Mr. Kay

Just a few blocks east of where Martin Luther King Boulevard and Le Jeune Road meet, Flamingo Plaza bleeds Hialeah's gritty sadness.

Lusty young men cruise the strip of patriotically themed thrift stores in dented Honda convertibles, whistling at people's girlfriends. Tired mothers with kids hanging from every limb hustle in and out of chaotic shops, searching for the best deal on a half-broken toaster. It's capitalism's last go-round for the old, the unwanted, and the forgotten.

The plaza's faded pink façade seems to go on forever — interrupted occasionally by green palms and big American flags. Roads bordering the vast parking lot have been ripped to dirt by a lazy construction crew, making the traffic frenzied, the drivers tense. For all its grime, the colors are brilliant, the movement frenetic.

But Jimmy Kay sees none of it.

Small, blind, and wizened in a dusty black suit, he is nearly invisible among the second-hand peacocks that meander by. Busy mamis and stern muscle men pause when his strange sounds catch their ears. The wandering, thrifty crowd slows down. Many people drop donations into a large plastic cup attached to the side of his accordion by a mess of blue wire.

"God bless you," Kay says when he hears the dollars and change going into the cup. Much of the time, he does not.

His face makes him appear to be 100 years old; it's dry and weathered, with a lower lip that hangs like a glum feather. When he smiles, his mouth cracks to reveal a bare top gum. His eyes never open.

Sometimes he stays silent and still. And then he erupts, muttering soulfully behind his big beaten-up yellow Enrico Roselli Organtone. He plays lost riffs — Beethoven, gospel spirituals, and old standards — with a depth and feeling that transport the listener out of Flamingo Plaza.

"Music is God," he says. "A lot of the music you hear today isn't about nothing. But this is missionary work to me.... I'm a missionary."

Watch an Interview with Jimmy Kay at his Home

James L. Kendrick, who would take the stage name Kay, was born the youngest of four blind brothers in West Palm Beach. His father gambled and drank. His mother scrubbed floors until, one day, she split. Soon afterward, his father roused them all out of bed. They began walking north. "We followed our father, one behind the other, all the way to Albany, Georgia," Kay recalls. He could hear panthers growling in the brush and remembers calling out for his father in the woods. "He would snatch us up and keep us going," he says. When walking became too much, they hitched rides in the backs of flatbed trucks.

When they finally arrived at their grandfather's house in Georgia, their father disappeared. "He never bothered us again," Kay says. After a few months, their mother arrived and returned with them to West Palm.

"I was raised by one of those old church mothers," he says. "One day she just set me up on a crate, handed me a guitar, and said, 'Play what I sing.' And I learned quick. Because I was hungry."

At age eight, Kay — along with his brothers — went off to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine. Assignments were serious. If anything was incomplete, his instructors would call up to the mess hall — no food for Kay — and he'd be forced to sit among his peers and listen to them dine.

"That's how I learned how the world worked for the sightless," he says. "No work, no eat."

He studied music day and night, twelve instruments, he says. "And that's where I met Ray Charles," Kay adds.

"We had one radio at school," Charles wrote in his autobiography, Brother Ray. "Naturally it was controlled by the big boys — kids like James Kendrick, who was a real power.... They decided what everyone else would listen to, and if you tried to turn the knob, you'd get your hand slapped."

When Kay graduated in '47, he returned to West Palm to finish his last two years of high school. Kay claims he and Charles worked together at a club in Jacksonville called the Two Spot — Charles on piano, he on drums. (In the biography Man and Music, Charles talks about playing with Kendrick in school but not afterward.)

Then Kay reunited with his brothers, and they sang in the church circuit as the Four Blind Boys of Florida — not to be confused with the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, whom Kay says he knew and sang with.

After a couple of years, Kendrick went out on his own and studied music at Florida A&M. He moved to New York City, scraping by with odd gigs. Kay can remember being discovered by Illinois Jacquet, the Creole big band saxophonist, in a strip joint called the Top Club, off St. Nicholas Avenue. Kay spent seven years as his organist. "[Jacquet] drank too much," he remembers. "Sometimes I had to hire another girlfriend or something to help him."

Soon Kay married a gospel singer named Juet and started a family. Together they had two blind daughters and a sighted son. During those years, Kay says, he sat in with jazz greats like Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, and Coleman Hawkins. He worked the road as a sideman.

"He could teach and play twelve instruments," Juet remembers. He worked swanky supper clubs on the Upper East Side and bought real estate. His son recalls his father owning apartments and commercial buildings in Harlem and Brooklyn.

During the Sixties, the couple bought property between 123rd and 124th streets on Seventh Avenue. They ran a record store on one corner and a bakery on the other. He played supper clubs and sold bean pies to his Black Muslim neighbors. "I was a wild rabbit. I bought six cars and had six chicks drivin' 'em." He even bought his family a house in Miami.

In 1974 he suffered three heart attacks. Juet picked him up from King's County Hospital and drove south. "I didn't want no doctors," Kay says.

In Miami, he explains, he established a comedy routine with Flip Wilson at the Sir John Hotel in Overtown and played songs poolside at the Fontainebleau. "There were always cats in my house," recalls his son, Rodney. "Shit, I remember when Barry White borrowed $60 from my father."

Then in 2000 Juet left, she says because she got sick. "I needed special care, so I returned to my people in Philadelphia."

Rodney moved to New York, married Diana Ross's oldest daughter, and began a career as an accomplished pianist. Kay's two daughters left for school. One of them, Aida, works as a secretary for the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, a Little Havana program for the visually impaired.

Kay was alone.

In solitude he found the Lord, filed for a license to make his house a church, and married a gospel singer named Joan. Together they formed the Spirit of Truth Singers.

These days the walls of his house on NW 95th Terrace are lined with religious record covers and biblical quotations. A clarinet, a Hammond organ, and a beat-up piano crowd one room's cracked linoleum floor.

But at age 79, Kay has big plans. He needs a booking agent, a bodyguard, and a biographer.

He sits down at the broken piano and takes a request. With a flutter of fingers, he bangs out a quick "Honeysuckle Rose" and then decides he's in need of some church music. Hopping back toward the living room, he slides behind a large, slouching synthesizer that was just shipped down from New York (all of his instruments, he says, are gifts).

He still hasn't quite figured out the apparatus. He fiddles with a pad of buttons and it booms with a techno reverberation. He launches into a gospel roll that sounds as if it is blasting from a Martian pipe organ.

His wife sits quietly in a wheelchair in a dark corner of the room. She lost her sight about four years ago and has been confined to a wheelchair following a stroke. Kay cooks dinner for her every night. "Sing somethin' pretty, baby," he calls out.

Joan lifts her head and begins belting out exultation. Kay swipes a broken volume knob into upper registers — and every dusty particle in the hot room is suddenly shaking with a huge, fantastic force.

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Calvin Godfrey