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Boogie Woogie SpecialistCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Kelly, BobBob Kelly was a familiar figure in the Glasgow jazz scene of the 1950s, and enhanced his reputation after moving to London, where he worked with the doyen of the British traditional jazz movement, Ken Colyer. The pianist died peacefully at his home in Melton Mowbray after a long illness which curtailed his professional career from the early 1960s.
He was born and brought up in a working-class Glasgow family, and was entirely self-taught as a pianist. He picked up his technique from intensive study of the available records of the American blues, barrelhouse and boogie-woogie players on whom he modelled his style, and by his late teens was performing professionally in the city.
He led a band as the Crew Kelly Trio -- so called because of his adoption of the then-fashionable crew cut hairstyle -- in the city, and was featured regularly both in the interval set for the Clyde Valley Stompers, and in supporting slots at major jazz concerts in the St Andrews Halls. He is remembered by those who knew him at that time as a powerful and inventive player in his chosen forms.
Although married to his first wife at the time, he met and fell in love with a young singer named Nancy Wilson, who went on to become better known on both the jazz and folk scenes as Nancy Whiskey. The couple moved to London in 1955, where both took day jobs. Kelly sat in around the clubs for a time, where he came to the notice of Bill Colyer, the brother of the band-leader, who felt his style would work perfectly in the skiffle group which Ken Colyer had formed.
Their concept envisaged a package in which Kelly would play a solo set of his rousing boogie-woogie and blues music, and then join the skiffle group for the main set, a formula which proved very effective in the time he spent with the band. Jazz historian John Chilton also lists Kelly as having played in Colyer's Jazz Band, but he was not a regular member of it, and was primarily a soloist rather than a band pianist in any case.
Nancy Whiskey also enjoyed a fair measure of success in the skiffle era with the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group, including a hit single with "Freight Train". When Kelly left the Colyer band, he accompanied his wife on drums rather than piano for a time, but after the birth of their daughter, Yancey Anne (named after one of Bob Kelly's great role models, the American pianist Jimmy Yancey), at the end of 1958, the couple came off the road, and moved to Melton Mowbray.
Kelly was already suffering health problems by that time, and never really resumed his professional career. He did remain active on a local basis, running a Sunday lunchtime Piano Party, and tutoring a number of young musicians in the area. He was able to play at the lunchtime sessions up until a couple of years ago, but handed over to one of his proteges at that time.
Sadly, he was not well enough to attend the huge skiffle celebration at the Albert Hall in December, 1998, where Nancy Whiskey was among the performers, with their daughter in attendance, an occasion he would doubtless have relished.