Memphis Bound: Burnin' Down Hell w/ Jo Ann Kelly

Jo Ann Kelly: Memphis Bound
By Pete Moody - 1988
This article covers her career from the mid-sixties to the hey-day of early success in concert and on record....

In 1965, amplified R&B was competing well with both Jazz and Beat music. Acoustic Blues was also successful in competing with unamplified music in Folk clubs, which had strong traditions in English folksong, ballads and poetry. One such club, Bunjies Folk Club and Coffee House was steeped in these traditions but gave the "new music" a chance. An established resident, Les Bridger, was keen for Jo Ann Kelly to perform, and it soon became a regular event, with both Jo and Les doing sets on the same night. Jo's repertoire included numbers by Lil' Green, American standards "It Ain't Necessarily So", "Summertime" and "Saint James' Infirmary".

Les, keen to play twelve string guitar, suggested that Jo "would sound good on one" and introduced her to Watkins of Balham, a music store run by Chris Ayliff. Jo purchased a Framus twelve string, to the immediate delight of Les and, later, to the delight of her new following. Gigs at Bunjies continued until 1970.

Chris Ayliff became a good connection because he knew such folk luminaries of the day as John Renbourne, Bert Jansch and the like. He also introduced Jo to Leadbelly and Jesse Fuller tunes. Fuller's "Working On The Railroad" and Leadbelly's "Black Girl" and "Ella Speed" were added to the repertoire. Jo was also digging deeper into the Swing Shop's stocks with the continuing aid of Bob Glass. It was at the Swing Shop that Jo met Steve Rye. She had previously seen Steve passing her home, playing blues harp while 4 walking along the road.

By 1966 more clubs were featuring blues. In addition to Bunjies, Jo and Les would play at "The Scots Hoose" at Cambridge Circus and "The Hole In the Wall" at Swiss Cottage. They were also offered more residencies at other clubs, so that in any given week, Jo was working most nights.

Jo was one of the first blues artists to be booked for Surbiton Folk Club at The Assembly Halls — at a fee of £6. "Les Cousins" in Greek Street, often frequented by Davy Graham and Alexis Korner, was a regular spot in Jo's working week.


Jo, following the Yardbirds experience, still fancied sitting in with bands and would do so with John. Lee's Groundhogs at any opportunity — "Not too much" Jo recalls "John Cruikshank was not too keen to have me fronting the band... he enjoyed the singing role"

In 1966, the Folk Blues boom took off in towns up and down the country, such as Bristol, Newcastle and Reading, where clubs were run with great success. Jo became a regular act at the Bristol Club, often leaving for the gig immediately after the Sunday afternoon sessions at Lon-don's Studio 51 Club. College and University gigs were also entering the diary and in 1966 too, Jo often sat in with another band — Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts.

The themes of '66 were continued into 1967, with blues riding high. Dave Kelly joined the ranks of the long-serving John Dummer Blues Band — his first such band venture —and by 1968 the scene had really opened up.

Jo did a radio show with Alexis Korner on the BBC Third Programme in July, guested with Fred McDowell in London's Mayfair Hotel and recorded for Matchbox and Liberty. She performed at the First National Blues Convention in September and a London Blues Society concert in December, both at The Conway Hall. Ron Ede and Mike Gavin, who ran the Bridge House Club at the Elephant and Castle, gave Jo a Wednesday night residency. Among the acts appearing were John Lee Hooker, Big Boy Crudup, Big Joe Williams and Fred. McDowell. Tony McPhee was a frequent visitor, as was Bob Hall, with whom Jo would, on occasion, rekindle the Kelly/Hall duets. It was at the Bridge House that Jo met Nick Perls when Simon Prager brought him round following a session at Bunjies. Nick was looking for talent to record and Simon knew "just the person".

Nick and Jo met up again at the Blues Convention and struck a deal to record an LP. Fourteen sides were recorded in London in March 1969. Nick's idea was to sell to a major label, and Lawrence Cohn signed her to CBS-Epic Records. The album was released in both the UK and the USA. On the strength of the American release, Jo performed at the Memphis Blues Festival in June, working alongside Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell, Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes. Here too, she met up with Johnny Winter.

Jo returned to the UK before Cohn brought her back for more success with gigs at the CBS Convention in Los Angeles in August, the Second Farnham Blues Festival in September, a concert in Oslo and a ten-day Melody Maker tour up and down the UK, commencing at the Albert Hall. Three more Liberty records featured her and with two albums on Immediate's Blues Anytime series, appearances on three albums with her brother ("Tramp", John Dummer's "Cabal" album and Dave Kelly's "Keep It In The Family") 1969 was a hard year to follow.

CBS thought that a Jo Ann Kelly/ Johnny Winter tour would be a commercial success. When Winter had met Jo at Memphis and Los Angeles, he may have "liked what he saw" but once Cohn found out that Winter was going to do a major tour, he had to ask him to consider taking on Jo Ann. Johnny Winter's concept for the tour was that they would open the show together as an acoustic duo, and afterwards, he would plug in. [Moody's contention that each of them "would do an acoustic set, then duet, after which Winter's band would back Johnny with Jo sitting in" is about as absurd as it gets really.]

[Moody further contends that, "when she declined to work with Johnny Winter, Jo Ann lost the opportunity for a second CBS Album, because the company supported Johnny Winter's ideas for a 'rock' album." Jo parted company with CBS, in his view, due to her disappointment with Winter. Lawrence Cohn, however---the record executive who signed Jo to CBS/Epic, released her LP, brought her to the Annual International CBS Convention in Los Angeles, where she was the absolute hit of the event, and set her up to go out on tour with Winter---remembers a quite different series of events altogether. "She started rehearsals with him," Cohn informs, "the plan being that she and Johnny would open up the show as a duo and thereafter Johnny would go electric with his mountain of Marshalls...and then as I had feared, she opted to leave abruptly and return home to UK." Jo never really wanted to be a huge rock star and perform in stadiums to capacity crowds, Cohn explains. "She...was quite content to do pubs and small concerts in Europe." Her departure from CBS/Epic, moreover, "had absolutely nothing to do with Winter." He released Jo from the label, quite simply, because he recognized that "it was the right thing to do."]

The culture was different — Rock had swallowed the Blues in the States and turned heavy. Winter's band sounded alien to Jo's ears. It wasn't what she wanted, so after a four-day stay, Jo declined the offer and returned home.  The remainder of 1970 was a busy time, with gigs throughout the UK, many on the strength of her album, though she took time off for a USA holiday, in upstate New York with Nick Perls. Her music was now spreading into Europe as well as the States. Solo work was still the theme, but not for long...



During 1970, following the CBS Album release, Jo began to see more of 'Life' in the States. She travelled from New York to Memphis — staying at the Peabody Hotel, journeyed to Brownsville, then went into Mississippi to Clarksdale. The trip was a real eye-opener — showing how blacks lived in the South... with deprivation went the added hardship of combatting the heat and humidity —with neither refrigeration nor air conditioning. Homes were simple timber shacks down on the 'Other Side of Town'. Jo's interest in all this roused the suspicion of the local whites — a sad fact that becomes reality for visitors to the Country.



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