Obituary: Bob Kelly

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The Independent Culture
BOB KELLY was one of those little-known but seminal musicians who, almost in passing, influenced many famous names who built their reputations during the Sixties blues boom. Born in Glasgow in 1930, he was a self- taught pianist in barrelhouse tradition - a loosely defined area where the blues overlaps with the folkier end of ragtime. As a barrelhouse pianist Kelly found himself with the interval spot at Ken Colyer's club, the 51 Club, off the Charing Cross Road in the mid-Fifties.

The normally hypercritical Ken Colyer was sufficiently impressed with his "authenticity" (a much-valued characteristic in those imitative days) to take Kelly into his "band within a band" the Colyer Skiffle Group, also sporadically graced by the presence of the father of British blues, Alexis Korner. With them Kelly recorded several titles including his showpiece adaptation of Big Bill Broonzy's House Rent Stomp, the number now most often associated with him.

Kelly erupted briefly on to the pages of the national press when his liaison with the internationally known singer Nancy Whiskey became a matter of controversy. In 1957 she was enjoying fame with the world-wide hit Freight Train (1957), recorded with Chas McDevitt, when out of the blue she announced she was packing up show business to marry Bob Kelly. Kelly's estranged wife promptly gave a press conference to describe why this might be difficult under existing law; the whole thing was a nine-day wonder in those more innocent days. However, the marriage did eventually take place and lasted the 40 years until Kelly's death. The two produced a daughter, Yancey, named after Jimmy Yancey, the exceptionally talented Twenties' Chicago pianist, whom they both idolised.

Whiskey returned to music after the birth, touring with her own group the Teetotallers, which included Bob Kelly, drums and piano, and Diz Disley on guitar. However the onset of the illness that was to make Bob Kelly a permanent invalid was already apparent and more than once this writer was drafted in, with drums and washboard, to fill the gap when ill-health struck.

In later years Kelly would play Sunday lunchtimes at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, and his fellow pianists Johnny (Bad Penny Blues) Parker and Stan Greig would join him to make the whole day a piano-playing event. His last appearance was in 1998 at his own benefit gig in the 100 Club in London. Wheelchair-bound, he listened as musicians from the whole spectrum of popular music paid him tribute and his recordings with Ken Colyer were played.

Bob Kelly was an essential part of the youth of most jazz and blues musicians in Britain; his dedication to the music made him an inspiration to us all.

John Pilgrim

Bob Kelly, pianist: born Glasgow 20 February 1930; twice married (one daughter); died Leicester 14 January 1999.

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