Monday, June 5, 2017

Streatham's Queen of the Country Blues Guitar

Jo Ann Kelly warming up backstage before a show
Colin Brooks, in North London, UK 1968)

'British Queen of the Country Blues' is how British Blues followers regarded Jo Ann Kelly by the mid 'seventies. Involved with the music from the early 'sixties and continuing through two major Blues booms, Jo Ann Kelly is still wearing the crown. This first part covers her formative years. 

To set the scene, we need to go back to the turn of the century, by which time Skiffle-type bands had become part of American rural life. This exciting musical form was played mainly by African Americans, who, determined to play Jazz but unable to afford proper instruments, made music with something less expensive, such as a washboard, kazoo, jug, honk-made string bass, along with guitar, banjo, and sometimes fiddle. It was Jazz of sorts, but sometimes labeled 'Hokum' — Native American for 'imitation'. Skiffle was on its way. 

By the early 'fifties, a Traditional Jazz scene had become established in Britain. Throughout the country, a strong Jazz Club circuit regularly presented live performances. Some of these bands, such as Ken Colyer's Jazzmen and the Crane River Jazz Band, began 'experimenting', by presenting a Skittle set within their repertoire. Another band pioneering this idea was the Chris Barber Jazz Band. The band added a mixture of traditional Skiffle and work song material to their Jazz sets. Lonnie Donegan, the band's banjo player, would switch to guitar and sing the vocals for this part of the program. He'd be backed by Chris Barber on string bass and Beryl Bryden on washboard. Lonnie's subsequent rise to stardom became a musical inspiration for much of Britain's youth.

In the Kelly family home in Streatham, South London, where Jo Ann grew up along with her younger sister Susan and brother Dave, musical development had already started with Rock and Roll. Skiffle records were soon added to the environment.

One of Jo's influential musical memories was formed in the late 'fifties. Returning home from a Summer holiday camp the family stopped at a cafe. As Jo entered, she heard the sound of a jukebox, around which was gathered a group of local Teddy' boys and girls. Fourteen-year-old Jo, intrigued by the sound, asked them about the music. It was 'Lucille' by Little Richard. After this, the record collecting began — Little Richard, Buddy Holly, early Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers.

The following summer, at the same holiday camp, the Kellys took the opportunity to perform in the talent competition, where they did Everly Brothers songs. Dave had learned some guitar from a school friend who led a local Skittle group. Dave taught Jo a few chords and she picked up the rest herself. With their home practice and spurred on by the holiday camp action, each was started on the path of a musical career. Jo got into Skiffle music and next summer, 1960, again at the holiday camp talent competition, they performed 'Rock bland Line'. Lonnie Donegan's brand of Skiffle had become a major influence. It had Blues roots. It had rhythm. It had the aura of stardom.

At the same time, Dave was learning trombone at school and, in search of Jazz records for his studies, found himself in Dave Carey's Swing Shop in Streatham. Specialising in imported American records, the Swing Shop had established an enthusiastic clientele since the forties. At these record shop visits, Dave found the music for his studies — Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Before long Jo and Dave were digging deeper into the more obscure records, unearthing Robert Johnson, Son House and Charley Patton — Delta Blues. Another regular visitor to the shop was Tony McPhee who was already same playing guitar and collecting these same Blues records.

Tony soon got to know the Kellys. By swapping records they were able to hear more Blues -- money was tight — they couldn't buy them all. Tony bought Blues Classics by Memphis Minnie (the first issue of Chris Strachwitz's legends Blues label) and lent it to Jo knowing she would like it. Here was a woman singing and playing guitar with a tremendous style. Then, dazzling guitar runs and duets with her husband, Little Son Joe, introduced Jo to American's foremost downhome woman of the blues. Minnie's songs like "Nothing In Rambling" and "In My Girlish Days" were a style of the Blues which Jo could really identify with. Jo Ann's Blues singing and guitar playing, developed during these formative years, were to last her in good stead.

In 1962 Bob Glass, who worked in the Swing Shop, introduced Jo Ann to Bob Hall who was already an accomplished piano player. They were ideal partners for an acoustic Blues duo. The Trad Jazz scene was continuing its 'fifties momentum, but Skiffle sets were changing the music scene. The Interval Spots which previously the Jazz musicians themselves had performed were now being taken over by other musicians, musicians who had taken Skiffle a stage further. Jo Ann and Bob Hall were two such performers and, with their combined talents, they reproduced the classic Blues songs of Bessie Smith and Rosetta Tharpe, with Bob on piano, and Jo on vocals.

In 1963, the Jazz clubs were tailing off. 'This Blues' had caught on. Rhythm and Blues clubs began to spring up, not only at established Jazz outlets but also at specific MB venues. The Kelly/Hall duo had become long-established Interval performers at one such Jazz club, the 'Star' public house in Croydon. This was one of the pubs which MB promoter Giorgio Gomelsky was interested in as another possible had opened. Giorgio had brought to Croydon his `most blues-wailing Yardbirds, electric Chicago Blues.

The R&B scene hadn't developed from the Skiffle bands overnight. In fact, Barbara-Band associates Cyril Davis and Alexis Korner were major catalysts and in playing their brand of Chicago Blues, had led the way for the next generation.

The Yardbirds' music at the Star was loud, hypnotic, and authentic. Jo's reaction was that "It was wonderful stuff." The acoustic sets with Bob continued, but Jo's immediate ambition was to try an amplified performance with the Yardbirds. Manager Giorgio Gomelsky gave her the opportunity to sit in with them at their Star residency. Her singing was received enthusiastically by Keith Relf. Jo can vividly remember Giorgio taking her to a practice session with the Yardbirds in 1963 at the Richmond Crawdaddy. The Yardbirds had done their rehearsal for the day but ran through "Baby What You Want Me To Do," playing it the Jimmy Reed way, whilst Jo sang the Everly Brothers' arrangement. Eric Clapton, in a somewhat joking mood, was driven to mimic the Everly Brothers.

The Yardbirds were "going places." Jo too was on her way but in another direction [a deeper direction, going down to the roots......


  1. will you please credit the photograph of Joanne backstage at the top of this article to Colin Brooks. It was taken in 1968 in North London, UK. Thank you