Soul Survivors

For years, local R&B's Best Kept Secret have stayed true to their name

Purple Rain's mid-Eighties moment was a prosperous one for black musicians in the Twin Cities--if your name was Prince, that is, or if that was the name gracing your paycheck. But in many ways, 1984 marked the end of an era for Twin Cities rhythm and blues. Long before the biggest fish in the land of ten thousand small ponds stopped calling himself Prince, the tiny R&B scene that nurtured him was overshadowed by his national success. For a generation of black musicians that had developed alongside him, it was a time to move on--to careers, to school, to families.

One act that disappeared shortly after the purple deluge was a striking trio of sisters known as Mist. Rumor had it that Prince dreamed up the project Vanity 6 after seeing Kathleen, Kym, and Rhonda Johnson sing at the Nacirema, a black social club in Minneapolis, whereupon he adapted the concept to his tastes with slender, smuttier-looking playthings.

After making the rounds of neighborhood talent shows, parties, and receptive local venues such as the Riverview Supper Club, the Johnson sisters learned there was a discernible ceiling to how much exposure a black R&B group could hope to gain without donning lingerie. Return invitations were rare at rock venues. "Clubs weren't too eager to draw an all-black crowd," Kym Johnson remembers.

Kym is describing this scenario to me a decade and a half later, the night before Labor Day 1999, as she joins her sisters Rhonda Johnson and Kathleen Bradley in a garish, soulless barn of a sports bar whose registered trademark will remain unnoted here. The three currently have a new band, Best Kept Secret, and an old problem: finding work singing R&B in what has been called the vanilla market of the Twin Cities. Dreadlocked and prone to enigmatic facial expressions, Kym is the most likely of the three to be mistaken for a performer, and even she's a long shot. A quick glance at the table would only reveal three casually dressed, relaxed women in their 30s--an ideal disguise, perhaps, for the special reconnaissance mission the trio is on tonight, along with BKS guitarist Scott Dercks and keyboardist Todd Burrell.

Admittedly, this isn't the sort of place the sisters usually hang; it seems to recruit waitresses for physical attributes you can't legally advertise for. But the venue reportedly pays bands well. And besides, tonight it features a group called the Package (or, as a banner proclaims, PKG) with whom BKS share a bass player. As we converse over drinks, the Package sound checks with "Killing Me Softly."

"People want to dance to something they know," shrugs Burrell, who, like most of Best Kept Secret's members, has paid his dues on the cover-band circuit. To form BKS, Kathleen Bradley left a well-paying job with an act whose repertoire she sums up as "Motown, Motown, and more Motown." But as the band members scout a downtown that looks increasingly like Megamall North, the conversation among the Burnsville siblings reveals roots in Minneapolis music that run deeper than a prospective club booker could imagine.

 

In the late Seventies, south Minneapolis was bustling with young, gifted black musicians and singers. At least that's how Bobbie Johnson, the sisters' mother, remembers it. Back then she was raising her family on 31st and Portland. "Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis used to practice next-door to my brother's bait store," she recalls. "Terry Lewis's brother would come over and get chips and pop when Prince and the Time were playing."

Bobbie remembers Kym being the first of her children to take the semipro plunge, singing in a band with the era's premier bassist, Sonny Thompson, who taught Prince his first licks and remains a fixture in the local scene. Soon Kym scored a gig with longtime local jazz and R&B bandleader Billy Holloman, and eventually formed a trio with her sisters that began performing in various permutations.

"I thought it was pretty useless, and that they'd never get anywhere," remembers Kathleen, the eldest sister, who tagged along reluctantly at first. "But I sang anyway, for the fun of it, and to get attention from my parents."

But soon the singers redirected their energies into their private lives, taking on day jobs that soon began to look suspiciously like careers: Rhonda became a family advocate, and Kathleen a police technician for the city of Minneapolis, while Kym relocated to San Francisco to pursue a degree in kinesiology.

They returned to music only much later, in 1994, as a BKS precursor named TKO. Brother Kirk Johnson, who had drummed with Prince as a teen, kept plugging away in the meantime. He eventually re-enlisted as house drummer for his now-nameless childhood acquaintance, an intense but lucrative position with useful fringe benefits. While thumping for his boss's three-disc Emancipation, Kirk smuggled his sisters into Paisley Park to record what became Best Kept Secret's debut album, last year's fine slice of adult-oriented slow-jamming, Honest, Pure & True.

"I would never want to record a CD the way we recorded this one," Bradley says. "It was in the wee hours of the night, on call, really and truly based around the schedule of the Artist, because Kirk was able to do it only when the Artist was asleep. Two, three, four, five in the morning."

With a new lineup and a professionally produced album to match, Best Kept Secret landed a temporary Monday-night house gig at the Blue Nile, where they were able to tighten their sound and gather a small crowd of enthusiastic regulars. But their weekly draw failed to grow, so they pulled up their stakes and sought new venues for their jazzy brand of soul. "People sit down to watch us play," Dercks says. "That's a problem with club owners. We see an audience having fun. They see a crowd of people staring at the stage and not drinking. We're not really a dance band."

 

Tell that to the five-year-old girl engaged in a perpetual camelwalk throughout Best Kept Secret's gig at the Quest on Labor Day afternoon. Just off the main drag of the Mill City Music Festival, tucked away in the inhospitable darkness of the club formerly known as Glam Slam, Best Kept Secret live up to their name once again. Outside, preparations are under way for the closing ceremonies presided over by the Artist himself, and his numerous musical affiliates are scattered throughout stages along Hennepin Avenue. Packed into a fenced-off parking lot to see the Time, nostalgia besotted fans wriggle as funkily as space permits. A phalanx of bodies stands between latecomers to the main stage and the Artist's first warm up act, Alexander O'Neal.

Best Kept Secret's performance is a bit more cozy, and anyone who has accidentally stumbled across the gig might mistake the few dozen seated listeners for a private party--not that anyone is likely to stumble into the Quest at 2:30 p.m. on a Monday anyway. The groove in which their preteen fan has lost herself isn't exactly gritty; like much contemporary R&B, it's as much comfort food as soul food. And like many accomplished musicians free to lick their chops, the Secret keepers occasionally indulge in too much slick fusion, negotiating chromatic scales that sound corny to rock-hardened ears. Those vibelike synths and tricked-up rhythms are steeped in the cocktail lounge--not the campy, leopard-print version acceptable to irony majors, but the relaxed Friday-evening air of supper-club sociability popular among the black middle class.

Still, this is funky stuff, and the sisters, alternating vocals, do their work with assured grace. Though the group may be linked to Paisley Park by a fluke of geographical and chronological proximity, a stray Earth, Wind & Fire cover situates them more specifically. The band plies restrained funk at its most innovative, embracing virtuosity as a display of open-ended possibility, not a pointless show of dexterity.

As Rhonda's magnificent, church-inflected solo testifies, however, this band is just as in touch with the ecstatic elements of soul's gospel roots. Strains of that sound and an attendant spirit of self-determination intertwine on "Don't Lay Down." Here Kathleen sings, "Good things do come to those who try"--because she believes it, because it seems empirically self-evident to those who have tried and to whom good things have come as a result. She also sings it because such sentiments provide necessary assurance to those still waiting for good things to come. And there's nothing corny about that.

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