Pianist Sidney Kirk, one of Memphis’ great jazz and R&B musicians and a key member of the Isaac Hayes movement, died Wednesday. Kirk’s daughter, Christian Kirk, confirmed his death. He was 78 years old.
An essential figure in Hayes’ musical life, Kirk also played during his career with Dionne Warwick, Albert King, Rufus Thomas and many others. A staple of the Memphis club scene, he hosted jam sessions on Beale for the city’s top players and became a go-to for several generations of young musicians.
Born in North Memphis, Kirk attended Manassas High School, where he was tutored by bandleaders Onzie Horne Sr. and Emerson Able. Kirk is said to be part of a line of jazz greats who came through the school, including Hank Crawford, Charles Lloyd and George Coleman.
Kirk was a year ahead of Hayes at Manassas, and the duo performed together on talent shows and late ’50s doo-wop and R&B groups, including The Ambassadors.
In 1962, Kirk spotted a new recording facility on Chelsea and Thomas in North Memphis, American Sound Studio, run by former producer of Stax Chips Moman. He and Hayes auditioned for Moman, which led to the latter cutting his first record. Hayes’ debut single, “Laura, We’re On Our Last Go-Round” b/w “CC Rider”, was released on Moman and Seymour Rosenberg’s small Youngstown label.
The record did not meet with much success and soon after Kirk entered the Air Force – a development which also had a huge impact on Hayes’ career.
As Hayes recalled in a 1994 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air: “Sidney Kirk… He joined the Air Force, but he wasn’t there. He was called about a gig on New Years Eve. His sister knew I was destitute and needed the money, so she asked me if I wanted to play,” Hayes said. .
“Well, maybe I could play ‘Chopsticks’ and stuff like that, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’ I accepted the gig out of desperation. And when I got to the club, I was petrified, I said, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to shoot me, I can’t play.’
But Hayes won over the drunken New Year’s Eve crowd and venue owner, and quickly improved his piano skills with regular club dates. By 1964, Hayes had set foot in Tax records where he worked on sessions and launched a successful songwriting partnership with David Porter, writing hits for Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas and others.
Meanwhile, Kirk continued acting after leaving the Air Force. When Hayes resumed his solo career in the late ’60s and found stardom in the early ’70s, the two reunited professionally. Kirk was alongside Hayes on stage and in the studio, serving as pianist and bandleader during his most successful period.
Kirk would become a key part of Hayes’ expansive new sound as part of the Isaac Hayes movement, working on the soundtrack to Oscar-winning “Shaft” and performing at the 1972 Wattstax concert in Los Angeles.
Kirk would also appear on Hayes’ iconic albums of the time, including 1971’s “Black Moses” and the 1973 concert “Live at the Sahara Tahoe.” Kirk stayed with Hayes after the Stax label closed and continued to perform on his albums for ABC Records through the mid-1970s. Kirk would go on to perform with a number of notable artists including Warwick, King, Denise LaSalle and the Platters.
After getting off the road, Kirk led his own trio around Memphis, performing frequently with vocalist Joyce Cobb and saxophonist Lannie McMillan. In addition to a long experience within Memphis Amro Music Storerepairing horns, he also supervised young musicians at the Memphis Slim House.
In recent years, Kirk had been recognized for his recorded work, including his contributions to a 1974 Lou Bond album, which was reissued to critical acclaim by Light in the Attic Records in 2010. He was also featured in a 2017 New York Times article on musicians who have played with Hayes. Earlier this year, the Memphis Blues Society honored Kirk with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Kirk is survived by his sister Fannie Kirk; his daughters Tracy Walker, Cidney Kirk and Christian Kirk; and his son Sidney Kirk IV. Memorial plans are pending.