John Kelly, musician, actor, performer

Sammy Stein By

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John Kelly is a musician who, with his band 'Rockinpaddy' performs in pubs and clubs around the London area. He is also an actor, campaigner for disability rights and in grave danger of becoming something of a national treasure. He is a freelance performer with Graeae Theatre Company, has performed on major stages around the globe with artists including Herbie Flowers, The Blockheads and Linda Gale Lewis and is an active campaigner for disability rights. He has even been known to encourage a captive theatre audience to join in rousing choruses of songs about disability rights. All About Jazz decided to find out a bit more about this intriguing musician.

All About Jazz: What is your background? Where did you grow up and how did you come to music?

John Kelly: I was born in Balham, South London. My parents came from Ireland and settled in the UK in the late '60s. I spent a lot of my early life either in hospital in London or in Ireland with family. I grew up with strong musical influences and consider my Irish heritage integral in that. It's in our blood. Music is one of the most significant parts of Irish culture and perhaps our biggest export. Irish people are steeped in music. It was everywhere when I was growing up. My parents were always singing or playing records. They liked Irish traditional music, Country and Western and Rock and Roll so there was always Big Tom, The Dubliners, The Clancey Brothers, Wolfe Tones and country classics.

AAJ: How were you encouraged in music and where was your first performance?

JK: I was encouraged to sing and perform by the music teacher where I went to school. It was a school for disabled people but this music teacher saw no limit to what the students could achieve. My debut performance was with 'The Seaweed Song' when I was around 8 years old. It was a comical song about how you could tell the weather when you touched seaweed. I remember hearing Elvis Presley songs and performing 'Imagine' by John Lennon. I got a real buzz from singing and later I began to sing in a few pubs. People traditionally always sang in pubs in Ireland. If a singer was bad, the talking just carried on over the top but if they were good there was a lot of, 'shh... shh... listen... lovely...that's lovely...!' Sometimes, the 'Ssshh!' was louder than the singer. When I sang, for some reason people listened.

AAJ: Did you ever see any barriers to your success?

JK: My parents saw my disability as no barrier and I grew up believing my physical disability would not stop me trying anything. Role models were few and there were few disabled people to identify with but I liked Elvis and other artists. I developed a liking for edgy material including Ska, British Metal—short, sweet, high energy tracks, not long self indulgent stuff—rockabilly, rock & roll and punk. The groove and message of reggae's peace, love and understanding along with a message for change and freedom also were influences for me. The songs about freedom had links I feel with some Irish songs and now with the songs I sing about disability stuff. Ian Dury was someone I admired and although he was not really a role model for me at first, he became a huge one later on when I learnt he was a disabled person too. Brilliant! I found I identified with the ways Dury handled his disability and performing, like how he held the microphone and how he made the smallest of movements to the beat. Those were things I could identify with.

AAJ: What were your first bands?

JK: As a teenager, my first band was WAC (We Are Cripples). We were absolute rubbish! We had only a snare drum and a high hat-the rest of the stuff we had to make as our school had few instruments. I had a guitar on my lap and we just made a load of noise basically.

AAJ: so what made you take music and performing more seriously?

JK: When I was maybe about fifteen or sixteen I saw a short film which changed how I viewed performing. It was a short documentary, only a few minutes long, about a group of disabled blokes who played open-tuned guitars on the trays of their wheelchairs. They had adapted their style to hold the guitar differently from the traditional way. It made me see the possibilities of adapting and modifying various instruments.

AAJ: so what happened next?

JK: After WAC I met a mate's brother called Angus who played guitar. We played a youth club gig in Epsom, South England, with a guy called Jim, playing mainly covers and songs with a few chords. 'You Shook Me All Night Long' by AC/DC, 'Wild Side of Life' -the Status Quo version-and 'Stand By Me' by Ben E. King were standards. I then formed The Electrics, a much more energetic band and performed songs by The Ramones and we began writing our own material. The Electrics built up a bit of a following. I'd say a rare Electrics T-shirt might get over 50p now if you put it on Ebay! Our drummer, Gary, went on to become a member of Praying Mantis. I began writing songs with another band member and soon The Electrics became ADR (Another Dead Rabbit)—named after a road trip to a gig in The New Forest. We began gigging in pubs and clubs, playing our own numbers with a few covers. A record label showed interest but the potential brush with fame was scuppered when we went on stage a bit worse for wear when they left us to set up in the bar for too long. Unfortunately, that was the evening the guy from the record label chose to show up.

AAJ: so how did the diversification into acting happen?

JK: I was playing a lot of my own material and I got invited to America to play gigs in Memphis and Nashville. Even though I was gigging relatively regularly, I kept up the youth work I do and work around inclusion. This led to travel and more musical opportunities. I nearly always managed a few gigs while travelling and played in Russia, Poland, Estonia, France, Germany—all over Europe in fact as well as America and most recently Brazil and back to Germany with Reasons To Be Cheerful (the stage show). I learned to set up gigs with 'basic gear' and how to work a crowd in pubs and clubs, to deal with not being listened to or given time to set up, it was all part of the musical learning curve. This continued for about 6 years. Then I became involved with Graeae Theatre Company. I was contacted and asked to take part in the development of an idea for a Paul Sirett show they were producing called, 'Reasons to be Cheerful' based around the songs of Ian Dury and The Blockheads.

My initial thought was, 'F**k! -singing Ian Dury songs—who wouldn't want that?' I did the development work and I remember going home in my mate's taxi on the first evening and thinking, 'Well, that's that. I have lived the dream and helped develop vocals for a show by a world renowned theatre company and sang Dury numbers—and I got well paid. Happy days.' I thought that was that.
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