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“Kansas City Red” – Arthur Lee Stevenson

May 7, 1926 – May 7, 1991

Kansas City Red played drums and sang on the 1981 Earwig release Old Friends, which he made with his buddies of 40 years, Honeyboy Edwards, Sunnyland Slim, Floyd Jones and Big Walter Horton, and on an unreleased Earwig session with Willie Johnson, Lester Davenport, Willie Kent and Sunnyland Slim.

Arthur Lee Stevenson, known as Kansas City Red, was an American blues drummer and vocalist who played a major role in the development of urban blues. He performed and/or recorded with many blues artists such as David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Robert Nighthawk, Sunnyland Slim, and Walter Horton. Stevenson was born in Drew, Mississippi. After he was rejected for the service in 1942, he took a brief trip to Kansas City and then became nicknamed Kansas City Red. David “Honeyboy” Edwards was his first musical influence. He started following Robert Nighthawk in the early 1940s and when Nighthawk’s drummer was ill and unable to play a gig, Kansas City Red offered to fill in even though he had never played drums. He was Nighthawk’s drummer until around 1946. Nighthawk recorded Red’s song, “The Moon is Rising”.

Red became part of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s inner circle and he played on the famed King Biscuit radio show in Helena, Arkansas. He had brushes with law enforcement, women, and jealous boyfriends in the south and California before moving to southern Illinois. He moved to Chicago in the 1950s, where he was a regular at Chicago blues clubs, playing with Johnny Shines, Walter Horton, Sunnyland Slim, Earl Hooker, Blind John Davis, Johnny “Man” Young, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Eddie Taylor, Floyd Jones, and Elmore James, among others. He briefly played with Honeyboy Edwards and in the 1950s he formed a band with Earl Hooker and Johnny “Big Moose” Walker.

He led his own bands, including one that gave Jimmy Reed early professional experience. He owned and operated well-known clubs on Chicago’s west side such as the Boola Boola, the Shangri-La, and the Club Reno. Red’s music career lasted more than 40 years. From the late 1970s through 1989, Red led his own band and also played gigs as a member of the Honeyboy Edwards Blues Band, which played local and mid-western clubs and festivals in the USA and Canada. He made his last public appearance, though he was too sick to play, at Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago, at his 65th birthday celebration, one month before he died. Many blues musicians came to pay tribute.

Blues reviewer Whiteis wrote that Red’s vulnerable personality likely prevented his career from breaking out of the local circuit. According to Whiteis, Red was known to openly weep when he sang his song, “I Am a Prisoner”, that he wrote about the time he spent in jail in 1980. However, Whiteis stated that Red “played a major role in transforming the blues from a southern tradition to a forward-looking urban form.” Whiteis described his drumming style as “one of the most identifiable in Chicago Blues, ‘busy and eccentric… punctuated by cymbal crashes” and controlled in with drum rolls. His signature solo, “Freedom Train”, was marked by explosive drumming unanticipated in the middle of slow blues shuffles.[Whiteis wrote that Red’s “legacy transcend[ed] his musical contributions” by owning a series of clubs, his role of encouraging artists and listeners from diverse backgrounds, and his “warm and amiable” emceeing style of his ongoing jams sessions in numerous clubs ranging from the B.L.U.E.S. and V and J Lounge that were attended by musicians and fans from throughout Chicago.

Kansas City Red claimed that he recorded for Chess Records in the early 1950s, but no evidence has been found to verify Red’s claim. He did record on drums and vocals a few tracks for George Paulus’s label with “Big Red” Walter Smith on guitar and “Easy Baby” Alex Randall on harmonica, and in 1979 and 1980 for Earwig Music Company on the album Old Friends with his buddies Honeyboy Edwards, Sunnyland Slim, Floyd Jones, and Big Walter Horton. He died of cancer on his birthday, May 7, 1991.

"Kansas City Red" - Arthur Lee Stevenson
Drummer and Vocalist