Tony Cummings traces the fascinating up-and-down career of Scottish-born singer/songwriter DAVE KELLY
Having to state at the start that the Dave Kelly whose fascinating life documented here isn't the veteran member of the Blues Band (nor for that matter the Jamaican record producer, Canadian TV host or any of the other eight Dave Kellys wikipedia'd) one next needs to observe that for a man whose two Christian albums are today turning up in fans' Greatest Albums Ever lists and who was once signed to the Beatles' Apple Records, gigged alongside all manner of rock luminaries and had Bob Dylan's backing band playing on his one solo album, Scottish-born, USA-based Dave Kelly remains amazingly unknown. Clearly an interview was long overdue with the Christian Dave Kelly and broadcaster Mike Rimmer was able to track down the veteran songsmith now living in Las Vegas. He began by asking Dave about his early background. "I was Scottish by birth. My dad was in the Air Force. We travelled all over the world. I was raised in places like Singapore, Malaysia and the Arab peninsula in a place called Aden. I followed in my father's footsteps and signed up the the RAF. I was an electrical engineer on giant V-bombers."
While in the RAF, Kelly formed a band with Derek Jeffery. Said Dave, "I met Derek whenere in RAF Wyton, which is in Huntingdonshire, very close to Cambridge. He was the only guy in the whole town with really long hair, and he was a pretty good singer, so he became our vocalist. I wasn't brave enough to sing back then. We were getting a lot of gigs in London, and the Air Force didn't like the idea of me being gone all the time. They give you those 24-hour passes; you get busted if you're late."
The music bug bit Dave really hard and he began dreaming of a full time music career. "A couple of record companies did ask how much money it would cost [to buy me out]. I was taught all this secret stuff, because that Air Force base was a secret NATO base, so we had a lot of special training. Because of that, they wouldn't let me go. But I eventually managed to persuade them, and they gave me an honourable discharge, which was really nice. They gave me some money to buy a really good guitar and a really good amplifier, and I was off to the races."
Dave and Derek entered a Battle Of The Bands competition with a mouth watering prize of a contract with the Beatles' Apple Records. They won! "We were as shocked as anybody that we won. We were given this really nice letter from Peter Asher, from Peter and Gordon. He was the brother of Jane Asher, and he had become head of Apple Records, which was a little bit disarrayed to say the least. They had this contest in an effort to find local talent in England. But as it turned out the Beatles were breaking up right at that moment. Peter Asher left, I guess, the week we won, and nobody at Apple knew what was going on. It was not the best time to land in their lap. But it still was phenomenal - the number of parties you could attend, it was like you'd died and gone to Heaven."
However, the party-going wasn't much compensation for the sad experience of seeing Apple Records disintegrate. Commented Dave, "It would have been a fantastic reality show. The Rutles sent that up, and that is exactly what it was like - rats leaving a ship. It was impossible to get anybody to sit down and talk. Mal Evans was really good, and I knew him again in Los Angeles."
Jeff Dexter, the famous deejay at places like the Roundhouse and Middle Earth who later managed the group America, was Dave's manager but it was a referral from Jackson Brown's guitarist David Lindley that got Dave signed to a label who weren't going to go belly up like Apple Records, Warner Bros UK. Dave and Derek began touring as opening act for bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, ELO and Deep Purple. But as it turned out, for the second time Dave found his record company contract leading nowhere. "I think it was Martin Wyatt who signed us to Warner Bros UK. The he left and a new regime came in. I didn't know it at the time, but I've heard it from hundreds of artists since, that traditionally when a new regime comes in to a major record company they don't like to put out the records by artists signed by the previous regime, because if they're hits that makes the old guys look good. An awful lot of that goes on in the music business. If you haven't yet had your records released, it's easy for them to be frozen. That's what happened at Warner. Some of the best records I've ever heard have never been released, and can't legally be released. Unfortunately, I got caught in the middle of that."
Dave and Derek Jeffery relocated to the USA in 1976. Still well connected with the music industry big hitters, Dave was invited to the studio to hear the latest project of one Stevie Wonder. He recounted, "I had an English friend in LA when I first moved there who knew Stevie very well and was working for him in a big studio called Crystal, which I don't believe exists anymore. He said, 'Come in and meet Stevie, and help me with the studio I'm building. We'll hear his music.' Stevie would invite us into the control room to hear the mixes of 'Songs In The Key Of Life', which is a phenomenal double album. The experience of that, and watching how he did that, how he approached music, was an amazing experience to say the least."
Dave picked up some work doing sessions for the all-girl rock band Fanny, who were like a prototype Runaways. Remembered Dave, "They were really the first all-female band that ever was successful. They were a seminal band. I was hired by Nickey Barclay, who was the keyboard player and one of the main singers, to do a solo album for her. She was a phenomenal talent - she was like a female Joe Cocker. Amazing time."
