“We Are the Alternative to the Alternative”

The Numbers Band Shows Why Quality Still Counts



words by Steve Van Auken, photo by Ashley Kouri 

Bob Kidney does not suffer fools gladly. So it’s better not to ask him if leading The Numbers Band (15-60-75) is “fun.”

“There is no fun in it for me,” Bob says. “When I’m playing, it’s dead-serious business. I don’t value fun that much.”

But when he and his brother value something, they value it ferociously. And a ferocious commitment is exactly what you would expect to find at the beating heart of a band that has been challenging and pleasing its fans with deeply original, “no rules” music for forty-seven years. And counting.

The Devil Strip sat down recently with Bob Kidney, Jack Kidney and long-time friend and band- mate, Terry Hynde.

The Devil Strip: “Bob, Jack, there are a lot of brothers who can’t stand to be around each other long enough to grill hamburgers. Yet you have stayed creative together in the Numbers Band for 47 years. How do you do it?”

Jack:  “He is six or seven years older. We never really competed. That carried over in the band.”

Bob: “Some things get accepted. Our love for each other matters most. Because of what we went through growing up, the music binds us together . . .”

“Jimmy Bell” was the band’s first album. When barely out of their teens, they invented themselves as a band in the summer of 1970 in the city of Kent. They began playing in the vibrant music and bar scene. The embers of the ROTC building had barely cooled, the nation was being torn apart by the passions of the Vietnam War and the killings of four students had brought Kent State University an awful kind of fame. Downtown Kent swirled with a sense of revolution, of infinite possibilities and of the power of youth.

No one wanted to go home at night, and no one had to. The numbers band could defy the fire marshal and pack hundreds into bars like the Kove and JB’s to hear music. No band aroused more loyalty and passion than The Numbers Band.

From its beginning, it proclaimed itself distinctive. It drew its name from the “numbers rackets”— underground lotteries that proliferated before the government decided to get into the business itself. A bettor could select his own numbers. Some believed that one’s dreams, properly understood, offered sure guidance on which numbers would win. The numbers 15-60-75 boiled down to 1-4-5, a key musical chord in rock and roll. A unique name for a unique band.

Finding its own true sound proved harder. Many of those who came to hear them play wanted rock and roll. Period. But that was not really where Bob Kidney was coming from. While living briefly in Chicago, he had fallen under the spell of some great Chicago bluesmen, like Buddy Guy. He wanted to mine this rich vein of American music. Some of his bandmates wanted to go in very different directions. Even though the group was wildly popular, and making good money, something had to give. Matters came to a head the night the band’s bass player, Gerald Casale, came on stage in a gorilla mask. Bob fired him that night. But Casale didn’t suffer long. His new band, Devo, quickly made a name for itself nationally, including a fat record contract.

Something that 15-60-75 would learn, after years of effort, was not to be part of their own story.

Bob Kidney left shortly after Casale did and took the band’s name with him. He wanted to play a different kind of music, and he wanted his younger brother with him. Jack Kidney at the time had his own band, King of Hearts. But he left to join Bob in the reincarnation of 15-60-75 that most fans know today as the Numbers Band.

TDS:  Terry Hynde, how did you meet these guys?

Bob: “It was at a Janis Joplin concert at Blossom. The girl I was with pointed across the lawn and said, ‘That guy there can really play the sax.'”

Before the evening was over, Terry had joined the band.

Through the years, other musicians have come and gone, although this doesn’t quite convey the powerful gravitational pull of this band. Frank Casamento, for example, recently had to quit the group when his day job required him to move to Chicago. He had been in the band for a mere 24 years.

The band today continues to be shaped around the core of Bob, Jack, and Terry, with Clint Alguire on drums and Bill Watson on bass. Bob composes the majority of their music. Jack composes the rest. On stage, in their favorite venues like Jilly’s Music Room, Bob is out in front on guitar and vocals. Terry handles alto sax, baritone sax, and maracas, while Jack gives the music whatever it needs, whether on vocals, harmonica, tenor sax, organ or conga. As you would expect of men who either carry Medicare cards or soon will, they tend to take their time in moving about the stage. Their stage presence doesn’t remind the audience of the early days of James Brown. But if you happen to be a younger person coming out to hear this band for the first time, do not assume you will be hearing what your Dad might play. Not unless your Dad is a man of deep, spooky power, and a commitment to spitting in the eye of anyone who might imagine that they could tell him what to think. With the talent to shape this contrariness into exquisite music.

And if you can convey that to an audience, over decades, you don’t really need to jump around the stage.

TDS: Your music has been called uncategorizable.

Bob: “The music is organic. It’s not technical. The audience never hears us sing the same song twice, in the same way. That’s the idea. If we didn’t write lyrics, it would be probably more abstract. That requires less abstraction. We don’t play by rote, it’s a performance. We don’t predict it in advance.”

Terry: “We’ll get all cylinders firing at the same time. And we can still sound good even on a bad night.”

TDS: Was music important in your homes when you were kids?

