The Ballad of Peck Kelley

Categories: Catfish Reef

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Life magazine has thrown open its photo archives. Already, 500,000 of what they say will be 10,000,000 images are on the Web. I did a quick search, and the shots are pretty fantastic, but apparently Life’s photographers weren’t all that drawn to Houston’s music.

Except, that is, for this one shot of the Southern Dinner Club.(I think the club was on Washington Avenue - anyone know for sure?) Look closely at the marquee, which says “Peck Kelley and Orch: Dine and Dance.”

Therein lies a tale.

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Kelley was among the first in the long line of hugely talented and maddeningly obscure musicians from Houston. Around World War II, he was, according to The Handbook of Texas Music, widely considered to be “the finest white pianist of all time,” a rival to Art Tatum.

Jack Teagarden, the legendary trombonist, certainly thought highly of the Houstonian. According to Teagarden’s biography, when the two met, in 1921, Kelley’s playing caused him to “shake his head in disbelief”:

“The flashing changes of mood, the unpredictable paths of improvisation, the rolling intensities of jazz and the not incongruous from classics the boy had never heard of – this was strange and exciting piano playing. There were blues qualities, too, no doubt acquired by Peck from his early contact with Texas Negroes.”
Jelly Roll Morton
One of whom just might have been temporary Houstonian Jelly Roll Morton. In addition to an abiding admiration for classical maestro Vladimir Horowitz, and classical lessons from locals like Patricio Gutierrez and possibly Albino Torres, the young Kelley (born in 1898) was said to enjoy slipping out of his home in the Old Sixth Ward over to the Reservation, Houston’s red-light district in the 1910s and ‘20s - where Allen Parkway Village is now.

For about a year around 1912, Morton was a regular piano player in the Reservation’s gin mills and bordellos, and it’s hard to imagine that Kelley wouldn’t have taken in a performance or two.
By the time the ‘20s rolled around, Kelley decided to form Peck’s Band Boys. Teagarden was one sideman, and over the years Pee Wee Russell, Louis Prima’s brother Leon, jive-talking trumpeter Wingy Manone, and New Orleans clarinetist Leon Roppolo would also sign up.

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Kelley’s shows were broadcast on the radio here, on WEV and KPRC, and he also had a long engagement at LaPorte’s Sylvan Beach Park pavilion (above).

On a rare foray outside of Texas, Kelley went to St. Louis in 1925, and performed alongside Bix Biederbecke in Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra, but most of his performances were in hotel ballrooms such as Dallas’s Adolphus, Houston’s Rice and San Antonio’s Gunter, as well as in Galveston’s Hollywood Club. (Troubles with the out-of-state musicians’ unions are usually alleged as playing a part in confining Kelley to Texas.)

Kelley rarely recorded during his prime, but by reputation and word of mouth, his talents were legendary; his music is said to have inspired the old pop-jazz hit “Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar.”

Artie Shaw
A who’s who of top-shelf bandleaders and singers of the era – Paul Whiteman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee – tried to hand Kelley the piano man slot in their big bands. John Hammond Sr. penned an article in Down Beat in 1939 about Kelley called “Peck Kelley is No Myth,” while Collier’s, a national newsweekly found it newsworthy to report coast-to-coast in 1940 that “Kelley Won’t Budge.” Kelley practically defined modesty and diffidence – he turned down all those bandleaders, as well as several recording contracts from the top labels of the day. He bridled at the regimentation of being in a band.
One more from the Life archives
As to why he never recorded in his prime, who knows? He did do a little recording in the ‘50s, including a session at the old KPRC radio studios that was released as a double album in 1983, three years after Kelley’s death.

He seldom left Houston after the war, and seldom even played in public after 1950. His vision was deteriorating by then, so most of his performances were confined to his near-lifelong home on State Street, just west of downtown, where he played on a stringless piano. (He didn’t want to disturb his neighbors, and he could hear the music in his head, anyway.)

According to the Handbook, Kelley’s attitude was this: “I never liked to play for a living, but I liked to play on the piano.” – John Nova Lomax



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