ALL I KNEW FOR SURE was that he was a hell of a singer – one of the best, certainly in House Music, likely of his era, probably in the world.
Kevin Irving could boast of what professional collaborators judged a six octave range. It was a voice that could redeem a dubious song all by itself. And there were a few of those over the years – dodgy tracks with dodgy bass lines or chord progressions. That was Chicago, and that was Kevin Irving, making everything (and everyone) sound better than they should. That’s the talent he had.
In October 2014, I learned that Kevin – “Kirv” to his friends, and as it was the name of his company, also to the taxman – was planning a comeback. But it wasn’t a comeback in music as I first assumed. Kevin had been ensconced in Southern California for years, working behind the scenes with young singers and musicians in a gorgeous studio funded by Dr. Dre. Bruno Mars, Ne-Yo and Truth Hurts were a few of the many stars to pass through that studio at one point or another. Some were his “discoveries”, if you want to use that word; “discovering” young talent was part of his job.
Taking the long term view, Kevin Irving was more successful at this than he had been in the (then, as he knew it) small pond of the House Music scene. Though many put on airs, few of his contemporaries successfully made that transition – from Chicago vocalist to pop star to behind-the-scenes A&R rep, producer and talent scout for major players in the industry.
But something was calling Kevin back to Chicago, and to House Music, as it had again and again over the years. It was a comeback that never happened, a life and a career cut short.
I would come to learn all of this later. I learned about the legend of Kevin Irving – Kirv – after he was taken away from us.
IT’S AN UNNATURALLY WARM afternoon in winter – Monday, December 15 to be precise. A tone pulses in my ear and Kevin Irving picks up his phone. I’m not quite awake yet and he sounds busy as well. Rather than waste time neither of us have, we get down to business and schedule an interview two months in the making for that Friday and wish each other a good day.
By Friday, Kirv was in the hospital. By Saturday he was dead. At some point between those two events, I found myself on the phone again, calling him to see if this was really happening. He didn’t answer because it was.
That Monday was the first and the last time we ever spoke. I can still hear him on a record, of course, everyone can, but it’s difficult to listen to the full fidelity of “House Ain’t Givin’ Up” or “The Love I Lost” and reconcile yourself to the fact that this voice has been silenced. I didn’t grow up with these songs, but I know them. I didn’t grow up with Kevin Irving either, but I got to know him by talking to the people who did.
Ride The Rhythm
“Almost every kid in our neighborhood, down 94th Street – all of them seemed to play an instrument,” musician, DJ and Dance Mania Records’ maestro Parris Mitchell says. “The neighborhood was still multicultural then. The older kids – people who were 18 to 20 to 22 when we were in school – all of them seemed to be musicians.
“It was never clear to me whether it was the neighborhood or the entire era that was like that. There weren’t video games so what could you do in 1974 or 1975? You rode your bike, you rode your skateboard or you played an instrument.”
There were six kids in the Irving family, and Parris remembers a huge, elaborate organ in their living room two blocks over from his house. “And this was not the cheap kind either,” he adds, “but the big kind they used in churches with the bass pedals. Kevin’s dad played the shit out of that. Kevin played it and his older brother Will played it as well. Kevin was a couple of years younger than Will and myself. But everybody in that family was talented.”
It was only a matter of time until he got on record. House Music was exploding across Chicago, with a hundred independent labels popping up and every DJ looking for vocal talent which could sing above 808 beats and the vinyl fuzz of the scene’s notoriously bad pressings. In the first stage of his career – a stage that lasted no more than a few years – Kevin appeared on a staggering number of classic Chicago House tracks. Among them was “Ride The Rhythm” with Marshall Jefferson, “Give Your Self To Me” with Farley Jackmaster Funk and “If You Only Knew” with Chip E.
“He had the smoothest voice,” Bad Boy Bill remembers. “Just about every house record he made I played on my mix show on WBMX. He was hands down my favorite House Music vocalist.
“The first time I met him, he was covered in dust and dirt from working at DJ International, helping to get the new building on Randolph ready to move into. That’s the kind of guy he was – down to help and not afraid to get his hands dirty. I was working for Benji Espinoza at Quantum (DJ International’s distributor) and I was constantly back and forth between the Chicago Avenue location and the new place on Randolph.
“Kevin needed a ride, so I dropped him off that night and we had a great conversation. It was an honor to be able to hang with him. I was just a teenager and I was freaking out – like, ‘Kevin Irving is in my car!’”
Kevin quickly established himself as one of Chicago House Music’s star vocalists – part of a group of male singers including Jamie Principle, Robert Owens, Byron Stingily, Keith Nunnally and Darryl Pandy whose power, creativity and flair would set the tone for the next two decades.
