Tag Archives: Leif Bondarenko

Embracing the Man in Black

Embracing the Man in Black

A local drummer abandons his instrument to sing Johnny Cash.

June 24, 2010

As Birmingham’s premier drummer and “gun for hire,” Leif Bondarenko has played thousands of gigs with dozens of bands in a career that spans four decades.

Bondarenko first achieved renown 30 years ago as drummer for local legends Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits. By the mid-1980s, he had formed the critically acclaimed Primitons with Leisure Suits bandmate Mats (pronounced “Mots”) Roden. He worked regularly with the late blues vocalist Topper Price throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, building a résumé that includes drumming for Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall, Charles Neville, and Rick Danko of The Band. He’ll soon be touring with Taylor Hicks.

While still earning a living playing for a number of local bands, six months ago Bondarenko stepped out from behind the drum kit and strapped on an acoustic guitar to tackle the role of lead singer for his Johnny Cash tribute band, Cash Back. His vocals are eerily close to those of the Man in Black, and the ease with which he fronts the band will surprise those who know Bondarenko only as a drummer. There’s nothing pretentious about his performance, even when he hoists the instrument under his chin and stares down the neck of his guitar in classic Cash style, as if aiming the guitar like a shotgun.

Local drummer Leif Bondarenko is a not a country music legend in real life, but he plays one on stage. (Photo: Marc Bondarenko.) (click for larger version)

“I’ve been studying as much live footage of Johnny Cash as I can find,” Bondarenko says, “trying to get his moves down and trying to get as close as I can to the way he sings. I’m concentrating on learning to play acoustic guitar because right now I’m just holding the guitar, and for me that’s a little bit of an embarrassment (laughs).” Until he masters the instrument, however, Bondarenko is reassured by footage of Cash sometimes using the guitar as a prop instead of actually playing. “That makes me feel a little bit better about what I’m doing. But mark my words, I will be playing acoustic guitar, I’m determined to make this thing fly,” he guarantees.

“If I can find an audience for Johnny Cash—be it private functions, corporate gigs, or casinos—that’s what I’m really looking to do. As far as I know, I’m the only one that’s doing a Johnny Cash tribute anywhere near here, and I sing Johnny Cash better than anybody does.”

Cash Back includes Don Tinsley on bass and David Keith on drums, with Gary Edmonds and Tim Boykin swapping out guitar duties, depending on who is available for a particular night. Tinsley has played bass with Bondarenko dating back to 1985, working with him in the Primitons as well as Topper Price and the Upsetters. Tinsley says he was surprised and impressed with Bondarenko’s ability to pull off a Johnny Cash routine. “You know, nobody ever sees it coming,” he says, laughing. “I played with the guy for 20 years and never would have thought in a million years [he could do a Cash act]. When he’s really focusing, it’s sorta spooky.”

Bondarenko recently recorded his first solo CD, Man Named Jesus, four self-penned gospel compositions sung in a haunting, distinctive baritone. Currently the drummer in a band that plays weekly services at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, an Episcopal church in downtown Birmingham, he credits his religious music affiliation with giving him the confidence to become a vocalist and songwriter. “The church has helped me a whole lot in getting my vocals together, ’cause I sing in church all the time,” he explains. “I was going through some really tough times and I’m telling you, man, some of those [gospel] songs I wrote in 15 minutes. You can call it divine intervention or whatever you want, but somebody else was involved in it other than me. And I thank my guardian angels for that. Some stuff you get handed to you, and other stuff, you gotta work for it.”

Bondarenko began drum lessons at age 7, later playing for bands without names in elementary school talent shows when he was just 10 years old. “Our main competition was this guy who was a really cool juggler, he could juggle like crazy!” he says, laughing. He spent a couple of years leading the drum line in the Vestavia High School marching band. In 1976, he secured his first professional job at age 16 playing four nights a week with organist Dickie Bell Walzak’s combo at the long-defunct Downtown Club in Birmingham, doing standards such as “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Mack the Knife.” He laughs as he recalls that “the band members were all old enough to be my parents.”

“Leif’s a really good drummer. He’s had two periods of being a good drummer but they’re for different reasons,” Don Tinsley says. “Back in the ’80s when he was in the Primitons, he was doing this really, really strong beat stuff. We used to call him ‘Bam Bam’ because he was beating the crap out of the drums. At the same time he had the heavy rhythm going, though, he had all these little articulated rhythms going on, too. He used a large metal water can from some old nuclear fallout shelter in the Primitons.” Ten years later, Bondarenko’s style reflected his years playing with Topper Price, Tinsley explains. “Leif got a lot more involved with the dynamics of playing when he was with Topper. Instead of having just a relentless beat going on, he changes his style now; he’ll slow down a little bit and speed up a little bit in different parts of the songs and do a lot more accent kind of stuff. But he can still play both styles.”

