We’re taking this place tonight. I’m going to own it.’ I turned around, and that’s exactly what happened.”
The Numbers Band’s first album, Jimmy Bell’s Still In Town, was released in 1974 and was recently rereleased. Their most recent album, The Inward City, debuted in 2010, and the band is working on new songs now. Bob also plans to release his first solo CD, Jackleg, later this year.
Of the band’s style of music and his older brother as songwriter, Jack Kidney says: “Bob has a singular vision of what it is that he wants to bring to the stage, and all of our songs are lyric-driven.”
Along the way, one of Bob’s most memorable music moments happened on September 27, 2000, his 52nd birthday, when The Numbers Band performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London. David Thomas of Pere Ubu invited them to participate in the show to feature some of America’s musical innovators.
In the midst of two documentaries being made about the band and Bob’s music, he has been reflecting on his five decades of music. He is both deeply appreciative of the two dozen musicians with whom he’s had the opportunity to create music and perform and confident he has stuck to his singular mission.
"The focus of my life is on music itself, not on its value as a commodity." he says.
What is the Cleveland Arts Prize?
In 1960, the Women’s City Club sponsored a series of talks to assess the cultural scene in Cleveland. In the final lecture of the series, composer Klaus George Roy suggested that Cleveland begin a tradition of identifying and honoring its own outstanding artists on an annual basis. Martha Joseph accepted Roy’s challenge and assembled the first Cleveland Arts Prize committee.
For 30 years, Martha Joseph guided the Arts Prize within the Women’s City Club and led a drive to establish an endowment. Under the tenure of Mary Louise Hahn (Chair, 1990 – 2000), the Arts Prize commissioned an Arts Prize medal, launched a scholarship program, and established the tradition of holding an annual awards event in cultural venues throughout the city. Led by Diana Tittle (Chair 2000-2004 and Arts Prize recipient 1997) the Arts Prize codified and published the selection criteria and became an independent non-profit organization. In 2005, Terri Pontremoli led the organization until Marcie Bergman became the Executive Director in 2006. Under Marcie’s direction the Cleveland Arts Prize began the tradition of holding a fundraiser in addition to the annual awards event.
The oldest award of its kind in the United States, the Arts Prize is a testament to the standard of excellence and quality of artists in Northeast Ohio. In addition to artists, the Arts Prize honors individuals who have expanded the community’s participation in the arts and helped make the region more hospitable to creative artistic expression.
Learn more about previous winners at clevelandartsprize.org
Nominate someone YOU think deserves some recognition!