Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Modesto's Kid Guitar still searching for band mates, stardom

Kid Guitar is Modesto’s longest-reigning street musician, in a career spanning more than three decades. Here, he’s showing off his Fender Stratocaster at a bus stop on north McHenry Avenue on Friday.
Kid Guitar is Modesto’s longest-reigning street musician, in a career spanning more than three decades. Here, he’s showing off his Fender Stratocaster at a bus stop on north McHenry Avenue on Friday. jjardine@modbee.com

Modesto’s most well-known street musician sat on a bus-stop bench early Friday morning, peering through the fog across the street to the Guitar Center.

A blanket cut the cold. A shopping cart held his guitar case, one side of which perpetually advertises for a bass player and drummer, male or female, so that he can form the band that finally projects him toward stardom.

Yes, Kid Guitar is still out there. At 62 years old and after nearly four decades of playing his guitar at stoplights along McHenry Avenue, Modesto Junior College and other outdoor stages, The Kid has been a fixture here through seven U.S. presidential administrations. He once published his own photocopied newsletter he distributed at Skip’s Music, the old Shell station at Scenic and Oakdale roads, and other places.

Generations of young Modestans might not have known him personally, but have known of him.

“I’ve had people come up and say, ‘I saw you out there when I was a little kid,’” The Kid said. “‘I went off to college, got married and came back, and you’re still here.’ And they were telling their kids about me. I’m the most famous person in Modesto.”

Several readers over the past few years suggested an update on Kid Guitar. I posted recently on Facebook asking friends where they had seen him lately. A dozen or more responded, suggesting either the Walmart on north McHenry Avenue or the bus stop across from the Guitar Center, the latter being where I found him Friday morning.

Kid Guitar first appeared in The Modesto Bee in a Glenn Scott column in 1989, and Scott featured him several times thereafter.

The Kid will tell you he no longer plays publicly because the police treat him like “a panhandler” instead of musician and artist.

“They want me to move inside,” The Kid said. Yet, he’ll tell you a big reason he became a street musician to begin with is because “when you play at stoplights, you don’t have to audition.”

Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll said that no such edict exists and that his officers would only react to complaints from businesses or pedestrians if he blocks walkways with his guitar case.

He plays with his guitar case open but doesn’t ask for money. That sets him apart from others who are more aggressive and find themselves being cited by authorities.

“If someone wants to give me a dollar or a $20 bill, what am I supposed to do – not take it?” he said.

His music is his income. The Kid simply feels he works for what he receives, which is a meager existence at best.

“I’ve made $40,000 over the last 20 years,” The Kid said. “That works out to what, $200 a month?” (More like $167.)

He said a friend gives him $40 periodically, and others including Modesto Area Music Awards founder Chris Murphy, are known to hand him a $20 bill now and then. He’s lived in vans and now has an RV north of town, albeit one with flat tires, no heat or air conditioning. He uses buses and other public transportation to get around town.

“I’m a Modesto legend, but I’ve still lived in poverty over half my life,” The Kid said.

But there’s no denying he’s locally famous. Some of his song videos can be found on YouTube. And Kid Guitar is the only male who ever graced the cover of Bill Slayter’s Zorch, a Modesto-centric car and entertainment magazine.

In 2009, Slayter decided Modesto’s J Street needed its own mayor. So he staged an “election” using Deva restaurant as a polling place. Slayter did so to honor longtime friend and retiree Harley Cooney and to have some fun. Cooney ran basically unopposed, but “Vote for Kid Guitar” bumper stickers appeared mysteriously in the days before the vote. Cooney received 62 of the 71 votes cast. Kid Guitar got seven write-ins, singer Lady Gaga received one and someone named Richard also got a vote.

Murphy is considering recognizing Kid Guitar, perhaps during the next MAMA show in the fall.

“You’ve seen him out there playing all these years,” Murphy said. “I remember him at the gas station at Scenic and Oakdale, advertising ‘Wanted: Bikini’d bass player.’”

Other longtime Modesto residents remember the same.

“He’s a legend in Modesto,” wrote Jamie Cimoli. “Actually, my mom went to school with him. Let’s just say he was truly a flower child.”

“I used to read his photocopied ‘newspaper’ he’d sell at Skip’s,” Rich Murdoch wrote. “The dude’s a legend.”

Karen Basi wrote, “I remember him from way back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. (A friend and I) were talking about him a year ago.”

“Still looking for a blond bassist and a redheaded drummer, though,” Will Patterson wrote and reader Becky Quinlan seconded.

“My mom said when we moved here from SF in 1975,” wrote Quinlan – among those who suggested the Kid Guitar update – “... she saw Kid Guitar with a sign that said ‘female singer wanted.’”

The Kid’s search goes on for that singer and others who can accompany him to stardom.

“I sound OK playing solo,” Kid Guitar said. “But I’d sound even better with a bass player and a drummer.”

A quest that began so long ago, a dream never surrendered.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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