Bondarenko recalls the metal container that functioned as a drum. “It was a metal reservoir [for potable water] that they had in nuclear fallout shelters from the ’60s. When I got it, it was army green but I painted it black,” he says. “I’ve still got that thing. My wife asks, ‘Hey man, why don’t you get rid of it?’ I told her I’m never getting rid of it (laughs). Anything that comes from my past musical lives is staying with me, all the costumes, all the percussion instruments. Because you never know when you’re gonna want ‘em again.”

His old percussion instruments and stage costumes won’t be making appearances with Cash Back. Bondarenko dresses in black when performing his Cash show, and he is dedicated to the singer’s simple approach onstage. “I want people to feel like they’re getting the real deal and a good show, and to be listening to somebody who deeply cares about Johnny Cash’s material and the way he presented it,” he says. “Because I’m trying to make it as real as possible without acting like I’m Johnny Cash.” He admits that recalling the lyrics can be a challenge. “Most Cash stuff has tons of lyrics, and getting over that hump has been the hardest thing. My recall has gotten better,” he says. The classic “I’ve Been Everywhere” had the most difficult lyrics to memorize. “It was the hardest one, because it doesn’t necessarily tell a story, it’s just spouting off town names really fast. And it’s hard to breathe when you’re doing that, so I’ve had to learn how to breathe when singing it,” Bondarenko says. “But a song like ‘A Boy Named Sue’ tells a story, so it’s a little easier to remember than others.” &

The Entertainer King

The Entertainer King

Matt Kimbrell takes a final bow, no doubt laughing all the way.


November 11, 2010

Matt Kimbrell was the consummate performer, a superb drummer and songwriter, excellent bass player, and decent guitarist. He was revered as supreme frontman in Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits, the Ho Ho Men, the Mambo Combo, or any other band in which he played. He was also funny as hell. He battled a heart problem for a decade or so, but finally lost on October 13 when a heart attack took his life at age 51 in the Bluff Park home he shared with his brother Mark (a world-class jazz guitarist). It’s the same house where the brothers grew up, with one room stocked with musical instruments and stacks of albums—a playground for a family smitten with music.

Matt and Mark’s late father, Henry Kimbrell—a top-notch jazz piano player who is a member of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, as well as a long-ago local TV personality (when not writing commercial jingles such as “Jack’s hamburgers for 15 cents are so good, good, good”)—hired his sons when they were in their mid-teens to form a jazz trio that played regular gigs at local clubs.

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Matt’s musical prowess on a variety of instruments was impressive, but his stage presence and vocal stylings stood out. “I really feel like on all the Jim Bob stuff, I was kinda trying to vocally imitate Matt,” admits Mats (pronounced Mots) Roden, one of the guitarists and songwriters in Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits, a popular Birmingham band that Kimbrell formed in 1979 with Roden and another high school friend named Leif Bondarenko.

“There’s an expression in opera called ‘heldentenor,’ a rare style of tenor singer, like the Wagner stuff,” says Roden. “Matt could have done that kind of stuff if he wanted to, because he had that kind of voice. He never applied it to classical music, but he definitely had the chops for it. He had a healthy respect for classical music.”

Apart from Sun Ra, the Leisure Suits were arguably the most revolutionary band to ever emerge from Birmingham, introducing the city to punk and New Wave sounds in 1980. Music fans accustomed to classic rock played by cover bands in local bars, where patrons usually sat at tables, sucking down cocktails and politely applauding, could not sit still when the Leisure Suits took the stage. The beats they played were irresistible, and tables and chairs in local venues became relics of the past. Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits transformed the city’s music dynamic as they annihilated the barrier between audience and performer. Soon, anyone with a guitar felt confident enough to write songs, and bands performing original music began popping up all over town, citing the Leisure Suits as inspiration.

Kimbrell was a star whenever he climbed on stage. He was always laughing at his own jokes, which he was never shy to share with an audience, and he imitated a variety of characters, no matter what band he fronted.

