MAY I crave your indulgence? Click on this link, close your eyes and listen. What you hear is an ageing momma a-wailin’ and a-hollerin’ as she stirs a pan of hominy grits on the stove somewhere in the Mississippi Delta, right? Wrong. This is Jo Ann Kelly, a bespectacled, 25-year-old, ginger-haired former grammar-school girl from Streatham who came to be revered in the UK and US alike as the Queen of Country Blues. I once saw an interview with the great Bonnie Raitt in which she lamented that she had not been privileged to be ‘born with a voice like Jo Ann Kelly’. So how did suburban South London produce such a phenomenon?
Jo Ann Kelly was born in Streatham on January 5, 1944. Her father William was a chef and semi-professional drummer. There was always music belting out from the family’s 78rpm radiogram and Jo Ann’s brother Dave, three years her junior, taught her a few guitar chords.
On a 1959 family visit to Corton Holiday Camp near Lowestoft, Suffolk, the pair entered a talent contest singing Everly Brothers songs. By the following year they were heavily into skiffle and performed Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line in the same competition. Whether they won either year I have been unable to discover.
Dave and Jo began to haunt a record store in Streatham Hill called the Swing Shop, which specialised in American imports. There they discovered the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Further research brought them to the Delta Blues played by Son House, Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. Another keen customer was a young chap named Tony McPhee, later to gain fame as leader of the Groundhogs. He and the Kellys would spend their pocket money on records which they lent to each other. One day Tony loaned Jo his copy of Blues Classics by Memphis Minnie and she was hooked. That was how she wanted to sing.
Having left Streatham Grammar School determined to make a career out of her voice and guitar playing, Jo was introduced by one of the Swing Shop employees to pianist Bob Hall. She formed a blues duo with him and they played jazz clubs around South London including one at the Star Hotel in Croydon. This became an alternative venue for the Crawdaddy Club, set up in Richmond by music promoter Giorgio Gomelski. His first house band were the Rolling Stones and when they began to have hit records and go touring, they were replaced by the Yardbirds, featuring Eric Clapton. Jo Ann was there when they played the Croydon Crawdaddy in the summer of 1963 and Gomelsky encouraged her to sit in with the band, although the arrangement did not become permanent.
In 1964 Kelly released a limited-edition EP, Blues and Gospel, recorded live by Tony McPhee at the Bridge House Club, Elephant & Castle, including this track, Long Black Hair. In 1965 she began playing regularly at Bunjies Coffee House and Folk Club in West London and was persuaded by another performer, Les Bridger, to buy a 12-string Framus guitar from the music store Watkins of Balham. The following year she contributed two tracks, Black Rat Swing and Buddy Brown Eyes, to the album New Sounds in Folk, which also included a couple of songs from Don Partridge, the ‘King of the Buskers’, who would have a top ten hit in 1968 with his one-man-band performance Rosie.
Jo toured prolifically, building up a strong following on the college circuit while featuring on several blues sampler albums and, along with brother Dave, raising funds for her beloved Memphis Minnie, who was penniless and in faltering health. After an appearance at the first National Blues Federation Convention in 1968 she was signed by CBS and the following year released her eponymous debut album. This is a straight-ahead country blues record, just voice and acoustic guitar, which some fans found disappointing because they were expecting something more along the electric lines of Fleetwood Mac or Chicken Shack. The purists, however, loved songs such as Fingerprints Blues and Look Here Partner.
Also in 1969 Jo Ann appeared at a blues festival in Memphis on the same bill as her childhood heroes Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes and Mississippi Fred McDowell. She and McDowell then recorded a live album in London, Standing At The Burying Ground.
At the second National Blues Federation Convention she jammed with Canned Heat and was invited to join but said she’d rather stay in Blighty. CBS also tried to pair her up with Johnny Winter to make a rock album but she again issued a nolle prosequi.
During the late Sixties and early Seventies, Jo and Dave Kelly were both part of a blues band, Tramp, which also included Fleetwood Mac’s Danny Kirwan and Mick Fleetwood, plus Jo’s old mucker Bob Hall. They made two albums, both of which sank without trace.
Jo also made two records with McPhee, Me and the Devil and Gasoline, an anthology from which was released in 1972 as Same Thing On Their Minds. That year she collaborated with the American guitar legend John Fahey on an LP which included Bothering That Thing and Soo Cow Soo, both written by Memphis Minnie. By this time Minnie’s health was in terminal decline and she died of a stroke in a nursing home in 1973, aged 76.
Around 1974 Jo partnered up with guitarist Pete Emery, from the John Dummer Blues Band, and in 1976 they made an album, Do It. Here’s the brief title track, which was written by Jesse Winchester. Kelly went on to work with the guitarist Stefan Grossman and recorded a couple of LPs with him too.
In 1978, at the age of 34, Jo decided it was time to resume formal education. She enrolled at Hillcroft College in Surbiton for a social sciences diploma. This was not allowed to interfere with her music, however, and in 1979 she returned to the Bridge House to play with brother Dave and partner Pete plus Paul Jones, Tom McGuinness and Hughie Flint – the Blues Band. In 1980 she went back to college, studying history at Kingston Poly.
The summer of 1983 saw her record Just Restless with Pete along with Geraint Watkins, Les Morgan, Mike Paice and the former Ace bassist Tex Comer, a nice chap from Burnley whom I once interviewed for the local paper. This includes her version of the Betty Wright classic Clean Up Woman.
In 1984 Jo and Pete had a daughter, Eleanor Grace, whose arrival curtailed Mum’s musical activities somewhat. However she managed to appear with various blues groups and in 1988 formed her own band to record another album, imaginatively titled Jo Ann Kelly. That same year she began to suffer severe headaches and a brain tumour was diagnosed. An operation to remove it was unsuccessful and she was told her time was running out but she went back to work, playing the Cambridge Folk Festival with brother Dave. Her final performance was in our neck of the woods, at the Colne Blues Festival in Lancashire, where she was given the title Female Singer of the Year by the British Blues Federation. She died on October 21 1990, aged 46. Since then several comprehensive compilations of her work have been released, while Dave Kelly remains a stalwart of the blues scene. And here is a recent documentary produced by the Streatham Society.
In the British Blues Review of March 1991, Michael Prince wrote: ‘When Jo Ann Kelly died we lost one of the finest blues singers who ever trod this earth and my family and I lost a good friend. We are mostly familiar with stories of how she shunned the big time, such as offers from Canned Heat and Johnny Winter, but there is something else I want to mention – her willingness to help other musicians, especially blues musicians. She will be greatly missed in many quarters, both as an outstanding blues singer and as a person. Although none of her recordings can, in my view, match the live experience of hearing her sing, we should be grateful for them now she has gone.’ Amen to that.