Jo-Ann Kelly January 05, 1944 – October 21, 1990 Part 1

One can only guess as to where Kelly’s preternatural understanding of the blues idiom came from.  More so than almost all of her contemporaries, seem truly seemed born to “sing and play the blues”.

There is never anything forced about her singing, never a sense that she is imitating those who came before her, or is any way doing anything other than sharing her own stories with us as honestly as she can.

Her guitar work, finger picked and slide, reveal the same sense of naturalness, an innate understanding of what to play and more importantly what not to play.

Not that Kelly couldn’t get as down and dirty as the best of the bluesmen and blueswomen that she covered.  Kelly could pull off the incredibly raunchy ‘Shave ‘em Dry’, the sweetly sexy ‘Me ‘N My Chauffer’ and a number as silly as ‘Boney Maronie’ with equal ease.

Having had her fun on Saturday, she headed to church on Sunday.  Her singing and playing on ‘Swing Down Sweet Chariot’ invites the listener to share the joy her belief brings her while ‘River Jordan’ and the acapella ‘Death Have Mercy’ find her properly repentant, her slide work on the former witness to the depths of her belief.

From the beginning, fans of Kelly’s music were faced with a musical treasure hunt in their attempts at tracking down her recordings as they were scattered across a wide array of EPs (released in limited pressings) and seemingly self-multiplying compilations (as the original British LPs were licensed for release in the States the track listings were mixed and matched to create “new” versions) and later, albums recorded for obscure labels whose size constrained their  ability to properly promote their product.

Her first four song EP, recorded in 1964, was produced by her friend Tony McPhee and he would continue to prove to be her most sympathetic collaborator, as both producer and musical partner as the decade drew to a close.

McPhee was also one of the musicians backing her on two numbers produced by Mike Vernon in 1966.  Occupying the piano stool at the session was Bob Hall with whom she would forge a lasting musical alliance.

The session was a rare misstep for Vernon as the recordings failed capture Kelly’s essence and abilities; she sounds as if she was just brought in to sing a couple of songs with the band.   (The tracks would remain unreleased until they were licensed to Immediate Records for the compilation “Blues Anytime, Vol. 1”.

Kelly too was unhappy; not only with the results but with the whole experience.

It would be two years before she was went back into the studio, cutting a couple of acoustic duets with Tony McPhee; singing over Bob Hall’s stride piano, and one number a cappella.

We’ll take a look at these and more in Part 2.

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