Q&A with guitarist and singer Dave Kelly, has been a seminal figure on the British blues scene since the 1960s

"It (Blues) will always survive because it is an accessible music form, but as per above, technique is nothing without human feeling in the music."

Dave Kelly: A Blues Sun On His Face

Singer, guitarist and composer Dave Kelly is a British blues singer, guitarist and composer, who has been active on the British blues music scene since the 1960s. He has performed with the John Dummer Blues Band, Tramp, The Blues Band, and his own Dave Kelly Band. "Sun On My Face" (November 2023/Repertoire Records), his latest 15-tracks album, began as a selection of songs from the Dave Kelly Band. Interrupted by the Covid lockdown, he was later joined by multi-instrumentalist Rob Millis and resumed recording in his studio, with an impressive lineup including Paul Jones on harmonica, Lou Stonebridge on keys and Doug Cox on dobro. The material broadened to include the Great American Songbook gem ‘Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love,’ Arthur Crudup’s ‘Mean Old Frisco Blues,’ and Hank Williams’s ‘I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You,’ as well as new self-penned songs like the title track, ‘Too Happy To Write,’ and ‘From My Ass In Lagrasse.’

(Seminal figure on the British blues scene since the 1960s, Dave Kelly / Photo by Karen Keogh)

The album also features re-recordings of ‘Them Ole Crossroads Blues,’ written for the Blues Band’s farewell album So Long, a poignant tribute to old friend and mentor Tony McPhee, and Dave Kelly Band favourite ‘I Am The Blues’, written with Lou Stonebridge.

Interview by Michael Limnios                        Archive: Dave Kelly, 2020 Interview

Special Thanks: Dave Kelly, Lesley Shone, Alan Robinson (Indiscreet PR)

How did your relationship with the acoustic blues come about?

Song 'Them Ole Crossroads Blues' on the BB's So Long album and a solo version on my new album cover this question. However; I started playing guitar in 1957 on the wave of RocknRoll and Skiffle. With the folk boom of the early 60's I started fingerpicking. With the skiffle influence I was always aware of American folk music and to some extent blues, via Lonnie Donegan. I discovered a record shop near where I lived in Streatham, south London: Carey's Swing Shop which specialised in jazz and blues records. We all gathered there, local musos: Jo Ann, me, Bob Hall Steve Rye, Simon Preager and Tony McPhee. We swapped records and licks. McPhee showed me how to tune to an open chord to play slide/bottleneck. Changed my life!

Do you have any stories about the making of Sun On My Face?

Just that it was started before Covid and during the hiatus Bill Gautier moved home from SW London to the Kent Coast, closing his studio. I re-started with keyboard player and engineer Rob Millis who has Left bank Studio on the bank of the River Crane in Twickenham, near where I live., so there was about two years between starting the backing tracks (5) and then continuing with the album for the next ten tracks and overdubs at Rob's.

Also, I do a bluesy/rocky version of Cole Porter's Let's Do It and that was going to be the title of the album. We spent the summer at our house in France and at the top of the village there is a rusty old Citroen Van with weeds growing all over it. One evening walking back with Otis our dog we passed it and took a couple of photos. Looking at them I thought they'd make a nice cover photo. We returned the next morning with a guitar, and it was very sunny. The picture came out great and with the sun on my face and a song entitled that it was obvious to change the title.

"Technique is important, but it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing (Duke Ellington)." (Photo: Singer, guitarist and composer, Dave Kelly who has been active on the British blues music scene since the 1960s, performed with the John Dummer Blues Band, Tramp, The Blues Band, and Dave Kelly Band)

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Not sure what I learn from the blues. The blues means to me a wonderful emotional music, which has enabled me to live my life as a professional musician.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?

I don't think I've had any hard obstacles. I've been very lucky. I wasn't getting very far with bottleneck guitar in 1964, when Tony McPhee showed me how to tune to an open chord, and eureka! like the mysterious man at the crossroads at midnight, except this meeting was in Tooting Bec, London!!

