Few singers curl up on a song's lap like Bev Kelly. In the '50s she worked clubs and recorded several albums with pianist Pat Moran. She also recorded her first solo album in 1957. But just as she had attracted the attention of personal manager John Levy, Bev had a choice to make—her career or her son Greg. A close call in a car accident also made her think hard about her priorities. [Photo above: the Pat Moran Quartet in 1956; from left, John Whited, Pat Moran, Bev Kelly and John Doling, choreographed by Prince Spencer]
Bev had a cute singing style that combined power with hip phrasing. The ability to belt a tune and butter it up at the same time made her voice highly attractive. On top of these singing skills was the ability to bend notes, adding drama to any song. Weeks ago I wanted to tell her this and more so I shot her an email. Before her song had ended, Bev had emailed back. [Above photo of Bev Kelly today by Shawn Kelly]
In Part 2 of my conversation with Bev, the singer talks about her post-1959 career and why she didn't follow in the footsteps of Nancy Wilson...
JazzWax: You and pianist Pat Moran worked with bassist Scott LaFaro?
Bev Kelly: Yes, in 1957 Scotty worked with us for a while before he went to Los Angeles in 1958. He was amazing even then.
JW: How did Beverly Kelly Sings come about?
BK: In 1957, Sidney Frey, who owned Audio Fidelity Records, heard us at the Cloister Inn in Chicago. He wanted to record me backed by Pat, Scotty and Gene Gammage on drums.
JW: You were starting to appear as a solo singer, yes?
BW: Yes. George Shearing [pictured] came in one night while I was at the Cloister Inn and said he wanted to introduce me to his manager and former bassist John Levy. We flew to New York to meet him. John managed me for a short period, but I had a conflict. I was torn over not spending enough time with my son. I used to pack my son Greg in my car with his bike and take him with me wherever I sang.
JW: Greg’s father wasn’t around?
BK: I married Chuck Kelly [third from left above] in 1953 and we soon separated for eight years before remarrying in 1961. We’ve been together ever since. But back then, after we separated in the early ‘50s, he moved to New York and lived on a hot dog a day just to play his horn. He loved Greg, but he wanted to do his thing. It was very difficult.
JW: Where else did you perform in New York?
BK: At the Village Vanguard with pianist Ramsey Lewis and Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums. I had already sung with the Ramsey Lewis Trio [pictured above] at the Cloister Inn in Chicago and after Pat and I split up, I didn’t want to sing with some group I didn’t know. After Ramsey I sang with pianist Eddie Higgins.
JW: How did Love Locked Out come together for Riverside?
BK: John Levy put me together with pianist-arranger Jimmy Jones. I asked Jimmy if I could pick the songs rather than the A&R guy, which was unusual for a singer. In most cases singers just did what they were told. Jimmy agreed and we sat together and picked songs. I was always looking for material that other people didn’t do. Jimmy was such a sweet, gentle man. He didn’t carry his ego on his shoulder. He was a true, wonderful musician. We sat down and we talked about how I felt. Show me what you mean. I’d tell him what I felt about the song. Then he’d run down the song.
JW: John also represented Nancy Wilson around this time.
BK: Yes. During my run at the Vanguard with Ramsey, John brought Nancy Wilson in to hear me. What John wanted to do with me is what he had done with Nancy—sign me to a major label and have me perform at supper clubs. [Pictured above, Bev Kelly in 1958]
JW: What happened when Nancy came in?
BK: He asked if I minded if Nancy [pictured] got up and sang. I had no problem with that. We are so different in how we do things. She had her own way on songs and I was way in another place. John Levy insisted I play a lot of different clubs, but I always had my son with me, making that tough.
JW: Wow, talk about being torn in two different directions.
BK: Greg had had too many bad experiences with terrible babysitters, and that’s when I realized I couldn’t be a singer and a mom. After the Vanguard, I sat down with John [pictured above]. He had some plans but I said I didn’t think I could do it.
JW: What did he say?
BK: He said, “You’re like a wild horse. I just want to put a little polish on you.” But in order to put a little polish on, I had to go on the road extensively, which I didn’t really want to do.
JW: Did you tour to promote Love Locked Out?
