March 7, 2024

I found out something today that I didn’t know. OK, it’s a matter of history that acoustic American blues was starting to trickle into the UK by the mid 1950s, and Muddy Waters brought his electric Chicago style to Britain before the decade was out. Some British artists started messing about with skiffle and R’n’B, but the first actual, true British blues album is widely considered to be R&B from the Marquee, by Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. This was released in November 1962, the same month I was born. So it turns out I am the same age as the British blues boom, and it’s no exaggeration to say I have grown up with the blues. Some may quibble about the dates, but I don’t care, I have that now, and I’m keeping it!

At the same time, Londoner Dave Kelly and his older sister Jo-Ann were getting into blues music and learning to sing and play. When I started getting into rocking electric blues as a teenager, one of the foremost new bands on the scene was The Blues Band, featuring not only Paul Jones and Tom McGuinness from 1960s pop-rockers Manfred Mann, but this very same Dave Kelly on slide guitar and vocals. Jo-Ann, sadly, passed away in 1990, leaving a massive hole in the British blues scene. Dave is not only still with us, but released his first solo album of new material for 20 years in February 2024, titled Sun On My Face. I was very happy to have the opportunity of chatting with Dave about this new album, and his role in one of the greatest musical upheavals of modern times.

“I started playing in folk clubs and things in about ’65, maybe ’64,” he says, “playing solo stuff, you know. I had met Tony McPhee then, and he showed me how to tune the guitar for slide.” This meeting is stylized in a semi-autobiographical song on the new album named Them Ole Crossroads Blues, as Dave explains. “It’s all there, about how you meet this mysterious man at the crossroads at midnight, who takes your guitar and tunes it to an open chord. I didn’t go to the crossroads though, I went to Tooting Bec! And dear Tony, he showed me, he said you tune a guitar like this to play slide. I had only ever seen one person play slide then, that was Brian Jones, ’cos Jo and I used to go and see the Stones every Sunday afternoon at Ken Colyer’s jazz club, back in ’62 I think it was. And Brian was the first person I saw play slide.”

Read Velvet Thunder’s review of Dave Kelly’s new album Sun On My Face

It wasn’t long before Kelly joined the John Dummer Blues Band, which was an intrinsic part of the developing scene. Visiting American artists would hire existing British bands to back them when they toured the UK, and the Dummer band backed such leading lights as Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Fortunately, 12-bar blues is not a genre that requires a lot of rehearsal, as Kelly explains: “We had set up in a room above a pub in Tottenham Court Road to rehearse with Wolf, and he was brought down by the tour manager from the agency. We thought we were going to rehearse X, Y, Z songs with him, so we had rehearsed them before. He came in, shook hands, and said play me a slow blues. So we started a slow blues, we got about 3 times round, and he said fine, play me a shuffle beat. Same thing happened, 3 or 4 times round, he looked at the tour manager and said yup, they’re fine. See you tomorrow boys! And tomorrow was the first gig, in Sunderland. That was it.”

So you just had to jam it? I ask. “We jammed it every time, yeah! Sometimes he’d tell us the key, sometimes he wouldn’t. We’d just find it. It was great, a great experience. And Hooker was the same. Only with Hooker, they weren’t 12 bars.”

Dave and Jo-Ann circa 1958

I had heard this before, that playing with John Lee Hooker was a challenge, because he felt the music, and wouldn’t change chord at the expected times – he kind of changed chord whenever it felt right to him. Kelly agrees. “Absolutely! I asked McPhee, because I knew he had played with Hooker before. I said what do you do? He said you just watch and listen, you’ll pick it up, you’ll get it quick enough. And he was right. You just get the feeling when Hooker’s going to change.”

These classic blues artists have virtually passed into legend now, and it’s strange to think of them as gigging, jobbing musicians. But still, the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and BB King were already massive celebrities to the burgeoning British scene, and Muddy Waters had arguably lit the fuse that resulted in the British blues explosion. Dave was on the scene and lapping it up. “In ’63, Jo and I used to go to the Croydon Jazz Club at the Star Inn, Croydon on a Friday night, then on a Saturday night, Gomelsky opened a version of the Crawdaddy Club; The Yardbirds were often there. One Saturday night I didn’t go, and Sunday morning Jo-Ann said to me, you’ll never guess who I met in the Star last night. Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters! The next day, they were playing at the Fairfield Hall in Croydon, on the Folk Festival of the Blues tour. It was their night off before they were playing on the Sunday. Sonny Boy already knew the Yardbirds, so he took Muddy down to see them at the Star. Jo was chatting to them, ’cos she used to sit in with the Yardbirds on occasion as well, and Muddy gave her tickets and backstage passes to the next day, for the show. She couldn’t go ’cos she had a gig, so I went! And that’s when I met Muddy for the first time.”

