Jo Ann Kelly appeared at one of our concerts at school in the spring of 1970. It was some event due to the ensemble that pitched up - Jo Ann's brother Dave, now of the Blues Band; Bob Brunning one time member of Fleetwood Mac; piano player Bob Hall of Savoy Brown Blues Band; acoustic blues duo Simon Prager and Steve Rye.
Jo Ann was born in London in 1944, making her recording debut in 1964 with a privately produced EP (remember those? I've got one by the Shangri Las). She really first came to the attention of the nation at large when she joined forces with Tony McPhee's Groundhogs. Her self titled album confirmed the arrival of a major talent.
As with many good things British the Americans got interested. In 1969 Jo Ann appeared live with Mississippi Fred McDowell and later made many US tours. Back in the UK (a phrase from which the Beatles later took inspiration) she became a major player on the blues circuit, recording with the John Dummer Blues Band (I would commend an album called 'Cabal' to you) and no lesser mortals than Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, as well as Stefan Grossman. I remember seeing her with John Dummer at the Marquee - Nick Pickett played too. This period of her career obviously reached its peak with our concert at Leyton County High for Boys!
In 1972 she completed an album with Woody Mann, John Miller and flashy guitarist John Fahey, before forming a group called Spare Rib. She recorded a second solo album called 'Do It' - I remember this well as it was on Alan Robinson's Red Rag label. We were producing Bully Wee's masterful 'Enchanted Lady' album with Alan around that time. The title track of Jo Ann's album is quite wonderful.
Sadly one of her last performances was at a festival in Lancashire in August 1990 when she was given the award for Female Singer of the Year by the British Blues Federation. Her last performance is thought to have been at the Three Horseshoes in Doncaster on 22nd September that year.
In 1989 Jo Ann she had an operation to remove a malignant brain tumour, initially thought to be a success.. it wasn't and she tragically died in October 1990. (source)
For blues connoisseurs and fans Jo Ann Kelly was a real blue blood. She was unanimously heralded as the British "Queen of Blues", and could have worn this title with pride. But the friendly Englishwoman with her unpretentious manner never showed a trace of self importance. Big-time promotion campaigns for her own cause were not her style, either. Her modesty is probably one of the reasons why she never achieved stardom but rather earned primarily the respect of insiders. Her almost thirty-year career is only sporadically documented on records - which fails to do justice to a "queen" of her talent. When Jo Ann Kelly died on October 21, 1990 at the age of forty-six after a tragic illness the press praised her lifetime achievements and artistry in numerous obituaries, posthumous acknowledgement which should have been hers much earlier.
Jo Ann Kelly was a passionate blues artist and at the same time a fan. She particularly respected and loved the authentic early giants of acoustic country blues: Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, and above all, Memphis Minnie, whose singing and songs were her inspiration. The girl from Streatham, South London met the magnificent Memphis Minnie through a young guitar player named Tony McPhee who was a blues fanatic just like Jo Ann and her younger brother Dave. A record shop in Streatham that sold American imports was the place to meet. At the age of fourteen Jo Ann was thrilled by Little Richard's music. She sung Everly Brothers' tunes to the first few chords her brother had taught her on the guitar. Jo Ann was swept away by the flourishing Skiffle scene headed by Lonnie Donegan. But it was contact with Delta blues which turned out to be her most significant influence.
In 1962 Jo Ann Kelly joined together with pianist Bob Hall. She was already impressing nightclub audiences and musicians with her powerful, penetrating voice, vibrating with intensity. She molded American blues classics from Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, or Rosetta Tharpe into her own creations with her unique singing. Jo Ann Kelly gradually developed into an attraction at clubs and on college and university stages and became the leading woman of the British blues movement. She jammed with the Yardbirds on the side and made recordings with fellow blues musicians here and there, including a record with the future leader of the Groundhogs, Tony McPhee.
Blues rock which was becoming popular was not exactly her chosen world which became apparent as Jo Ann Kelly's career reached its commercial peak with her first solo album in 1969-70. She rejected both the offer to join Canned Heat and to go on tour with Johnny Winter after the release of her album in America. Winter had become interested in the Englishwoman, who frequently traveled to land of the blues during this period, at the Memphis Blues Festival. In the 1970s, Jo Ann Kelly - parallel to regular solo and duo tours throughout Europe - explored various styles such as country, rock, and soul playing with pub rock and session bands like Spare Rib, Tramp, and Chilli Willi, but deep down she remained true to the blues. In 1979 she was, along with Dave Kelly on guitar, one of the founding members of the Blues Band. She, Pete Emery who was her duo partner and companion and former John Drummer Blues Band member, and pianist Mike Deacon founded the "Ladies and the Blues" project, a sophisticated show which paid tribute to the great women - and some men - of the blues, including of course, Memphis Minnie.
The legendary blues singer's spirt also filled the hall during her performance at the women in (e)motion festival, 1988, in a double concert with Rory Block. Only a few weeks after the concert she suddenly began to suffer the symptoms of a serious illness, a brain tumor which was then surgically removed. At first she seemed to be cured. She gave the type of first-class concerts she was known for. Her last performance in early September 1990 came at the end of a long tour with her brother Dave. A joint album was also in the planning. Jo Ann Kelly's premature and unexpected death was an immense loss for the blues world. This live recording should, above all, serve to keep alive the memory of this wonderful personality who embodied the blues with so much ability, respect, and humanity. (source)