Kelly Jay - A Musical Celebration Of Life

He was a rock icon, a promoter of Canada and a larger than life character that helped shape a national identity

He was a rock icon, a promoter of Canada and a larger than life character that helped shape a national identity for our own culture and music in Canada. Sadly after a long battle with illness, Kelly Jay passed away after a stroke on June 21 and after a month of mourning and organization, A Musical Celebration of Life for Kelly Jay is happening in his adopted Hamilton hometown this week.

Henry Blake Fordham was born in Toronto but went to the Ontario College of Art but graduated more to the nightclub circuits of North America. It’d be there that he lead his first band and adopt a new name in  Kelly Jay and the Jamies, as well as develop his own musical style as singer–songwriter, keyboardist, and harmonica player. While criss–crossing the country he’d meet up with the likes of Roly Greenway and others and eventually a group of musicians would all come together by invitation of Hamilton blues harmonica legend Richard “King Biscuit Boy” Newell. 

When Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and the band came to Harold Kudlats’ agency in Hamilton to make them an international tour act without Ronnie Hawkins, Newell and fellow Hamilton Richard Bell were enlisted to help Hawkins find a new band. Enter Greenway and his former New Ascotts bandmate Rheal Luthier on guitar and guys like John Gibbard on guitar who’d played with Jay in the past.

“And Many Others”... the name Hawkins originally given to this gathering of rowdy musicians. Hawkins would fire the band at King and James Street at a long gone haunt called The Grange and give them their name “Crowbar” with an expletive fueled farewell.

With one album featuring King Biscuit Boy and Crowbar, the band proper decided to release their own music. Sequestered in an Ancaster house dubbed Bad Manors — $250 a month for the 25–acre farm in Ancaster that allowed the band to hone their craft through constant rehearsals and maybe even more partying.

“We both had our own bands but it was when we joined Bobby Curtola that I guess I first played with Kelly,” remembers Greenway. “We played six nights a week with a Saturday matinee in a variety of bands — that’s the way the industry worked. Richard Newell originally called me and Rheal to audition for Hawkins — I didn’t really even know him at that time but we finished our gig in London at 1am and headed to Hawkins place in Mississauga. John [Gibbard] came in with Kelly but Kelly didn’t have a position in the band because Rick Bell was on keys already. Kelly was just hanging around but after Richard got the whole band together, Kelly was more helping the band. Kelly idolized Hawkins and kind of fashioned himself after him but the two didn’t get along too well. Once we became Crowbar and Rick Bell went off to join Janis Joplin’s band, that’s when Kelly became more involved. Because of his size, look and demeanor, we kind of pushed Kelly into the spotlight because we kind of knew he was going to be there anyway. Then he started writing some music and he really came into his own with some amazing songs.”

The CBC recently released some footage on a program called The Vault that includes a look at Crowbar live with Kelly Jay's alter ego Captain Canada in full effect (alongside naked women and tutu wearing drummers, Jay would lift Gibbard onto his shoulders and Greenway in his arms in the strangest musical moving monster). Kelly Jay was that gregarious wild man that commanded attention with every step and every note.

Jeff Healey reportedly called “Oh, What A Feeling” ‘Canada’s second national anthem’ — a blissful party rocker with soul and deserves all of the attention that it’s received over five decades including it’s writers Kelly Jay and Roly Greenway being inducted into Canada’s Songwriters Hall of Fame. But Greenway would suggest it was more of a group effort. 

“It was either Kelly or me that asked Rheal to just give us an old Motown riff,” says Greenway. “We were listening to a lot of James Brown and that was just an idea we had. John came in with his own riff and the two worked together. I ended up writing the verses for it so I get to sing those and Kelly takes it away with his parts. It was a cooperative sound where everybody contributed to that tune and it’s still being played today after fifty years.”

That early incarnation of Crowbar barely lasted five years. After the band originally broke up, they’d reunite over a variety of incanations for a few decades with a period in this millenium where they lived a bit of a renaissance. But time waits for no man. 

Kelly Jay was a personality — an overnight DJ on Toronto’s CHUM FM and even bar impresario with a bar called Kelly Jayz that would be in the basement of the now Arrival Inn. But in 1987, he moved to Calgary for family reasons. While he kept performing, life offered a slew of newsworthy events but at a time like this, you remember the giant of a man with the biggest smile and warmest hug. You remember the music that Kelly Jay gave to the world.

Greenway and Crowbar, Trickbag and reportedly many others will be joining in to remember Kelly Jay the man and his music for a special celebration this week.

“Me and Kelly had a really good time — we were crazy and the women loved us — there are so many things that I loved about Kelly although there were some things that I didn’t — but that’s how life goes,” offers Greenway. “But Kelly had vision and he could bring stuff out of people. He was a great showman and a dear friend. For me, his songwriting was the best. The song that closed our last album was called “Nothing Lasts Forever” could have been one of Kelly’s best, it’s just a shame more people didn’t get a chance to hear it.

“Playing with Kelly Jay and all the guys — it was just one trip after another,” adds Greenway. “It still is — even though there’s only three of the originals in the current line up with me Gibbard and Sonnie Bernardi, we’ve got a great band. We play the music the same way if not a little better now because we’re too old to put on a show and so we concentrate more on playing. Trickbag will do a half hour or so set and then bring on some  guests and then Crowbar and we’ll bring on some guests and hopefully we’ll end the evening with everyone singing “Oh What A Feeling” in honour of Kelly. 

“I know a lot of people are coming out and according to Cueball [otherwise known as promoter Rob Platsko], we’re going to need a lot of organization to get all of these people that are coming out to celebrate Kelly up on stage,” concludes Greenway. “It is going to be such a great evening and I’m really looking forward to it. It brings together all of these people because of Kelly Jay. I’m sure it’s going to be a night to remember.” V

Kelly Jay Musical Celebration Of Life happens Tuesday July 23 at Leander Boat Club with members of Crowbar, members of Trickbag and dozens and dozens of guests. Show starts at 7pm a suggested minimum donation of $10 and a non-perishable food item for a local food bank, with proceeds going to Fordham’s family.

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