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Interview: Bev Kelly (Part 1)

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With the proliferation of travel in the 1950s, Chicago became a hotbed for jazz-pop singers and singing groups. The city was a national railroad hub, and passengers arriving from the East, West and South needed places to stay. As the number of hotels in Chicago grew, so did the number of hotel lounges and clubs and establishments that competed with them and handled the spillover. Singers were especially popular with weary business travelers, particularly hip singers with a swinging jazz-pop feel. Bev Kelly was one of them.

A classically trained pianist and vocalist, Bev, like most teens, spent her youth glued to records and the radio. Jazz appealed to her and she soon developed phrasing and intonation picked up from jazz musicians' instruments. When you listen to Bev's recordings today, you hear the flavor of the '50s, when better vocal groups and singers knew how to get their hearts into what they were doing.

What made Bev's journey in the '50s and '60s particularly tricky was that she had to care for her young son Greg, who was born in 1954. When you speak with her today, you realize how this woman managed to keep from capzsizing under the pressure: she has a joyous, upbeat spirit and easy-going personality.

Here's Part 1 of my conversation with Bev, who turned 79 in June...

JazzWax: Where were you born?

Bev Kelly: In Rittman, Ohio but I spent my early childhood in Troy. I have a brother who is four years younger. My dad, Donald Wolfe, started out flying airplanes and performing motorcycle stunts. He eventually became an aero technician and traveled all over as an airplane brake specialist. Eventually we moved to South Bend, Ind. In the late 1940s, my brother contracted polio and was in an iron lung for a year. He's fine now but he's had some disabilities.

JW: Where did you study?

BK: I began formal piano lessons when I was five years old and voice lessons at 14. After high school, I went to study at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music on a scholarship. I was there for a year when I decided to leave.

JW: Why?

BK: I had begun singing locally in clubs and loved it. I went into Danny's Bar in Cincinnati in 1953 after the owner contacted me. I wasn't even old enough to be in a bar. The owner loved good music and liked the sound of my voice. I worked with the Teddy Raymore Trio for a year, six nights a week. I had a great education that went beyond jazz, since they were into show music and pop. [Pictured above: Bev Kelly in 1953]

JW: How did you come to jazz?

BK: When I was growing up, I loved listening to bands, particularly those led by Woody Herman, Claude Thornhill [pictured above] and Billy Eckstine. I always listened to the horns. That's what I preferred. I didn't listen to other singers much. The more I got into the business the more musicians would take me aside and teach me things. One of my favorites was Miles Davis, who was awesome.

JW: When you dropped out of the conservatory, were you still on speaking terms with your parents?

BK: [Laughs] They didn't give me much grief. But the people who had awarded me the scholarship were appalled. The pianist I had studied with up until age 16 had wanted me to become a classical pianist. But I was frustrated. No matter how hard I'd practice, it was never good enough for her. I was great at memorizing my music for a recital but when I gotup on stage at age 9 or 10, I became so nervous, which wouldn't please her. One time I went up on stage and froze. I started over three or four different times. It was like a nightmare. I ran down to my teacher hoping she would console me.

JW: Did she?

BK: No. She just crossed her arms and seethed, saying, “Look what you've done to me." That ended my interest in becoming a classical pianist.

JW: When you listened to musicians, what did you focus on?

BK: Their sense of harmony and how they phrased their lines. That taught me to put myself in the position of the story the lyrics told. Which wasn't too hard. Music is just intensified speech. You're just adding heart. Sometimes I'd have tears in my eyes when singing a song. As a singer, you put your experiences in there and those experiences change as you age. I recently listened to myself sing Sunday Kind of Love from 1956. I was just a kid. I have no idea where my voice came from.

JW: When did you meet pianist Pat Moran?

BK: Pat was at the conservatory a year before me. After I had my son Greg in 1954 and both Pat and I were out of school, we ended up in Dayton, Ohio, where we formed a duet called the Modernettes. Pat played piano and I played a snare drum while standing. We both sang. It was a nifty group and worked a club there called the Latin Lounge.

JW: Did you remain in Dayton long?

BK: No. We became a hot act pretty fast and went to Chicago, where we met Freddy Williamson, who worked with Joe Glaser at Associated Booking. Freddy couldn't believe how good we were and set us up at the Sutherland Hotel on the South Side. It was an all black hotel. We worked there and at the Cloister Inn. Unfortunately we were never recorded. [Pictured above: Joe Glaser with Louis Armstrong]

JW: What was your next break?

BK: Steve Allen discovered us. We went on the Tonight Show in 1954 or 55. He was astounded. I was just 21 and Pat was 20. I sang You and the Night and the Music with an upbeat tempo and Steve got a lot of response. That's about the time when bassist John Doling and drummer Johnny Whited joined us, and we became the Pat Moran Quartet. I sang and they played and sang. We recorded The Pat Moran Quartet for Bethlehem in 1956 in Hollywood and recorded live for the label on Mel Torme's Songs for Any Taste.

JW: Did you make it to New York?

BK: Yes, in 1957. Freddy booked us into Birdland and we recorded on Pat Moran While at Birdland.

JW: How did the quartet work?

BK: Pat would sit down and say, “Let's try this song and that one." She was oozing with talent. I'd then write the tight harmony arrangements. We sang Embraceable You, and our innocence on there was interesting. We were just kids, and what we were doing came from the soul. We didn't have an agenda, like “We're going to be famous." We took it one day at a time. We used to pack the Sutherland Hotel. Sometimes it would be so crowded we couldn't leave the round stage above the bar. We'd just stay there between sets. [Photo above of pianist Pat Moran with Johnny Whited by Ray Avery/CTSImages.com]

JW: Who came in to hear you?

BK: Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, Joe Williams, Tony Bennett, Stan Kenton—everyone. In New York, the boxer Joe Louis used to hear us at Birdland. I stayed at a hotel around the corner and Joe always walked me home so no one bothered me. He'd walk me to my door. He was such a sweetheart. We were just neat kids who loved what we did. Miles was always very nice to me. He once came up to me at Birdland and said, “Hey Bev, there's a song you should sing—The Meaning of the Blues. I gave it a try.

Tommorrow, Bev talks about the superb albums under her own name.

JazzWax tracks: Here are Bev Kelly's early vocal harmony recordings from the mid-'50s...

The Pat Moran Quartet (1956)

Songs for Any Taste (1956)

Pat Moran While at Birdland (1957)

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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