RIP: Maple Music Legend Kelly Jay, At Age 77
Kelly Jay (born Blake Fordham), singer, songwriter, and pianist best known for his work in Crowbar, died on June 21 after suffering a massive stroke on June 9. He was 77.
His death was confirmed on social media this morning (June 21) by son Hank Fordham, who posted on Facebook that "I sit here with a heavy heart and feeling somber as I make this announcement. Kelly Jay has passed away. Kelly passed comfortably on June 21st at 2 am."
Read the full post here
Noteworthy is the fact that Kelly Jay came to prominence in Crowbar, whose members had formerly come to replace The Band as Ronnie Hawkins' backing group.
They left to form Crowbar in 1970 and signed with Daffodil Records' Frank Davies.
Included on their first album was the song Oh What A Feeling. This became the first CanCon hit single and ultimately became the catchphrase for a book, TV special, and CD box set.
Ironically, Crowbar's final album, 1973's KE32746, had as its last song Nothing Lasts Forever.
What follows is a historical storyline and reminisce provided by Frank Davies, who was instrumental in the band's evolution and success.
A giant of a man in every way. Physically and in his capacity to live life. Kelly always dreamed and imagined 'BIG' as his endless stream of ideas, initiatives, and outrageous schemes so clearly evidenced throughout his life. And he had a very 'BIG' heart to go with it all. A huge, warm, over-the-top mountain-man of energy and memorabilia who was also a consummate romantic and sentimentalist.
Kelly was the greatest promotion man I ever met, and I've met many of the greats. He was not afraid to try anything, approach anyone, convince anybody - always with sincere, almost naive, warmth and charm. Kelly befriended Prime Ministers (and their wives), Federal Ministers, Provincial Premiers, CRTC Chairmen (thank you Pierre Juneau), Superstars from Lennon and McCartney to Joe Cocker, Dr. John and Gordon Lightfoot, to Don Francks, Leon Russell and Graham Greene, just as easily as he did everyone he encountered.
My initial discovery of the breadth and beauty of Canada in 1971, just a year after moving here to start Daffodil Records with Ronnie Hawkins, was on a promotion trip that Kelly and I took together from coast to coast. We were promoting Crowbar's scintillating Bad Manors album. It was Kelly who dreamed up that title as he did for the manor in which the band lived in Ancaster. He added the album's subtitle too, which was classic Kelly thinking, for a debut, when you think about it: Crowbar's Golden Hits Vol. 1.
Kelly and I hit just about every large town from Halifax to Victoria that had an airport, all in the space of just a few days. We hung out with every DJ, music director, retailer and journalist across the country, all of whom he swept off their feet and all of whom became Crowbar fans for life.
One leg of our trip was Montreal. I remember we had one full day off there before going on to Quebec City. So Kelly and I spent the entire day at a custom bootmaker in the city. Kelly had previously bought full-length boots there customised for those massive timbers of his. This time he wanted the leathersmith to create a pair with red Maple Leafs emblazoned up and down the sides between his moniker 'Captain Canada', to be written in white leather. Kelly wanted them ready for our return trip from the East Coast and the upcoming Crowbar tour, and sure enough they were.
Bad Manors included the song that not only launched the band but launched the CanCon regulations in February 1971 - Oh What A Feeling. The song written by Kelly Jay and bassist Roly Greenway has taken on mythic status over all these years. Listening back to the final mix, we knew it was a hit. The fortune cookie Kelly opened on the night we finished it said so!
It has been used as the title (and theme) for the 25th Anniversary of the Juno Awards; the bestselling boxset of all-time in Canada and its sequel; a rock musical that played the Princess of Wales theatre; a best selling book on the history of Canadian music; advertising campaigns that included the federal and provincial governments' decades-long push to encourage Canadians to embrace fitness; the best selling Toyota car brand; not to mention uses in numerous movies and TV shows and multiple cover versions by other artists. It is Canada's unstated national 'rock' anthem.