“People used to say that one of the great things about playing in the Mambo Combo wasn’t necessarily hearing the songs but hearing what Matt had to say in between songs, because he always had great stories,” recalls Ho Ho Men and Mambo Combo bassist and saxophone player Jeffrey Stahmer, better known as Dr. Ig (short for Dr. Igwanna). “He was a fantastic comedian, and he could always get the crowd going. At Matt’s memorial service people told me they used to come to see us act like fools up there in between songs. Matt was one of the funniest guys I ever knew. He loved to be up there and be the showman. Despite his jokes, his musicianship was always solid.” Dr. Ig laughs when recounting Matt’s fearless knack for entertaining. “We were playing some frat party [once] and [the audience] was acting really dull or stupid or something, and Matt said, ‘Well, then, if you guys don’t like it, for this next one I’m going to take my pants off.’ He actually did, he’s in his underwear, right? So I was playing sax and I decided to do the same thing.”

“At the School of Fine Arts, he was really a troublemaker—but not in a bad way,” recalls Roden, laughing. “All you had to do was climb a drainage pipe and you’d be in some girl’s room. Matt used to do that all the time.” Roden was studying acting at New York University when he and Kimbrell began talking about forming a band. “People were starting their own bands in their own cities. So I called Matt and he said that he was having the same idea, so I moved back to Birmingham to start Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits with him.”

“He knew about jazz because of his upbringing, his dad taught him about all the jazz players,” says former Leisure Suits drummer Bondarenko, who filled in on drums in an assortment of later Kimbrell combos. “Every time we would go over to Matt’s house back in high school, we’d go downstairs into his dad’s workroom and there would be paintings everywhere that his dad was working on. And there’d be a keyboard there, and stacks and stacks of records and a record player, and that’s where we’d hang out.”

A superb drummer, Matt Kimbrell was just as proficient at garnering laughs. (click for larger version)

Ho Ho Men drummer Ed Glaze recalls Kimbrell’s fearlessness as a performer. “He was incredibly funny and ferocious, absolutely fearless. He was a real force to be around,” says Glaze. “This was around ’94. Matt had a regular gig playing at a restaurant in Mountain Brook. It was a good little gig for him. One night he told me, ‘Nah, I’m not doing that place anymore. The other night there was this really drunk guy who kept yelling at me.’ At one point, this heckler yelled, ‘Hey man, why don’t you play some shit we know?” And Matt leaned into the microphone and replied, ‘Because you don’t know shit.’ He said the manager came up to him and said, ‘We need to talk.’ So Matt took a vacation from that restaurant gig. He’d always laugh at his own jokes, then suddenly quit laughing and have this deadpan look on his face. Between songs, besides just making up stuff in the songs, he was doing comedy routines. The later at night it got, the funnier he got.”

Glaze recalls when the Leisure Suits had a gig booked at St. Andrews Church on Southside. “Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits had suddenly broken up and Matt called to ask if me and Walter Kelly wanted to put a band together in two weeks to play that gig, because he didn’t want to lose that show. That’s how the Ho Ho Men started,” recalls Glaze. “We later started the Mambo Combo when Walter started going to law school. Matt eventually asked me if I wanted to be the drummer, but I don’t think Matt was really that satisfied with my drumming because he told me that I could only use two drums. He’d try to sell me on the idea of not using a full drum kit. He was like, ‘Yeah, man, basically this is like Moe Tucker’s setup for the Velvet Underground. This is like the pure soul of rock. (laughs) And you are the soul of rock, so two drums is all you need.’”

“We used to play benefits,” Glaze continues. “He needed to make a living playing music but he was real good about playing benefits even if we didn’t get paid.” One of those occasions was a benefit for Children’s Hospital. “Dr. Ig had this song called ‘Organ Donor.’

It was off-color and (vulgar). The local daily paper had a write-up of the benefit and wrote, ‘Perhaps the most appropriate song of the day was the Mambo Combo’s “Organ Donor.”‘ That song has lyrics about drinking double shots of Jack Daniels and whips and chains. And then it goes into the chorus: ‘I pulled an instant boner and became her organ donor.’”

Mambo Combo’s final show was in 2001. “We had this gig somewhere in Five Points South and it’s supposed to be a Mambo gig,” Glaze recalls. “Ig and I showed up, and the marquee out front and all the flyers on the windows announced that it would be the Matt Kimbrell Experience playing that night. We were like, ‘So, Matt what do you know about this?’ And Matt went, ‘Oh, yeah, about that. Well, man, I’m putting out my own CD of my own songs. And I thought maybe we’d pull in more people [if Matt's name was on the bill].’ There were maybe 10 people there. That was our last show.”