BK: Yes, in 1960. When I was back in Chicago with Greg, I decided to take a trip to promote it. Foote Higgins—Eddie’s first wife—went with me. I was still separated from Chuck at the time and I had Greg with me. Foote and I made it to Las Vegas where Chuck was appearing with the Modernaires. Greg hadn’t seen his dad so he stayed with him. Foote and I took Chuck’s little Renault to do a tour of the West Coast.
JW: How was the tour?
BK: Well, we were near San Francisco and here come these two semis behind me. I had to pull off the road to let them go but I hit the shoulder too fast. The trucks passed, my wheels turned sideways and I told Foote to hold on. The car flipped over four times.
JW: Were you both alright?
BK: I had a big cut above my eyebrow and Foote was fine. I went to the hospital and the doctor made sure I didn’t break my back and he stitched up my cut. After that, I had to rest, which we did in San Francisco.
JW: What did you do while you healed?
BK: While I was stuck in San Francisco healing, Foote and I went to the Coffee Gallery on Grant Ave. I met Pony Poindexter and he urged me to get up and sing. I did and a friend of mine and Foote’s booked me in there. John Levy said, “Bev, what are you doing? I could be booking you into all kinds of big places.” I told John that I was comfortable there and convinced him to bring Orrin Keepnews and a wonderful engineer, Wally Heider, to record me live. They recorded me in October 1960. The album was called In Person. [Photo above: Bev Kelly at the Coffee Gallery in 1960]
JW: What about Greg?
BK: While I was in San Francisco, Greg spent more time with his dad. That’s when I decided to give being a mom a try.
JW: What did you do?
BK: Eventually Chuck and I decided we’d make an effort to grow up, to get past all the other stuff and learn to take responsibility for ourselves for the sake of our son. In 1963, we had our second son, Shawn. Chuck and I settled down in the Belmont Shore area of Long Beach, Calif. Soon after we moved, I received a call from the person who was booking the Crystal Palace in St. Louis, but I turned it down. I couldn't leave Greg again. Over the years, I did some things on the side. [Photo above: Bev Kelly in 1965]
JW: Like what?
BK: I relaxed and wrote music, made pottery and raised German Shepherds. I also began working on my PhD in psychology, which I completed in 1984. I also worked locally with Hampton Hawes, Teddy Edwards, Mike Melvoin and others. Singing jingles for ad agencies was pretty lucrative, so I did ads for Chrysler, Kentucky Fried Chicken and others. I also sang the movie theme to Robert Altman's The Late Show (1977) and invested in a local jazz club called The Safari, where I recorded in 1979 with Leroy Vinnegar.
JW: Ever wonder what would have been if you had taken John Levy’s advice?
BK: I’m sure it all would have worked out beautifully but I’m not sure I would have had a happier life. Being a mom is a gift and I couldn’t see Greg continuing to be handed off to different caretakers. He deserved better. Music is still so much a part of who I am today. So is my family. [Photo of Bev Kelly today, above, by Shawn Kelly]
JazzWax tracks: Here are Bev Kelly's headliner recordings...
- Love Locked Out (1959), with Jimmy Jones, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Milt Hinton, Osie Johnson and others.
- You Go to My Head: Bev Kelly Sings With the Bob Graf Quartet (1959)
- In Person (1960), with Pony Poindexter
- Long Ago and Far Away (1971)
- Live at the Jazz Safari (1979)
- Portrait of Nine Dreams (2001)
JazzWax clips: Here's Fool That I Am from Love Locked Out, with Jerome Richardson (ts), Jimmy Jones (p,arr), Kenny Burrell (g), Milt Hinton (b) and Osie Johnson (d)...
Here's Long Ago and Far Away from Bev Kelly: In Person, with Pony Poindexter (as), Flip Nunez (p), John Allen (b) and Tony Johnson (d)...
Here's Alice in Wonderland from Live at the Jazz Safari with Rudy Johnson (ts), Dwight Dickerson (p,el-p), Richard Madariaga (g), Leroy Vinnegar (b) and Al Williams (d)...
Here's the impossibly difficult One Less Bell to Answer by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, from Bev's rare Long Ago and Far Away...
Here's The Late Show Theme (1977)...
For more on Bev Kelly, go here.
For my interview with Pat Moran in 2010, go here.