Dave also began working with Tommy Bolin of Deep Purple. "We used to jam in a little garage under the Hollywood sign. We were just playing stuff, and he'd be playing his incredible guitar over the top of it. It was developing into something pretty cool. Then he died. Tommy was seriously addicted to heroin. At the time I was jamming with him, he was working hard to get off it. Deep Purple asked him to come on tour one last time. Unfortunately while he was on tour somebody gave him some heroin. He'd actually hired a local drug dealer to stop any other drug dealers coming anywhere near him, because he really did not want to take heroin anymore. But somebody got through, and he unfortunately overdosed."
Dave admitted that in the drug-riddled world of big time rock he too could have succombed. "It was a bad thing waiting to happen." But instead he and his longtime friend Derek Jeffery encountered the living God. Dave said, "God stepped into my life at that time, literally zapped me like Paul on the road to Damascus. My life was totally changed from that point on: I felt like I needed to use my music in some spiritual manner, just to try and tell people about the Gospel. We were really just talking to non-Christians: there wasn't a Christian rock scene. Traditionally in churches, they didn't want you singing music to non-believers - they wanted you singing music to them, about their experience. But I was too new. I wanted to tell people about my experience, and say, 'Hey, check this out'."
Dave joined a Vineyard church who were pioneering a new approach to Christian music. Dave's youth minister was a singer and pianist who was to go on to become a seminal figure in the development of Christian music, Keith Green. "I hung out with Keith a lot, got to know him. He was a fiery character. He was very sweet and very tough, almost what I would imagine knowing Isaiah or Elijah might have been like. He was Jewish. He had that very sweet heart, at the same time so fiery he frightened a lot of people. He was very dogmatic: everything to him was black and white. Lead, follow, or get out of the way. It was cut and dried for Keith, and that put off a lot of people."
In 1977 Dave and Derek started writing Christian songs together. They were initially joined by one time member of Fleetwood Mac, guitarist virtuoso Peter Green. Remembered Dave, "He was an incredible guitarist - one of the best in the world, and still is. He had met Derek and me in Hollywood and started playing with us as we started to write the songs. He would have become a member of 'Ark, except that Mick Fleetwood got Peter a solo record deal, which was where he needed to be. So we started looking around for someone else, and a mutual friend introduced us to Al Perkins. I thought he was a very famous lap steel guitar country guitarist, but little did I know this guy is absolutely amazing. He can play anything, and has played with everybody - the Rolling Stones to the Eagles. Very fortunate to have had him play guitar with 'Ark."
With their lineup of Dave Kelly (vocals, rhythm guitar), Derek Jeffery (vocals, rhythm guitar), Al Perkins (lead guitar), David Mackay (bass) and James Kehn (drums), 'Ark developed a brilliant set of songs, hugely influenced by the Beatles but with lyrics that spoke openly about the band's faith in Christ. The name of the band's proposed album, 'The Angels Come', was taken from a quip "'Ark the angels come" John Lennon had spoken right before the intro to "Let It Be". However, the band had huge difficulty in securing a record deal with the demos from their album. Said Kelly, "We weren't really a Christian band: we were a secular, mainstream band. RCA nearly signed us to a pop deal." But the deal with RCA came to nothing after RCA requested that Dave remove the line from one of 'Ark's songs, "Hungry World", which proclaimed "Jesus is the only way." Dave refused. Unable to find a mainstream deal the group turned to the emergent Christian music labels. But despite the retro rock brilliance of 'The Angels Come', they too weren't interested. Remembered Dave, "The Christian labels, when we would play the songs to them, would look at us like, 'What do you want us to do with this? There's no market for this. It's not worship music.' I remember Tommy Coomes from Maranatha Records, which was the biggest worship label at the time telling me, 'Dave, there's just no way, it's not going to happen in Christian music. You need to go the secular way.' I told him, 'They're not going to let us sing about Jesus'. He said, 'Well, there's nothing we can do'. So we were very fortunate when Al Perkins got involved. He said he'd produce the record, and he went around and tried to find some people that might be interested in recording it. Eventually he found a small label [Spirit Records] that was being distributed by Sparrow. Sparrow had already turned us down. Keith Green had talked to them about us, because he was on the label, and they said, 'No, it's not going to work. We can't sell it. Who would want it? What radio station exists that will play it?'"
Despite such prophets of doom, 'The Angels Come' was recorded. It was a brilliant 'retro' project before such a concept really existed. Explained Dave, "The particular batch of songs on the 'Ark album were written in a sort of '60s style in the late '70s. We were doing retro back then, a tongue-in-cheek sound. I played Rickenbacker guitars most of the time, so that gives you that jangly sound - the 12-string and the 6-string Rickenbacker is the traditional sound of the Beatles."
Showing page 1 of 2