I had heard some stories about Howlin’ Wolf being a hard taskmaster and strict disciplinarian. Kelly is not having any of it. “He was a lovely man, lovely guy. Very, very paternal. We weren’t allowed to have a drink before the show. He would have a single whisky beforehand; we couldn’t drink until after the show. And he said, and don’t go smoking that shit, ’cos it’ll kill you. So we didn’t, ha ha…”

Tony McPhee’s band The Groundhogs was another outfit that backed visiting blues-meisters, and as always, Jo-Ann Kelly was there or thereabouts. “Jo-Ann sang with the early Groundhogs, when it was a 5-piece R’n’B band with Bob Hall on piano. They had backed John Lee Hooker in ’63 or ’64; Jo-Ann had sat in and sung with them, and sung with John, and I had met him. I hadn’t played with him then, but he had heard me play. Then in 1966 my girlfriend and I went to New York, and we went to see Muddy Waters at the Village Gate. It was Herbie Mann’s 5-piece jazz band, Muddy Waters and his band, and Lou Rawls and his band. They all did about a 35-minute set, and then changed; acts kept changing every half hour or 35 minutes. It started about 9 o’clock in the evening and went through to 4 in the morning. And in Muddy’s 2nd set, he said we’ve got a friend in from out of town, and he introduced John Lee Hooker, who came out and did a couple of songs with him. I sent word back with the waiter, saying will you tell John Lee Hooker that Dave Kelly’s here from London? And the waiter came back and said, at the next break, you’re invited to go out the back and meet Muddy and his band in the dressing room, which we did. Muddy was very charming, gave us drinks, and there was an acoustic guitar there on the side, so I picked it up and tuned it to open G, and started playing Muddy’s version of Walking Blues – I had my slide with me, of course. Muddy fell about, and said heeey! and John said yeah, this kid, he knows all your stuff, he’s got it all off! So then I started playing one of John’s songs. And they fell about laughing, they thought it was hilarious, that this young white kid would do their stuff, you know.

Photo from 40 Years On – A Recollection

It seems as if Kelly has played with, jammed with, or supported virtually all of the classic American blues players. “I’ve been lucky, the people I’ve got to play with,” he reminisces. “I’ve played with Hooker and Wolf; played for Muddy but not with him. Played with Buddy Guy doing a television program and a couple of gigs. Freddie King sat in with us when we were with Wolf. Paul Jones and I played with the Allman Brothers Band – back in the early days, we opened for the Allman Brothers all around Europe. By then of course, Duane had died and the harmonica player had as well, and they asked Paul and I to go up on stage for blues and play it with them. So most nights we did that, we went up and played on stage with the Allman Brothers Band for blues, which was lovely. Sometimes Gregg would just get on the organ and play along with us on our set.”

I have followed Dave, either with the Blues Band or with his own Dave Kelly band, since about 1980, but I confess to Dave that I have hardly heard any of Jo-Ann’s material. Dave is incredulous; he has no doubt whatever, about where his sister stands in the pantheon of British blues. “For heaven’s sake man, you gotta look her up! I mean, she is the best blues artist that Britain ever produced. Bar no-one. Bonnie Raitt was a fan. And Bruce Springsteen.”

The music gene runs strong in the Kelly family still. Personnel on Dave’s new album include his eldest son Sam, a respected drummer, and his youngest son Homer, who plays bass. Jo-Ann’s husband Pete Emery contributes guitars. That being the case, it may seem strange that it has been 20 years since he last recorded an album from scratch. He hasn’t been sitting on his hands though, since his last solo album, Resting My Bones in 2003.

