KING OF THE NIGHT-TIME WORLD:
Locals weigh in on the tragic death of rock-industry icon Kenny Kerner, who produced KISS’ first two records but was equally passionate about helping young Los Angeles bands get a start
By Gerry Gittelson
Metal Sludge Editor at Large
LOS ANGELES — After breaking into the music business in the biggest way possible by co-producing the first two KISS records, Kenny Kerner remained an industry icon through the decades, not just on a national level but particularly at the local level – where it really counts – before his sad and surprising death on May 26 in Los Angeles from complications from diabetes. He was about 65.
An affable and friendly soul with a deep affection for up-and-coming bands, Kerner spent most of his life trying to help unknown bands make it big. He already had major stripes after producing not just KISS but Gladys Knight and the Pips, Badfinger and other big-name acts, but Kerner’s real passion was on a street level. He was the editor of Music Connection magazine in the late 1980s when the Hollywood rock scene was at its height, and Kerner also worked as a personal manager and demo producer for lots of unsigned bands during that era and continuing into the 1990s, first as a music-biz professor at UCLA before eventually settling in as a long-time administrator at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, where a lot of eventual recording stars first honed their craft.
In this Metal Sludge exclusive, some local figures from the Los Angeles rock scene weigh in on Kerner’s everlasting impact. For this retrospective, we talked to some who were most touched by Kerner’s life and particularly saddened by his death.
Kit Ashley, singer, Big Bang Babies: “Kenny Kerner had a big heart and was obviously very musically inclined and a genius. He worked with us with Big Bang Babies, and he was real easygoing, but you could always tell he knew what he was talking about even though he didn’t push you into doing things you didn’t want to do. As someone who helped young artists, he was just really awesome, and he had a huge heart. I think the world and music business will miss him because there aren’t many guys like Kenny Kerner. As far as just sitting around and spending time with him, he was a very funny guy. He had a bit of dry sense of humor, pretty sarcastic, but always very honest too. If he didn’t like something he’d be the first guy to tell you, but if did like something, he would put all of his love into it. He was one of those guys that was either 100 percent in or 100 percent out.”
Len Fagan, ex-booking director, Coconut Teaszer club: “As the booker at the old Coconut Teaszer, I frequently worked with Kenny Kerner on some of his projects, and he was always very pleasant. And unlike some other personal managers, he was not ‘pushy’ at all. He was always very kind to me when he was the editor of Music Connection, and I regularly booked and featured several of his acts. He knew how the music business worked. It’s all about trusting relationships and the ‘likeability’ factor – and it was quite easy to like Kenny Kerner.
Keri Kelli, guitarist, Big Bang Babies/Slash/Skid Row/Vince Neil/Alice Cooper/John Waite: “Kenny Kerner and I were great friends for a lot of years. He helped me and a lot of other young artists, especially with my very first band, Big Bang Babies, and eventually I remember he invited me to come speak to his class at UCLA. Kenny was just really well-rounded in the music industry. He knew about a lot of different elements, from producing to songwriting to publicity, and the bottom line was he just loved music. He was a lifer for literally almost 50 years, so he knew all the different facets of the music business. He was just a lover of music, and by that I mean the whole game of music and the whole business. He was always there for me if I needed help or advice. I loved him. He was great.”
Tomi Kita, singer/guitarist: “I remember a long time ago Kenny loved one of my songs called ‘Silent Cries.’ My sincere condolences. He believed in my music, and he was a fun person to be around. He encouraged me a lot. I hope he’s in heaven.”
Stevie Rachelle, singer, Tuff: For what it’s worth, Kenny Kerner discovered Tuff. We had run a advertisement in BAM magazine for the first time, and he was the first industry person to contact us. Basically, he said he wanted to put us in more magazines, and he coordinated a photo shoot and some interviews for us. He is the one responsible for my infamous towel photo shot, where I was all oiled up and wearing nothing but a little red towel – and the next thing you know, those photos eventually made it into a bunch of teenybopper magazines. He knew (ex Kiss manager) Bill Aucoin, and he set us up with a meeting because Aucoin had interest in managing us. That didn’t work out, but still, Kenny Kerner was very, very helpful to Tuff.”
Lesli Sanders, bassist, Queeny Blast Pop/Marky Ramone/Pretty Boy Floyd/Prophets of Addiction: “Kenny Kerner was there for us with Queeny Blast Pop when we were just starting out, and he was already a big name, so we really appreciated that. As everyone knows, he was a big supporter of the whole glam scene and all that kind of stuff. It was great working with him because he had worked with some really big artists, so the fact that he really liked our band, that was a big compliment to us.”
Ken Sharp, author KISS book “Nothin’ To Lose”: “Besides Kenny Kerner’s work in producing records for KISS and Badfinger and Gladys Knight, he was a huge part of the local scene and an advocate for local musicians. While he was working at Musicians Institute, from what I understand he was working on a book about his life, and that’s sad that he just died unless the book was already finished, but who knows? For ‘Nothin’ To Lose’, I had interviewed him extensively, and once the book was done, he ended up giving me a really nice quote for Amazon because he said he loved the book so much. He said he was even going to base a course at UCLA around the idea of the book, which is about how you can use a crazy idea like the formation of KISS and turn it into a brand. He was always willing to listen and help, and he was very good friends with the late Bill Aucoin. I would say Kenny Kerner was a true champion of music and musicians. His death is an incredibly sad loss.”
Gerry Gittelson can be reached at [email protected]