What is the driving force behind your continuous support for your music? What does your blues/music convey about the human condition?

My driving force is love of what I do - I love playing music, particularly in front of an audience. My music (I hope) conveys emotion to the listener, which they can recognise in themselves.

From the musical and feeling point of view is there any difference between an old and great bluesmen and young generation?

I can't really answer this other than I know that the music that grabs you for the first time stays with you forever and generally is not replaced. I've been lucky in that I saw all the greats play at some point. Also lucky enough to play with Son House, Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Lowell Fulson, Junior Wells among others. They will always be the greatest to me. I loved Peter Green's work and there is a young woman in the UK called Elsie Franklin who does some great old blues. My very first musical experience was with my parents record player. Then along came Lonnie Donegan, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis. They've stayed with me forever. I also love country music. You'll hear from the variety of music on my Sun On My Face album, that it's not only blues that I love.  I love country, I love Joni Mitchell etc. Duke Ellington said there are only two types of music - good and bad. I agree.                  (Photo: Dave Kelly)

"Yes, it's proved there is one. It may be a bit of a rockier style at present, but I've always said 'The blues is like an Amoeba, constantly moving and changing shape… or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans? They always have. I was one (a young person) once!"

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started and what has remained the same?

I think, I am a much better singer these days. Homer, my youngest son is a singing teacher/vocals coach. He has given me a few pointers over the past few years from which I have benefited a lot. I think you'll notice when you hear the new album "Sun On My Face".

What moment changed your music life the most?

As I said, meeting Tony McPhee who showed me the basics of slide guitar. Also, in New York in 1966 I played a floor spot at Gerde's Folk City. You paid a dollar, or may be two - don't remember, but for the payment you got to play two songs. There were no encores, everyone just did two songs. I did mine and the audience would not let me off, they kept shouting for more eventually I did 5 songs. I think at that time they were not used to hearing bottleneck guitar, particularly from a 19-year-old Englishman! Returning to the UK at the end of the summer I said to myself, due to the Gerde's Folk City response 'I am not going to get a job. I'm gonna become a professional musician' So I concentrated on the folk club scene and managed to get gigs and develop my career.

What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

Gerde's Folk City, Joining The John Dummer Band, touring with Howlin Wolf, touring with John Lee Hooker, touring and recording with Son House, playing with Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Freddie King, Junior Wells, The Allman Brothers Band. The Blues Band starting 44 years ago. Being the opening act for 2 months on the last Dire Straits tour in Europe.

Why do you think that the UK Blues scene continues to generate such a devoted following, since the 1960?

Well, it's a great music form and has been popular since recordings began, why should it change?

"I think I am a much better singer these days. Homer my youngest son is a singing teacher/vocals coach. He has given me a few pointers over the past few years from which I have benefited a lot. I think you'll notice when you hear the album Sun On My Face." (Photo: Dave Kelly, Alexis Korner & Gary Fletcher)

How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

Don't know, I just get on with it. I love it, so stamina doesn't come into it. The spirituality supplies itself or there's no point in doing it.

What's the balance in music between technique (skills) and soul/emotions?

Technique is important, but it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing (Duke Ellington).

Are there any specific memories from the famous “Les Cousins” in Soho that you would like to tell us about?!

Mainly that I never played there... JoAnn Kelly (1944–1990) my sister did, but I never got to. Saw a few good players there... as Bert Jansch!

Why is it important to we preserve and spread the blues?

It will always survive because it is an accessible music form, but as per above, technique is nothing without human feeling in the music.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Take nothing for granted. Keep an open mind on as much as you can.

Do you think there is an audience for blues music in its current state?

Yes, it's proved there is one. It may be a bit of a rockier style at present, but I've always said 'The blues is like an Amoeba, constantly moving and changing shape… or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

They always have. I was one (a young person) once!

Deve Kelly (Repertoire Records) - Home

(Dave Kelly, Germany 2018 / Photo by Tony Joe Gardner)

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