Jack: “Not really.”

Terry: “Our Dad played harmonica.”

TDS: When you started out you had your own challenges. The industry did not know what to do with a band that refused to be categorized. Your music was rock, and it was also blues, and jazz. Not exactly a prescription for the Top Forty. Not that you wanted that. What do you think the challenges are for a band starting out today?

Jack:  “It’s easier now. The social network. [But] getting gigs, that’s not any different.”

Bob: “No one would distribute [our first album.] My goal wasn’t a product. Radio wouldn’t play it. Now, it’s not a problem. You can do it on your own. The Black Keys own all their own music. People in the band [still] have to get along.

TDS: What about your city has affected your music?

Terry: “The culture was changing [in Kent]. We played four nights a week, to packed houses. We were rich hippies. Of course, we weren’t high! It was thrilling. The entire town was overwhelmed with people and music. It had a lot to do with the war.”

Bob: “We were making a lot of money then. It was intense, exciting.”

Terry: “We played a different kind of music from everyone else.”  

Bob: “We played blues, not covers. We played my take on the blues.”

It would be the only time in their lives when they could make a living strictly from music. After this period, they all got day jobs. Bob, now retired, has worked in construction, including as a skilled plasterer. Jack, skilled with a variety of tools as he is with musical instruments, handles maintenance for a local social service agency.

TDS: Who were your influences?

Jack: “I started playing because of the Beetles.”

Bob: “I like a lot of things.”

Jack: “Joni Mitchell, John Coltrane, Albert Iler.”

TDS: How do you create a song?

Jack: “[Bob will] write a song. He’ll present it. I’ll join in, and Terry will. [Later], we collaborate on ways the songs are performed.”

Bob: “I’m a composer. Not a singer-songwriter. I come down with a complete form in my head. How I want the song to feel. It usually comes from the rhythm section. Then that is explained. They have to come up with something that belongs to them. I’m not a guitar player. I’m an expressionist. (Freak) notes. I don’t have time for that. The guitar supports your voice. There are no rules.”

TDS: Bob and Jack, you both recently made solo recordings?

Bob: “A friend of mine encouraged me to do it. We [Bob and his wife] went to Brooklyn to visit him. I hate the studio. These guys know. [But I wanted to set down] all these songs I know that the band would never do. So I looked at it a little differently.”

The result is “Jackleg,” a recording of Bob’s music, starkly expressed in his voice and guitar.

Jack: “I don’t like the studio either. The motor is running. You feel under the gun to produce.”

After he found the software, “Garage Band,” things changed.

Jack: “I was off to the races. The clock wasn’t ticking. I didn’t know if the band would get to them. It was like playing with army men when you were kids.”

The result is out as “Sealing up the Past,” with Jack playing all instruments, and singing all parts.

TDS: What are you proud of as a musician? What do you regret?

Terry: “I don’t have pride like that. I can’t answer that. It’s just something I like to do. It was just really cool.”

Jack: “Getting to travel.”

Bob: “The band is 47 years old! It’s a local band. A band that plays its own music.”It’s the highlight of our lives.”

“On some days, I regret the culture we live in isn’t a little more open.” There is a “tribal attitude” in music. People feel compelled to choose a style or two, and disparage all others. [But] we weren’t like that. That limits people. If it doesn’t have commercial value, it doesn’t have any value. We could have made more recordings if we had more money.”

TDS: What advice do you have for young musicians?

Terry: “Learn to play in E and A! Just do what you like. The music industry is so freaked up.”

Jack: “You have to enjoy what you play. And learn as much as you can about the business.”

Bob: “The backbone is a concept of what is motivating you to play.  If you are motivated by your own [art] be prepared to be poor and to work.”

Jack: “It has moments of enjoyment.”

Terry:  “The playing is fine.”

Jack: “But the driving, the equipment, not so good.”

TDS: Is it still fun?

Bob:  “There’s no fun in it for me. When I’m playing it’s dead-serious business.  I don’t value fun that much. It’s transcendental.”

Jack:  “Athletes call it the Zone. I know when and how I’ll spend my energy. I loathe driving to the gig.”  

TDS: What is it like in the Zone?

Jack: “I compare mine to dreaming. It’s a place you get to.  To do a harmonica or sax solo.  It’s a memory that feels like a dream.”  

Terry:  “I don’t have something I think about when I play.”

Bob: “It’s organic.  The people of Akron and Kent, they are a part of this 47 years. Part of this history.”

TDS: What do fans expect from you?

Bob: “They expect us to be who we are.  They expect us to write more music.  We’re not a trend.  We are a constant. Other things move around us.  We are the alternative to the alternative.  The band and the music are one thing.  That’s the way I look at it. We owe them. We challenge people.”

The Numbers Band has been offering its take on the drama of life for 47 years. Bob Kidney will look you in the eye when he tells you he has no plans to stop.  That look says that only a fool would doubt that the Numbers Band, grounded in the past of Northeast Ohio, intends to be a part of its future.  Count on it.