"Once again Leroy Kirkland was in charge of the session" begins many an account of R&B and vocal group recording activity from the '40s well into the '60s, almost as many as there are jokes that begin "A man walked into a bar...." While in the latter case subsequent happenings are wildly unpredictable, a typical Kirkland summation will proceed reliably through certain steps, with an outcome guaranteed to be pleasing. A guitarist whose most illustrious training grounds were the Jimmie Lunceford and Cootie Williams big bands, Kirkland idolized jazz guitarist Tiny Grimes. Solos in the Grimes style were something he really never stopped tossing into songs as if adding a throw rug to a room. Kirkland developed into a force beyond the guitar fretboard, however, leading his own groups and serving as a combination director, conductor, and arranger. Before the man who walked into the bar had even ordered a drink, Kirkland would have decided on a configuration -- septet or larger or maybe just a quintet -- and would have been well on his way into staffing it with both people and music.
Typical for a guitarist from the era prior to the axe roaring into the forefront, Kirkland envisioned the horn section as the lead instrument. He had a top-flight crew of players to prove the point, including the famed Sam "The Man" Taylor, Al Sears, and Taft Jordan. Taylor's association with Kirkland goes back to the early '40s, when both were members of a Florida-based band known as Doc Wheeler & His Sunset Orchestra. Wheeler had a big roll with a version of "Foo-Gee," a song written by Erskine Butterfield. The momentum was more than enough to get Kirkland out of South Carolina, where some members of the hit group had been both trained and brought up in the illustrious Jenkins Orphanage Band. Kirkland settled into New York City and stayed put, busy as could be under the auspices of producers who assumingly sensed his feel for the new styles that were developing, groupings that always provided just the perfect touch.
A surrender of ego may never be required of a record producer, yet for an artist in Kirkland's position the resulting dynamic is not to be underestimated. Though a fine guitarist himself, Kirkland would typically turn the chair over to Mickey Baker, also no slouch. R&B buffs sometimes claim to be just as happy reading the personnel listings for certain sides as listening, at least the ones who don't like to dance. In some cases the backup players have bypassed the fame of whatever name is printed on the label. Behind the obscure Ernestine Hassel Abbott in 1953, Kirkland brought back a quartet that he had previously used to back doo wop smoothies the Mellows, topping it up to sextet status by adding Sears on alto saxophone and Bill Crump on baritone. Loose talk circulating regarding the session indicates Crump came into the picture simply because Kirkland saw him walking down the street in the afternoon. Speaking of walking, Milt Hinton's basslines are a part of many Kirkland sessions, adding an element nearing spirituality to many otherwise trivial pop numbers.
In charge of several different orchestras and big bands operating under his own name, Kirkland had no problem fattening up a horn section. His backing for Dean Barlow of the Crickets, for example, includes a five-horn aggregation including Taylor, Jordan on trumpet, and trombonist Jimmy Cleveland. The outrageous singer Screamin' Jay Hawkins made some of his best recordings with the Kirkland orchestra backing him. Also linked with the early career of the Supremes, Kirkland basically overwhelms with his list of accomplishments, connections, and creations -- all the more sad that author and R&B performer Ben Sidran chooses to bring Kirkland up as an example of a great artist who died in obscurity.