It seemed to come so easy. It always does to the people who don’t see the work. “Kirv worked hard at his craft,” Mitchell says. “When he wasn’t rehearsing with others, he would sit in his basement and rehearse by himself. He didn’t have a multitrack, so he would take two tape recorders and sing with himself, just working on the harmonics and his range. He’d record himself and then harmonize with himself and record back and forth between these two tape recorders. Now that’s dedication.”
A New Breed
“I met Kirv in 1988,” Club Nouveau founder Jay King says. It was one year after the group’s cover of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” won a Grammy Award, and he was auditioning for new members.
“Kirv was being managed by these guys named Kaufman & Hill,” King says. “They were also managing another guy named Grant and pushing him really hard. Grant was a nice guy but he wasn’t the guy. Kaufman & Hill said they had another singer, and that turned out to be Kevin Irving.”
King talked to Kevin and heard him sing, and had him flown out to Sacramento two days later. “I loved his voice,” King says, “but the thing is that he signed a deal with Kaufman & Hill and would give them 35%. That was something else! I never took a management fee for managing Club Nouveau, and I don’t feel like someone should have to pay 35% of their money right off the top to management. They disagreed, obviously, and said that they brought Kevin up and everything, but I said that I felt strongly enough about it that I told them I would fly him right back.”
Kevin at the time didn’t understand. “I said, ‘I want you, but I can’t sign you,'” King recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not worried about it today. I’m worried about it for tomorrow or the day when you’ll hate me because 35% of your money was taken away.’ I wouldn’t do it – it felt like robbery to me. I talked to Kaufman & Hill again and they came around. And that’s how Kevin joined Club Nouveau.”
Kevin was 19 years old at the time (King was 25), and he was making the career move that every vocalist among his contemporaries dreamed about – crossing over from the club world to the mainstream.
“Kevin made that transition and there weren’t many others who did, that’s right,” King says. “He had that House thing and that club thing, but with what we were doing in Club Nouveau, the songs were more formatted. But Kevin instinctively understood arrangements. He didn’t play an instrument on that album or write but he was instrumental in how it sounded. The songs seemed to take on his vocal personality.”
“One day Kevin left Chicago, that was all I knew,” House vocalist Walter Phillips remembers. “We didn’t know it was Club Nouveau – we just knew it was something big out in California.”
In fact, it was after he left for California that Kevin’s record with Mark Imperial, “The Love I Lost,” really began to move on the charts. Back then, a hit single meant live performances, and Kevin’s departure left Imperial in something of a bind. As it was, Kevin’s place was taken by an up-and-coming young artist named Derrick Carter.
“Mark needed a vocalist for the performances he’d booked and took me on to do the shows,” Carter remembers. “We toured and played packed venues all over: Prime-N-Tender, McGreevy’s, Dilligafs and one completely unforgettable gig in Detroit with Inner City performing ‘Big Fun’ and Tony! Toni! Tone! doing their breakout ‘Little Walter’.
“I was 18 at the time and no match for Kevin’s vocal skills,” Carter adds, “but I always thanked him for his indirect assistance in helping me establish myself.”
Kevin was coming back to Chicago between his stay in California at Jay King’s house (King, adopting the big brother role, insisted Kevin stay until he had $80,000 saved up. “I wanted to make sure he had enough so that between albums he wouldn’t be broke.”) It was on these visits back home that Kevin and Parris Mitchell began working on their projects together which would be released on Dance Mania under the names The Dance Kings and Irving & Romeo.
Walter Phillips ran into Kevin again while doing background vocals out in California, after a project he’d been a part of fell through. “When you’re out there, things happen and I didn’t have a place to stay,” Phillips remembers. “Kevin was on his way to Atlanta for a show with Club Nouveau, and Jay said I could stay there for one night, since it was Jay’s house. Well, one night turned into two years…”
Eventually, when Irving decided to leave Club Nouveau, it was Phillips that took his place in the group, based upon Kirv’s endorsement, King says.
“I’ve said this to Jay: ‘You opened the door for Kevin and the rest of us just walked in,'” Phillips says. “I went to LA following Kirv, I was ‘Jack N. House‘ following Kirv, I joined Club Nouveau following Kirv. I wasn’t consciously trying to be him or anything like that. He was just that big of a talent.
“The majority of my relationships came from Kirv, both back then and now. He was a leader, an influence and believe me – I know people sometimes say this, but I really mean it – he could do anything, and could do it better than anyone. All the way up to now. I still look up to him.”
House Ain’t Givin’ Up
“If Kevin felt entitled after the success he had at that age,” King says, “it was that he did not want to go back to Chicago. Not because of any dislike of the city (or at least anything other than the cold). But he felt everything was out here. That if it was gonna happen, it was gonna happen in California.”
Phillips agrees. “He didn’t want to come back to Chicago. He was too big – and I don’t mean that in the sense of ego. I mean he had the talent to do a lot more out there than he could do here.”