One of my favorite memories of Matt was in the early 1980s when we appeared together, unscheduled, on WBRC television’s Country Boy Eddy Show. We gathered at my house the night prior for an all-night rehearsal to learn “Route 66″ and the rockabilly classic “Brand New Cadillac.” Our rehearsal turned into a party, which we took to Red Mountain around 3:30 that morning, drinking and gazing out over the city while waiting for Country Boy Eddy to drive up, which he did at 4:45. When he arrived, he eyeballed us suspiciously as we approached him with our guitars. I asked Eddy if we could play on his show at 5 a.m. We were obviously intoxicated (Kimbrell quit drinking many years before he died), but Eddy smiled and said, “Sure you can. But you boys keep your language clean because I’ve got a family TV show.” We behaved, and rocked the Channel 6 studios.

Boutwell Studio co-owner and sound engineer Mark Harrelson recalls a jingle session Kimbrell worked on several weeks before his death, recording a new version of the original Jack’s Hamburgers jingle that his father wrote 40 years earlier. (Henry Kimbrell passed away some two decades ago.)

“What we got was an order for a long version of the jingle that they were going to use for some kind of corporate presentation,” Harrelson says. “All I had was a 12-second piece of audio . . the singing part (‘Jack’s Hamburgers for 15 cents are so good, good, good’) So Matt, Mark, and I got together and tried to figure out how to stretch the original out to three minutes. They put a bunch of solos in it. It was really fun. They laughed and talked about how they made fun of that jingle when it came out originally until one day their father finally said, ‘Y’all need to quit making fun of that jingle, because I wrote it.’ Matt just did what he always does, which is to come in and attack what was [originally] a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. Matt was very serious about it, and was very good and played his ass off.”

Matt’s older brother Mark recalls the pair playing with their father as teens. “We were probably both in high school when we started playing with our Dad. We did lots of country club work,” he says. “Me and Matt also played together in bands well before Jim Bob and Ho Ho and all that. I think Dad was probably a bigger influence on me than Matt . . . Dad would encourage us, and say stuff like, ‘Love the songs but then do them your own way.’”

When asked if Matt could make their father laugh as easily as he could friends and strangers, Mark replies, “Yeah, he could. Matt had this innate ability to make people laugh, but it all came from Dad, though. Dad was the instigator and the originator of all things weird and funny with the Kimbrell boys, you know? He kind of gave us carte blanche to go ahead and be absurd.”




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Another Time, Another Place, Another Lost Act
The meaningful sound of Matt Kimbrell and Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits

It was a big deal when Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits made their live debut in Birmingham back in 1979—mainly because these locals were at least as talented as the major-label headliners for whom they opened. The Romantics had a power-pop hit with “What I Like about You,” and the band members of 3-D were former country-rockers from Long Island dressed in skinny ties. Both were sharp acts, but Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits offered a true punk vision that night at Brothers Music Hall.

Their five-song First Time EP came out in 1980. More spazzy than brash, the EP was a solid collection of songs that included two musical manifestos: “Basic Music” celebrated the band’s simple sound, and Matt Kimbrell’s “White Trash Rock” acknowledged their unlikely success.

In those early days, Kimbrell was the default frontman with his billing as Jim Bob. The other Leisure Suits—except drummer Leif Bondarenko—had similarly clever pseudonyms. The band dropped those, however, by the time their 1982 self-titled album was released. Kitsch was no longer commercial, and the band had matured beyond their name. Sadly, the ambitious album left them in that fatal gap between a New Wave band going glossy and a rock band trying to find a home for its quirkiness on college radio stations.

Kimbrell went on to front the Ho Ho Men, whom I first saw live in 1986. He was wearing safety goggles and lurching through a noise-rock rendition of an old Jim Bob tune called “Steamy Paradise.” This was another band with three ace songwriters but a lot less commercial ambition. They managed only to release some cassettes; plenty of great songs ended up lost.

Those include Kimbrell’s “This World Is Killing Me,” which was no joke—especially if you contrasted the onstage Matt of 11 p.m. with the dead-eyed Matt you’d find wandering town in a 4 a.m. stupor. But that was at the end of the 1980s. Kimbrell got his personal life together in the decades to follow. The Ho Ho Men evolved into Mambo Combo, who performed for another 10 years. By the end of the 1990s, Kimbrell was constantly in demand as a live drummer and considered one of Birmingham’s most versatile session musicians.

Kimbrell spent his final days playing to decent-sized crowds as a percussionist with Taylor Hicks. I saw Kimbrell a few years ago and mentioned an old song of his to him. He seemed touched that anyone would remember something from that long ago, which made me feel better about being nostalgic when I learned of his death. I decided to ceremoniously open an ancient, sealed copy of the Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits album. It was too warped to play. Matt would have given that a rimshot. & —J.R. Taylor