James Paul Koncek, a barrel-chested blues-rock singer who changed his name to Top Jimmy and became a colorful and inspirational presence on the Los Angeles rock scene in the 1980s, died Thursday in Las Vegas of liver failure. He was 46.
Though he never found commercial success himself, Top Jimmy was a magnet for his famous peers, often sitting in with bands such as X and attracting guest performers ranging from Tom Waits to Stevie Ray Vaughan at his long-running “Blue Mondays” show every week at the old Cathay de Grande club in Hollywood. Superstar rock band Van Halen, whose David Lee Roth frequented the Zero Zero club, where Koncek worked as a bartender, paid homage in a song titled “Top Jimmy” on its “1984" album.
“In effect, he was the Brahmin to so many of us L.A. musicians. Playing with him was kind of like a rite of passage,” said Steve Berlin, who played saxophone with Jimmy before joining the Blasters and then his current band, Los Lobos.
Born in Kentucky, Koncek moved to Tacoma, Wash., as a child and to Los Angeles when he was 15. He got his nickname from Top Taco, the Hollywood taco stand where he worked, and befriended guitarist Billy Zoom, who would soon help lead X to the forefront of the city’s punk-rock brigade.
Described in one Times review as a “Falstaffian frontman,” Top Jimmy and his band, the Rhythm Pigs, cut a swath through the city’s rock clubs, matching the intensity of the era’s punk bands with sets of blues and blues-leaning material by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and others.
“He was a soul man, and he looked for that quality in everything that he did,” said Los Lobos’ Berlin. “Jimmy had that same quality of timeless wisdom. It was nothing he worked on or thought about. He just opened his mouth and there it was.”
Berlin produced the group’s only album from that period, 1987’s “Pigus Drunkus Maximus.” Top Jimmy, a heavy drinker who was known for his hard-partying lifestyle as well as his music, moved to Las Vegas in 1993 to care for a sister who had undergone surgery. Though he was found to be suffering from hepatitis, he regularly returned to Southern California to play shows and to record. He released a second album, “Good Times Are Killing Me,” in 1998.
“I’m not going to make any money at this,” he said in a 1987 Times interview. “But I’ve gotten to do things other people would die for. I got to get up and play the blues for punk kids, play in the big clubs in L.A.”
The singer added: “My goal in life is to be an old man.”
Koncek is survived by two sisters, Mary Rosa of Las Vegas and Gladys Gonzalo of New York City. Plans for a memorial service in Los Angeles are pending.