Top Jimmy, 1954–2001 

Wednesday, May 23 2001

“Roadhouse Blues,” from the Doors’ 1970 album Morrison Hotel, was a tune covered with unique conviction by Top Jimmy, who died in Las Vegas on May 17, age 46, or maybe 106. Jimmy sang that fatalistic song hundreds of times with his band the Rhythm Pigs; once, at the Whisky a GoGo, at a publication party for a Jim Morrison bio, he performed it backed by the surviving members of the Doors themselves. “Well, I woke up this morning, got myself a beer,” he would rumble. “The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near.” And then, “Let it roll, baby, roll, all night long.” Credo City.

On his best nights, Jimmy did that number — and others, by such diverse hands as Jimi Hendrix, Merle Haggard, Johnny Paycheck, Bob Dylan, Otis Rush, and his avatar Howlin’ Wolf, among others — with incomparable power and understanding. He hurled himself at that downchild music with a natural force that atomized questions of style, race and genre. Among his L.A. generation in the early ’80s, no one located the essence of the blues as precisely as Jimmy.

He was a big, enormously sweet guy who was born James Koncek in Louisville, reared in Southern California (where he met his high school buddy Billy Zoom of X) and raised in the punk-era firmament of Hollywood. He earned his handle as a hash slinger slipping free burritos to the punks who frequented Top Taco on La Brea; he later tended bar (ideal job!) at the weekend after-hours spot the Zero Zero on Cahuenga.

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I first encountered him in front of the Starwood in 1979 or so; he and Zoom, both dead drunk and just 86ed, were about to get arrested for causing a ruckus in the club, where X was headlining that night. Typical. Dodging that legal bullet with the intercession of some bystanders, Jimmy made his smiling way up the street with a wild-looking redhead on his arm. Also typical.

Jimmy made his name fronting the Rhythm Pigs on Monday nights at the Cathay de Grande, at the corner of Argyle and Selma. (He considered the joint his home, to the extent that its address appeared on his driver’s license.) His fans would pack that dingy basement to hear those beefy bluesbusters’ set, which they played sans rehearsal and without variation, like a favorite album, at gig after gig, and to gauge the volatile group’s usually steep degree of inebriation. For, you see, to be a Rhythm Pig, one had to enjoy a taste or 10.

A magnet for love and trouble (how many benefits were held in his name?), Jimmy took his act up the street to Raji’s, the Hollywood Boulevard hangout run by his friend and benefactor Dobbs, when the Cathay folded in ’84. After the Pigs’ inevitable implosion, following the recording of a lone album belatedly released in 1987, he drifted as surely as a ship on the sea. His health a wreck, he retreated to Vegas in the early ’90s. There, he nearly died once.

When I last spoke to him, in early 1997, he had been granted a little more time. He was commuting to Long Beach for gigs at his new hitching post, the Blue Café, and he had just made an album for Dobbs’ label T.O.N. Records, the aptly titled The Good Times Are Killing Me. “All is well,” he told me. “I have a future. Probably the worst thing is, everybody’s stuck with me for a while.”

But his clock still ran too fast, and now all the lights are out in Hollywood, and all the bars are closed.

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