That was followed by a collaboration with Christine Collister named The Travelling Gentlemen, and two live albums recorded with Paul Jones. Dave was also an active Member of The Blues Band right up until its dissolution in 2022, and The Blues Band released half a dozen albums in that time. More records continue to emanate from the house of Kelly too, as he describes…

“I had a collection out about 10 years ago – I found some old tapes, tracks with Jo-Ann, with Long John Baldry, with Eric Bibb, with Maggie Bell, with Paul and various friends, and including a bootleg of the Dummer Band with Howlin’ Wolf, which someone sent me.” That album in 2013 was named We Had It All, recorded under the name Dave Kelly – Family And Friends. But there was also a collection of live material released in 2016, catchily named Solo Performances Live In Germany 1986 to 1989. “On one of my German trips, my old sound guy out there turned up at one of the shows. He said, all those shows I did the PA for you, back in the ’80s, I recorded them all. And here they are! He gave me .wav files and whatever, and it was a lot of shows. So I got them all converted and had a listen, and I put out a double CD of that. I could actually go back to those and put out another one of live material, of me solo acoustic.”

And then in 2021, we were treated to Dave’s 3CD retrospective compilation 40 Years On – A Recollection. All of which brings us back to the new release, Sun On My Face. About a third of the hour-long set is original material, written or co-written by Dave. It also includes some Great American Songbook, a smattering of blues classics, and some surprising covers, which we shall come back to in a moment. One of my favourite moments on the album though, is the spoken-word lyric poem, From My Ass In LaGrasse, which is a village in the South of France. Dave growls the lyric in a low voice, in time with the music. You can call it rap if you like, which is essentially what it is. He mentions in the sleeve notes that it didn’t start as his idea; he more or less finished it for a friend.

“Yeah well, it was a poem started by a friend of mine, David Naylor, who lives in LaGrasse. He started a poem and I finished it off and wrote most of the lyric. I tried a few melodies with it, but I thought it doesn’t really work as a song, it’s a poem, so it’s a rap, you know. And I thought I can’t do a really rap beat, but I can do a funk sort of beat. I had heard a Kool And the Gang track, and I said, that is the feel! So I went to Rob Millis, who is the co-producer and engineer at his studio; we dug out this Kool And the Gang track, and just copied the rhythm track on that! Sam played the drums and Rob did the bass, and I put the wah-wah guitar on, and said yeah, that’ll do, it’s only two chords, that’ll work! I did the vocal as a poem over it, but it was too high; too light. Sam told me to try it in a lower voice, so I did it again, in a lower voice. Yeah, it’s fun, innit! Then again, there are a lot of things on that album that’ll surprise a lot of people, but you know – I’m 76, I don’t have to do exactly what’s expected of me all the time.”

The album’s country-rock title track, Sun On My Face, was also started by a friend and finished off by Dave. In the sleeve notes, he says it contains a nod to Mary Chapin Carpenter, but I confess I didn’t pick it up. This opens up another whole line of conversation regarding ‘borrowing’ music and lyrics from other artists. “Yes! There’s a line in there: ‘When you wore white satin and your grandmother’s lace.’ That’s a line from one of her songs. It was a nick! One of my songs from years ago, Dawn Surprise, is a bit of a nick melodically from a Jackson Browne song. I’ve met Jackson a few times, and one time I said to him, I seriously borrowed one of your melodies from a big chunk of a song. And he said, oh, we all do that!”

However, the album’s most unexpected number is probably his blues version of John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads, which finishes off the album. “I spent the summer in France, and the idea of doing Country Roads as a blues occurred to me there. I sent a rough version to my friend on Vancouver Island, who runs the Vancouver Island Festival that I do every few years. I said, do you think I’ll get away with that? And he said, well come on, at your stage in life, it’s not going to have any detrimental effect on your career, is it? I said no, fair enough! And I like it, I really like it. I love the song, always loved the song. I love country music as well as blues.”

Blues as a genre comes in waves; sometimes it’s in fashion, sometimes it’s out. But it’s always something of an underground movement, a niche market; people who know it, know it, and people who don’t, don’t. The result is that a veteran bluesman like Dave Kelly, despite being one of the best and foremost slide players in the UK, is unlikely ever to become a household name, not unless the household itself is steeped in the blues. Come to your senses though, Britain. All modern music owes a debt to the blues, and all UK blues owes a debt to Dave Kelly. Catch him while you can.