Red Kelly

Jazz bassist

Lounging in his bath in an Amsterdam hotel after playing a concert with Woody Herman, Red Kelly fell asleep. As a bassist he didn't want the skin on his fingers to get soft, so he had left his arms dangling outside the bath. He had been reading the Sunday paper at the time and during the night the colours seeped out of the comic section and dyed the bath water a murky red. The maid came in to clean up next morning, found Kelly and thought he was dead. She ran from the room screaming.



Thomas Raymond "Red" Kelly, bassist and club owner: born Shelby, Montana 29 August 1927; married 1973 Donna Griswold (died 1999); died Tacoma, Washington 9 June 2004.



Lounging in his bath in an Amsterdam hotel after playing a concert with Woody Herman, Red Kelly fell asleep. As a bassist he didn't want the skin on his fingers to get soft, so he had left his arms dangling outside the bath. He had been reading the Sunday paper at the time and during the night the colours seeped out of the comic section and dyed the bath water a murky red. The maid came in to clean up next morning, found Kelly and thought he was dead. She ran from the room screaming.

Red Kelly worked for a huge number of jazz groups including for the bandleaders Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, two men who didn't trust each other. "Woody didn't trust anything that didn't swing. Stan didn't trust anything that did," said Kelly.

Kelly could swing a big band, but also had a fine instinct for supporting soloists in small groups. He had begun on drums but, as a result of having suffered from polio when he was two, he found that he couldn't operate the hi-hat cymbal pedal with his foot. He switched to bass and began working professionally at 16.

He spent most of his life touring and the list of the name bands that he worked with is incredible. It included those of Ted Fio Rito, Randy Brooks, Sam Donahue, Chubby Jackson, Herbie Fields, Charlie Barnet, Claude Thornhill, Jimmy Dorsey, Lennie Niehaus, Maynard Ferguson, Les Brown and Harry James. He was with the Woody Herman band, enjoying a particular friendship with the leader, from January 1952 to the summer of 1955. He joined Stan Kenton in 1957 and stayed until 1959.

Kelly established a special rapport and another friendship with the drummer Buddy Rich when they played together in the Harry James band throughout most of the Sixties.

When Kelly retired, he and his wife Donna ran a restaurant and night-club in Tacoma, Washington. On the club's bandstand Kelly put a notice that read, "Go some place else and get discovered, and then come here."

Intrigued by the state elections of 1976, Kelly created the most elaborate joke of his life when he decided to run for state governor with the slogan "Unemployment is Not Working". He enlisted several of his friends for office including his mother-in-law, who campaigned to become Secretary of State under the name "Fast Lucy". Kelly's Owl party (Out With Logic, On With Lunacy) delighted the electorate but infuriated the politicians.

"Everyone we ran came in third," said Kelly.

Steve Voce

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