Scott “Top Ten” Kempner, a guitarist best known as a founding member of the Dictators and the Del-Lords, has died at the age of 69 from complications related to early onset dementia. The news, which spread like wildfire on social media, was confirmed by Kempner’s manager, Rich Nesin.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Kempner was just out of high school when he started his music career. It was during a 1972 visit to see a friend attending SUNY New Paltz when he first started playing with Andy Shernoff and Ross “The Boss” Friedman. The trio rented a house in nearby Kerhonkson, where they started rehearsing, and although it took awhile for them to pull themselves together enough to release an album, they finally did so in 1975 with their Epic Records debut, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!
The Dictators recorded two more albums – 1977’s Manifest Destiny, their only album to crack the Billboard 200 (at #193), and 1978’s Bloodbrothers – but the lack of any significant commercial success led them to disband, although there would be occasional reunions between the members. By 1982, however, Kempner had founded the Del-Lords, a band he created with an eye toward having four singers.
“The Del-Lords was a comfort zone,” Kempner said of the band in a 2008 Variety interview. “It was a well-oiled machine. But having four distinct personalities (as singers) was a hard thing to sell. I had faith in it – I saw it as essential.”
The band released four albums between 1984 and 1990 – Frontier Days (1984) and Johnny Comes Marching Home (1986) on EMI America, Based on a True Story (1988) and Lovers Who Wander (1990) on Enigma – before calling it quits for the better part of two decades. They eventually reunited, however, to play some live gigs in 2010 and went on to release a new album, Elvis Club, in 2013 on GB Music.
After the Del-Lords broke up in 1990, Kempner kicked off his solo career for the first time, releasing his debut album, Tenement Angels, on Razor and Tie in 1992.
Recorded at Column One studios in Springfield, Missouri and co-produced by Manny Calati, Lou Whitney, and Kempner himself, the LP was met with critical acclaim, with Trouser Press writing that “consistent with his work in the Del-Lords, the album has an easygoing urban roots-rock sound—'60s AM radio given a heartland kick, a taste of country and a little musical poetry.”
In addition to releasing two further solo albums – 2008’s Saving Grace and 2015’s Live on Blueberry Hill – Kempner also spent time in The Brandos, playing on their 1994 album The Light of Day, and he was a member of Dion ‘N’ Little Kings, featuring Dion DiMucci as frontman, along with former Del-Lords member Frank Funaro and Smithereens bassist Mike Mesaros.
“Scott Kempner was the quintessential rocker, a free abandoned guitar player, a superb arranger, A prolific songwriter, with the great sense of rhythm,” DiMucci told Variety. “But most of all he is a dear friend and brother whom I love and will truly miss.”