It’s another blues Saturday here at Robert Frost’s Banjo, & what an interesting artist we have to feature for you today! But although she was a major talent, the fact is that many folks have never heard of Jo Ann Kelly, & that sure is a shame.
Comparisons, as we know, are invidious, & maybe insidious too. Still, it’s interesting that Jo Ann Kelly’s powerful, take-no-prisoner’s singing voice is often compared to the great Janis Joplin’s. They were indeed contemporaries, tho Kelly outlived Joplin by 20 years: Jo Ann Kelly was born in London, England in 1944, just a year after Janis Joplin was born in Texas. Joplin, obviously, was a superstar; Kelly has become almost a footnote. & yet her singing can stand with that of Joplin or with the singing of most any blues performer you want to name, male or female. Bonnie Raitt once remarked, "It was hard to do "Walking Blues" for instance, but I was not born with a voice like Mavis Staples or Jo Ann Kelly." Let’s just say that getting put in the same sentence as Mavis Staples is about as good as it gets.
Of course this series focuses on guitarists, & Jo Ann Kelly was also a first-rate, dynamic player. She played in a “country blues” style that drew on the influences of the great Mississippi players like Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson & especially Memphis Minnie, who Kelly held in the highest regard. Kelly was an adept fingerpicker & played both with & without slide. Although she often performed solo—& in fact turned down offers to join both Canned Heat & Johnny Winter’s band—she worked & recorded with a number of noteworthy players: she jammed with the Yardbirds & shared a stage with Son House; & she recorded with both Woody Mann & John Fahey among other notables.
Jo Ann Kelly produced 6 LPs during her lifetime (as far as I can determine), & then there were re-issues & compilations following her tragic & untimely death from a brain tumor in 1990. At least some of these recordings are still available on CD, including her compelling eponymous debut album.
For myself, I must say that at Kelly’s best, I can’t think of any better contemporary country blues performer with the exception of her younger contemporary, Rory Block—who thankfully for all of us blues fans is still going strong. Jo Ann Kelly & Rory Block share many of the same qualities: besides masterful guitar chops & strong singing voices that are able to convey powerful & direct emotion, both Block & Kelly are able to tread that fine line on which someone stays “true” to a tradition while at the same time being innovative & making the tradition something personal to themselves. The two videos of Kelly I've selected illustrate this well. The first, “Nothin’ in Rambling,” is her take on a Memphis Minnie song; the second is a cover of one of the greatest Mississippi blues songs, Skip James’ “Hard Times Killin’ Floor.” Kelly re-set this as a slide piece, which seems a stroke of genius, & gives us a revision that’s both inventive & faithful to the great original in spirit. There have been covers of “Hard Times Killin’ Floor” by a number of artists, but I would have to say that to my ear, Kelly’s is the best re-make of James’ masterpiece.
Hope you enjoy this fantastic music!