Kevin kept abreast of the House scene (it was, after all, the 1990s, and the club then was a viable means for an R&B singer or songwriter to broaden their audience.) It was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, actually, when he was increasingly devoting his time to producing other artists that Kevin gave some of his most beloved vocal performances on record thanks to a long collaboration with Bad Boy Bill.
“We stayed in touch once he moved to LA,” Bill says. “I sent him some instrumentals I was working on and he ended up writing ‘Happy’ to one of them. A few years later we linked up and did another song together called ‘All Night With You’.
“Kevin was a fan of all music just like me, and I think that’s why we got along so well. In September 2014, I was in LA for my performance at Nocturnal Wonderland and I stayed a couple of extra days just to go to his studio and play him all the new music I had been working on (and hopefully get him to sing on something!) I went by his studio in Burbank with Richard Vission and we vibed for a couple of hours. I played him my stuff and when he heard this one classic Chicago House beat I had, he started singing immediately. I was blown away! Singing, writing melodies, songwriting – they all came so easy and natural to Kevin.”
Ahead of the Game
From the street one saw the towering letters above the entrance spelling out his nickname and the name of his company – KIRV ENTERTAINMENT. He was a creature of the studio – more than one person said he may as well have lived there (and none of them laughed when they said it). Surrounded by musicians and friends he’d known in some cases for decades, he set about uncovering talent and developing it for the industry and, more particularly, for Dr. Dre, who funded the studio.
“Bruno Mars, Ne-Yo, Truth Hurts – all of these folks passed through,” Jay King says. “Everyone passed through Kirv’s studio. And it was normal for him to be there all the time.
“Sometimes it hurts being ahead of the game. Kevin would sometimes know that this or that was going to blow up but would have difficulty convincing people. Several industry people passed on Bruno Mars. He took Bruno Mars to Dre and Dre passed on him too.”
Kevin never stopped singing – “He would always record himself,” Mitchell says, and those phenomenal sounds would fill the studio at all hours. It was only somewhat recently though that he began collecting those recordings with an eye toward returning to where it had – professionally, at least – begun for him: in House Music.
From what I’ve learned, Kevin was working on multiple projects at once, many of which are now unfinished. What might have been the spark was a project that began as a tribute to Frankie Knuckles after the latter passed away in the Spring of 2014.
Among the other projects was one between Kevin and Parris which would feature new vocals for their Dance Mania classic “Climb the Walls” – in particular, an additional verse.
“[UK producer] Jackmaster was going to do the remix of the new version and still is,” Mitchell says, “but it’s just going to have to be with the original vocal.”
“He was just saying to me, ‘Man, did you know vinyl is making a comeback?'” Jay King remembers. “Kevin said, ‘People are buying my records again – my House records.’ He was playing me some of the stuff. He was really excited about it.”
The Love We Lost
And this was more or less where the story began – for me at least, which was at the end.
Three months ago, I asked Parris Mitchell if he’d be interested in putting together a mix for 5 Magazine. With characteristic selflessness, Parris agreed but also tried to direct the spotlight to someone else, offering to do another mix of Kevin Irving’s classic records as a booster for Kirv’s comeback.
Parris made the introductions and what began as a profile of an artist returning to his roots became an obituary and then the story that you’re reading now.
I’ve had enough experience at this (especially in the last year, as tragedies have repeatedly torn out the heart of the Chicago House Music scene) that I’m accustomed to hearing people saying nice things, reflexively, about the departed, even from those who pay little attention to our “legends” while they’re still with us. The singer Morrissey once observed that it takes thirty years for the pop world to understand an artist, and often that understanding only comes with their death. “And then people say, ‘Oh yes, we do like those people… now that they’re not here anymore…'”
But everyone I spoke to about Kevin Irving – even people who hadn’t heard from him in years – talked about him with a warmth that’s frankly a rare and precious commodity in the music industry. It says something that until the end of his life, Kevin continued collaborating with a group of lifelong friends. It’s just not something you see very often.
“Everyone that met Kirv, loved Kirv,” Jay King says, a statement I heard from three or four different people independently of one another. “He was personable and he touched a lot of people, and I loved that about him. I was his big brother, he was my little brother, and that’s how we worked together.”
Bad Boy Bill still remembers the last time he saw Kirv, last September. “When I left I gave him a hug and said thanks for having us over, and let’s rap soon. Still can’t believe he is gone. I’m going to miss my friend.”
“This interview was something Kevin really wanted to do,” Mitchell told me at the end of a marathon conversation. “He was excited about talking to you. I just really wanted to do this as a personal tribute to him. I knew how much he wanted it.”
End Notes: I’d like to thank Parris Mitchell, Dia, Walter Phillips, Bad Boy Bill, Jay King, Marco Anderson and everyone that took time out to share what were very fond but very personal memories in honor of their friend.