Innerviews: Upbeat outlook grounded in joy of music
Weekdays, he pores over tax returns as a state tax audit clerk. But that’s not the Kai Haynes most people know.
He’s one of Charleston’s busiest and most-recognizable musicians, longtime bassist with the Voodoo Katz, a mainstay on the city music scene since the late 1960s.
It started in junior high school when classmate Curtis Price handed him a guitar. Suddenly, sports didn’t matter so much anymore.
He played with Price all over the place. They spent two summers on the road as a warmup and backup band for some of the biggest names in the business — heady stuff for an awe-struck 15-year-old.
He was hooked.
Mentored by Price and later by jazz legend Bob Thompson, he played at all the downtown night spots, including a memorable stint with the George Legg Trio at the Charleston Athletic Club. He played with Thompson in a band called Joi and helped originate the Voodoo Katz 14 years ago.
For several years, he operated a sound studio, LiveMix, with a couple of partners.
He views music as his entree. It lifted him from the Triangle District, broke down barriers, opened doors to people and places he wouldn’t have known any other way.
He loves to entertain. The energy that flows from the audience through him and back out there feeds his soul. And a happy soul it is.
The joy he feels for his music shines in that big, easy smile.
“I grew up in the Triangle District. My dad was a mailman. Haynes Park is named after him. It’s a children’s park up on Piedmont Road, maybe the first black park in Charleston.
“The Triangle District was very cool. This guy would put his jukebox on the street and had like a horn on top of it, and he would be like the DJ of the street, and there would be good music all day long.
“When I went down to Capitol Street and didn’t hear music, I wondered, ‘What’s wrong with this place? No music? It’s not colorful.’ We would have block parties and everybody knew everybody. You couldn’t do anything wrong because somebody’s mom would tell your mom or take care of you themselves. I had a very fun childhood.
“I’m not quiet. I’m just a thinker. I hold back and wait until I have something to say. Problems of Democracy class taught me not to blurt out the first thing you think about.
“I was a football and basketball player at Thomas Jefferson. I played with Curt Price and Levi Phillips and Skip Mason and those guys. I was playing a football game one time and I caught a pass and was going for a touchdown, and I was starting to feel like a gladiator out there.
“Curt Price played in a band. We hung out all the time. He let me borrow one of his guitars and showed me a few things, and I started playing and practicing and practicing. I stopped playing football and basketball and started getting into music. I didn’t know how long I was going to be able to play football at my height. And I enjoyed the music.
“Curt and I developed a band, King Curtis and the Noble Knights. We were on tour for a summer or two. We got a booking agent who booked us to warm up for Herman’s Hermits, the Temptations, Chuck Jackson, the Shirelles. Then we got a job in a club in North Carolina where we backed the artists coming in as the house band. They would bring in a lot of soul artists. I was 15. I thought, man, this is the living!
“We got caught up in the riots in Alabama. We were an integrated band, so it was a strange period to go through. We went through some hotels and we jumped in a swimming pool and weren’t supposed to be in there. We didn’t know any better. They emptied the water and cleaned out the pool, so we decided we were going to do it all day long. We weren’t afraid, probably because we were young. We just weren’t going to take it.
“In a restaurant, a lady didn’t want to serve us. She actually threw a plate at one of my bandmates, threw the plate down on the table. It was kind of crazy. We had to go from Columbus, Georgia, to Virginia Beach. We were going that far and couldn’t get a hotel or room on the beach. We had to play there two weeks. We finally found a place. It was a good time at the Peppermint Beach Club.
“I graduated from Charleston High in ‘68. I played with the King Sound Interpreters, Curt’s band. He left to go play basketball with WVU. We had some new members come in. You could play all up and down Capitol Street. The Corner Lounge, the Daniel Boone, Michael B’s, the Encore. That’s all I did for a long time, play music. Then I got house band gigs.
“I was playing with some members of the King Sound Interpreters at the Athletic Club one night and George Legg and Rick Justice heard me and said they wanted me to join the band. I said, ‘I’m already in a band.’ They said they would make it worth my while. So they gave me enough money that I left the group I was playing with.
“I had a good time up there. Bob Thompson and Winston Walls would come by every night. And they’d sit in. I left the Athletic Club, and Bill Doggett, the famous organ player from New York, hired me for a few gigs and they were talking about me going on the road with them. I’d been jamming with Bob and some of the guys in Joi and I didn’t want to leave Charleston. I stayed with Bob and we formed Joi and played a lot of concerts and were artists in residence for the state. We played all over the state, Moorefield, Friendly, Sistersville, Paden City, for kids in the school systems.
“I was manager of the Press Club restaurant when it was in the bottom of the Holley Hotel for a while, a lunch thing pretty much. I worked at the Culture Center for about two years then became the manager of Absolute Sound in South Charleston. We did home theaters and put speakers in people’s houses. I did some sound work for the Charleston Ballet. I was with Absolute Sound about 14 years.
“I’ve worked for the state Massage Board, did bookkeeping for T Graphics and the state tax department. Me and my partners, Greg Wegman and Brian Young, opened a studio, LiveMix studio. We brought in artists and did live recordings and had a stage. Adam Harris from Mountain Stage had a couple of mini shows up there. We had that about five years. Father Sadie bought the building and moved the tenants out. And that was that.
“I took a job in the tax department. I’m a tax audit clerk. Any musician has a way with numbers. We make corrections on tax returns and stuff. It’s a challenge every day. You can’t believe how many ways people do taxes. I see something every day that I’ve never seen before.
“I played with a reggae band last year, along with the Voodoo Katz. A lot of people call me for pick up jobs. I’ve been with the Voodoo Katz since 2000. Mark Davis studied percussion at WVU. Brandon Willard studied there, too. And Ammed [Solomon] plays on Mountain Stage. So we had three drummers, and we started an African undercurrent to what we were doing. Then we added other influences — Latin, soul, R&B. Unlike most bands you go to hear, most of our stuff is original. We don’t play many covers. We’ve been successful with it.
“One of our biggest jobs is Smith Barney in Connecticut, their main office. They pay us out the wazoo. They also booked us in Emerald Island. We’ve had some fun playing.
“I was with Bob Thompson maybe 15 years. He’s definitely a mentor for me.
“I like Charleston; I’ve had a good time here. I used to own a farm in Wirt County where I could go to unwind.
“I have no regrets. If you are breathing and having fun, and you’ve got something to look forward to, why have regrets? I’m not through. I’m not done. I want to make some more music and have some more fun. I’ve written music and we’ve played my music, and my son just had five or six reviews on his new CD. So why be anything other than happy?
“I took some lessons at the University of Charleston. I’ve gotten books and studied theory. That’s basically my education in music. I do quite a bit of music theory. And I learn by listening to other people play. I’ve played some guitar and a little harmonica and I’ve been working with some penny whistles at home.
“Nothing ever goes the way it’s supposed to go all the time. That’s one thing about being a musician. You have to improvise. If something goes wrong, you have to change it up so it works. And that’s the way you have to do in life, too.
“Music is a great lesson. Music can knock down walls that might have stopped me from doing things. It has been my vehicle from the Triangle District to all kinds of places around this country.
“And you get to meet people you wouldn’t normally get to meet. They aren’t afraid of you because they see you’ve got something in common with them, so you can talk to them or let your music talk to them.
“If they like what you are doing, they want to talk to you. I get the same thing from them. You exchange. I get energy from them when they come out for my gig. If they come out and put that energy out, I’m going to play like I am going to die right here on stage for them.
“It’s all good. I am here for you. We are going to exchange something and have a good time every night.”
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5163.