Producing Bad Manors in 1970 was undoubtedly the most exhilarating, joyous and tiring experience I have had in a studio in the 50 years I've been making records in Canada. It was a non-stop, wild and raucous all-night party that lasted for what seemed like a hundred days and nights - without a break in between. It was a collective effort - "you know you're all invited" to quote Kelly in Oh What A Feeling's 'rap' breakdown. And he always meant it!
For me as a neophyte producer it was a baptism-of-fire, another considerable learning curve under the tutelage of a group of incredibly exciting and talented musicians who knew what they wanted to do and how to do it, even if they hadn't learned to use the brake pedal for this particular ride or knew when to say 'stop'! That part and then trying to mix it all was left to me and the engineer, Terry Brown, at his legendary Toronto Sound Studios. I'd already been thrown in the deep end just a year earlier making the King Biscuit Boy's album Official Music there, which of course featured Crowbar but with Kelly mostly on keyboards for that one.
Kelly was of course at the centre of all the studio action when we recorded Oh What A Feeling and the Bad Manors album. He wasn't looking for perfection. He was looking to capture 'real' and honest performances and have a whole pile of fun while doing it! And he had a group of musical friends and players around him that shared that feeling. Nothing less than pure, uplifting, balls-to-the-wall rock 'n' roll. Kelly wanted it hot enough to make the needle jump out of the grooves and 'send shivers down your backbone'.
I delivered the album to Daffodil's distributor Capitol Records on American Drive out by the airport at 6 a.m. on December 7th, 1970, after a final all-nighter ending with Chinese take out and the clairvoyant fortune cookie. A short time later I made a similar delivery to Paramount Records in New York who distributed the album in the U.S and the rest of the world for my label. From the unparalleled reviews this album garnered globally it succeeded magnificently.
When Kelly and I talked about an album title for Crowbar's follow-up album, recorded live at Massey Hall in late 1971, we decided on Larger Than Life with the subtitle 'And Live'R Than You've Ever Been. Those pretty much sum up Kelly's life. He lived 'larger' and 'live'r' than most of us can dream of. An immovable force fronting a group of musicians that learned their skills the hard way, the best way - on the road night after night in all conditions - weather and otherwise - day in and day out. Trial and error.
Larger Than Life went Gold 17 days after release, becoming the first live album by a Canadian artist to do so (and also the first concert by a Canadian artist to be simulcast live coast-to-coast via the CHUM group).
Even though he moved to Alberta in the 1980s, up until the last year or two, Kelly called me religiously every couple of months since we parted ways professionally over 40 years ago. It would be about scripts he was writing for films he was going to make, launching a magazine or a line of hats created by his wife, Kate, making a documentary on the band, writing new songs and recordings he was dabbling in, jamming with celebrities passing through town, and looking for money to do it all. The calls would always end the same way, with me begging him to write 'the book'. All the stories, all the moments, stranger than fiction. Unfortunately, he never got to complete it.
It may be hard for today's fans and music industry people to realise that Canada had little self-esteem in its arts, culture and music back then. Canada was not 'cool' to most. It was the U.S or the UK that 'ruled' and was at the centre of everyone's attention musically and culturally. It was hard to get airplay for Canadian artists in their own country. There were just a handful of stations across Canada who believed Canadian artists could rival their American or English contemporaries and gave them the airtime to prove it.
With just a few studios across the country, a couple of major distributors selling international hits from elsewhere, a couple of backstreet indie labels doing what they could with non-existent budgets and no distribution, a couple of managers and agents and producers working hard but with little experience, it was an industry trying to find its mojo and still waiting to be heard.
Kelly Jay and Crowbar made young Canadians in those early seventies feel 'cool' about their country, about being Canadian, and everything that that stood for. Captain Canada and his beaverskin hats and his maple leaf boots and his deerskin jackets and his songs about Canada like Tits Up On The Pavement In Wawa, Ontario, and Deadhead Out of St. John's and The Beaver & The Eagle and Rocky Mountain Tragedy was already there.
Oh what a feeling he helped create for the Canadian artists, songwriters and musicians that followed in his giant footsteps and for the public that has since embraced all of them - and oh what BIG memories he leaves behind."
Frank Davies - Producer/Publisher of Oh What A Feeling and the Founder of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.