Delaware Valley Music Poll Awards, 1992: Lifetime Achievement Award
WMMR Street Beat Awards, 1991: Best Album of the Year, Flesh, Blood & Blue
Philadelphia Music Foundation, 1989: Best Album of the Year, Man Overboard
Kenn Kweder — a native of Southwest Philadelphia— just may be the creator of Philadelphia’s original rock music scene. He took the stage by storm at a time when clubs turned original musicians away. While he “goes back as far as vinyl,” Kenn now attracts a new generation of local fans.
Kenn turned to music after realizing that his “pipe dream” of making it big in the NBA was “toast and smoked.” He learned to play the guitar by watching a PBS show and bought his first guitar with a coupon.
His parents provided little validation for his music career. Even his mother, who dreamt of fame, went to one of his shows and “put her fingers in her ears.” “It was like a stare-down contest,” Kenn remembers. His father, who passed away before “the carnival began,” ran a metal recycling business and wanted Kenn to become an accountant.
Kenn saw his parents sacrifice their dreams for stability and was determined to “solve this little puzzle” and find the key to happiness. He dropped out of Temple University in 1974 to focus entirely on music. To make his presence known in the City of Brotherly Love, he plastered over ten thousand posters on city walls. He also told people he was the Messiah. “I thought it would get publicity,” he says. It succeeded and he attained some notoriety along the way.
Previously a solo acoustic performer, Kenn took a leap of faith and put together a rock band — Kenn Kweder & His Secret Kidds — a “gigantic attempt at becoming world-wide famous.” In the late 1970s, Kenn was red hot in his hometown. He was the first to release his own 45 RPM singles, “Man on the Moon” and “Susie Said So.” Soon, major record labels began courting Kenn. Clive Davis — who discovered Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston — approached him in 1977.
However, courtship didn’t cut it for Kenn, as record producers insisted that he make his music more fundamental and accessible and proposed that he fire his band. Without a guarantee of fame, Kenn couldn’t bring himself to fire the men who ponder, ‘How can I make Kenn’s songs sound better?’” Nor was he willing to fire the piano playing “genius” Chris Larkin — a man who “took [Kenn] from [his] mother’s basement to New York City.”
Kenn had worked for the government in the past, but quit to pursue his music career. “I sent them the resignation: ‘Big star, I don’t need this job,’” he says. Eight years later, he reapplied for the job, where he interviewed applicants in tough neighborhoods for heating assistance eligibility. He remembers bringing six-packs to these appointments. “I was actually bringing friends along ‘cause I was so bored,” he laughs. “I’d say, ‘This is my assistant.’ (It was actually my bass player). ‘He’s going to take notes’ (‘Cause I’m a joker).”
Eventually, his boss found out. Afterwards, he pursued arbitrary jobs including driving taxicabs and parking cars to supplement the income he earned at gigs. He lived on five dollars a day and received welfare benefits and food stamps for a portion of his life. However, in those days, drugs were free of charge. “…The drugs, the girls, the whole thing — it’s unbelievable,” he remembers of the days when he “snorted coke out of a one dollar Food Stamp.” Still, he’s had some darker days when things went completely out of control. He decided to kick the habit in his forties.
Kenn now lives in a neighborhood of musicians in Germantown — “not a hippie colony, but it’s cool,” — but once lived in a cheap South Philadelphia “flophouse” with “bookies and strippers, people who were marginalized…” There, he saved enough money to purchase a plane ticket to England, where he lived outside of London and played guitars at gigs “equivalent to Smokey Joe’s,” where local students flock to see him today.
Upon returning to the U.S., Kenn started another band — Kenn Kweder and the Men from P.O.V.I.C.H. It attracted “the whole city” at first, but the band fell apart a year and a half later, prompting a succession of other bands including Kenn Kweder and the Radio Church of God, Kenn Kweder and the Couch Dancers, Kenn Kweder and the Enablers Featuring the Co-dependents, and Kenn Kweder and the Men From WaWa. Writer’s block just may be a foreign concept to Kenn, as his unique music seems to come effortlessly. His songs range from folk ballads to uninhibited, profanity-laden rock and roll.
Today, Kenn’s still busy — he performs over 250 times a year. “Maybe I’ll slow down. I’m still going 100 miles an hour right now,” he says. “I’m kind of old, but if I were to slow down, which is possible, it should happen before I have a gigantic coronary.”