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story.lead_photo.caption Kern Kennedy

Kern Kennedy, a rockabilly piano player who backed Sun Records stars, died early Monday at Baptist Health Medical Center in North Little Rock. He was 87.

Kennedy, who lived near Cabot, had a stroke in February. More recently, he suffered from kidney disease, said his son, Perry Kennedy of the Muscle Shoals, Ala., area.

Kern Kennedy was born Oct. 21, 1931, in Tuckerman, the son of Keith Kennedy Sr. and Ruby Perry Kennedy.

The family didn't have a piano. But when they weren't working in the cotton fields, Kern and his identical twin Keith Kennedy Jr. would slip into the Baptist church so they could practice on a piano there.

"They were kind of the love of that little community because nobody could tell them apart," Perry Kennedy said.

Kern Kennedy taught himself to play piano.

In 1955, he joined Newport native Sonny Burgess to form the Pacers. The band cut five singles on Sun Records at Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service Studio: "Red Headed Woman" with "We Wanna Boogie" on the B side, "Thunderbird," "Ain't Got a Thing," "Buckets Got a Hole In It" and "Sadies Back In Town."

"He was an untrained musician like most of the people at Sun, but he had that feel, and that's what my dad was looking for," said Jerry Phillips, 70, the son of Sam Phillips.

"He was a genuinely good guy," Jerry Phillips said of Kern Kennedy. "Came out of the cotton fields, grew up on a farm. The soul of man is in the dirt."

Jimmy Van Eaton, 81, who was the staff drummer at Sun Records, said Kennedy was a solid piano player with the kind of heavy rhythm that drummers like.

"Kern Kennedy was kind of a musician's musician," said Van Eaton, who played drums for Jerry Lee Lewis and other Sun stars. "He didn't kick the stool over or set the piano on fire. He didn't have to do that. He didn't want to draw attention to himself. But he was always there. It was one of these things where you could feel his presence as much as anything. You knew you could count on him. ...

"A lot of the time the musicians don't get any credit. We're there to make the lead guy look good, and sometimes they get all the credit."

The Pacers traveled with Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Danny and the Juniors, Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline, Ronnie Hawkins, Billy Lee Riley, Ace Cannon, Charlie Rich, Teddy Riedell, Narvel Felts and many others, according to legendarypacers.com.

Perry Kennedy said his father played piano for many of those musicians while they were on tour.

In the mid-1950s, the Pacers opened for Presley a few times when he played in Newport and Swifton.

When Presley tried to hire Kennedy to be his regular piano player, Kennedy declined. He thought Burgess was on the track to stardom.

"I'm already making $45 a week," Kennedy said he told Presley. "Why would I want to play with you?"

Kennedy's pay at the time was roughly equal to $400 a week today.

"My dad has never been a risk taker in his life," Perry Kennedy said. "He didn't want to take the chance to lose a job that probably paid 17 cents an hour to go on the road with this guy."

Perry Kennedy said it was a good decision for his father, who had an enjoyable music career over seven decades.

"It sounds like it was the mistake of a lifetime, but it wasn't," he said. "It wasn't for him. ... My dad played for the love of music, not the money."

Perry Kennedy said his father was an innovative musician. Kern Kennedy put thumbtacks on the felt hammers under his piano lid, giving it a metallic sound when the hammers struck the strings. Jim Dickinson, a Memphis musician and record producer, later employed the same tactic when he played piano for the Rolling Stones' recording of "Wild Horses" at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

"These guys were really innovative," said Perry Kennedy. "He and Sonny, they were all looking for a way out of the cotton fields."

Kern Kennedy played regularly with the Pacers until they stopped touring as a group around 1959.

Kennedy took a job in 1961 with the Missouri Pacific Railroad. At first, he was a brakeman. Later he was a conductor on the route between Little Rock and Poplar Bluff, Mo.

In 1982, a merger was approved among Union Pacific, Missouri Pacific and Western Pacific. Kennedy soon found himself playing piano for the Union Pacific band.

A highlight of his career with the railroad band was playing on the train in 1985 as it traversed Missouri taking fans back and forth between Kansas City and St. Louis so they could watch the Royals and Cardinals play in the World Series.

Kennedy retired from the railroad in 1993. He had played occasionally with Burgess while working for the railroad, but they began touring again after he retired. As the Legendary Pacers, they performed in England, Switzerland and Japan.

Burgess died on Aug. 18, 2017, at the age of 88.

He and Kennedy had played music together off and on for 62 years.

"He was just part of the early rock 'n' roll era with Sonny Burgess and those guys," Van Eaton said. "I always thought a lot of him. He always had this infectious smile -- all the time."

Metro on 12/25/2018

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