Smokin’ Joe Kowis at Miller’s Fill In, Bellevue, KY, 2009 – center, on guitar
Over the years Smokin’ Joe played in many bands from the Regencies, to James Brown, to Richie and Students and Otis Williams. I remember first running into him at his longstanding Cory’s gig back in the early 90’s, back when Cory’s was the blues place in town.
Drummer Bob Lese has shared a couple of stories about Joe, which illustrate bravery, cleverness, kindness, and musical brilliance…not to mention the strength and determination required to move a heavy, bulky church organ and speaker around to every performance.
“I’ll tell you one story that Joe and I shared. We did a gig at this bar on Reading Rd. The owner thought he was some kind of a mafia guy, and he wasn’t getting the crowd that night that he thought we should have brought in. Joe had his Hammond with a full Leslie cabinet. [There was] lots of load in and I was playing drums.
As the night went on, things got uglier between the owner and our singers. Finally, when the gig was done, there was some loud talk and showing of pistols. Joe had worked a lot of gigs and I worked around East Chicago and Cicero, bad places to be a musician, but places where this happens all the time. Joe and I played all night keeping the music going while the owner and the singers argued. Finally the owner had some of his boys come over and tell us they were taking our equipment.
If it is possible to describe sneaking a Hammond and a set of drums out of a bar, well that’s what we did. We got the drums out and the Leslie while the singers were still arguing with the thugs. Of course we didn’t get paid. Joe and I shook hands and congratulated each other outside the bar and then split. Every time we [saw] each other after that, it was the first thing we talked about, and an inside joke about the real music business.”
“I thought of another one. The night before my wedding we took all of our out of town friends out to see Cincinnati bands. We ran into Joe and I think Chuck Sullivan. Since we were getting married, Joe asked if there was something he could play. I said, “Yeah Joe. Makin’ Whoopie”. He laughed and said “Give me a second”, and then mentally put a jazz arrangement together in his head, and sat down and played it on the Hammond. It killed. Joe had so much music in him. “
We’re also fortunate enough to have some video of the master at work (see the links below).
Vintage clips from a show taped for Cincinnati Community Video in 1989:
Cincy Blues Challenge in 2006:
Joe’s weekly jam at Miller’s Fill In in Newport, KY in 2009: