Remembering Kelly Jay, 1941–2019

I first met him thirty years ago when, at age forty-seven, he had stepped away temporarily from the music business to run a café in Canmore. “As you can see,” said Kelly, “I finally took a day job.” He noted that Little Richard had gone from washing dishes in a Georgia restaurant to fame and glory as a rock ‘n’ roller. “I went from fame and glory to washing dishes in a Canmore hotel. The difference is, I own the dishes.”

Kelly Jay (second from left at the back) with King Biscuit Boy (Richard Newell, front left)

He needed the restaurant gig, he said, to put money in his bank account after twenty years of rock ‘n’ roll living defined more by spending than by saving.

“We weren’t as interested in security as we were in maintaining the vibe,” he said about his high-flying years as the lead singer and piano player for Crowbar, a blues-based rockabilly band that had started out in 1968 as anonymous backup for Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, the Arkansas-born godfather of Canadian rock.

“We lived in expensive hotels and drove in limos. You only come this way once; you might as well do it in a Cadillac.”

Kelly and his five bandmates had spent a year with Hawkins before striking out on their own. “They’re a nice bunch of guys,” said Hawkins, “but so dumb they could fuck up a crowbar in ten seconds. So dumb they couldn’t solve a two-piece puzzle.” As a joke, they first named themselves Two-Piece Puzzle but, after a few weeks, decided they liked Crowbar better.

Hawkins had what today you would call a Trumpian penchant for bad-mouthing former bandmates after they left the fold. He had voiced similarly disparaging words for Crowbar’s predecessors, the Hawks, when they moved on, first to provide plugged-in accompaniment for Bob Dylan, and later to establish themselves independently as The Band. “I taught these guys how to play,” said Rompin’ Ronnie about The Band. “But I taught them the blues. I’m surprised how many country elements they’ve now added to their music.”

If Kelly Jay and Crowbar were dumb – as Hawkins alleged – they were dumb like a fox. Within a year, they were on their way to becoming the hottest, fastest, wickedest, wildest, tightest, baddest rockers around. Every rock critic who mattered said so. “Mama, get your dancing shoes on,” wrote Dave Marsh in Creem magazine. “Then steady yourself for the jivingest rock ‘n’ boogie band in the land.” Earl McRae, writing in the Star Weekly magazine, hailed Crowbar as “Canada’s best bet for international stardom of a lasting nature since the Guess Who.” Australia’s Ritchie Yorke, writing for Rolling Stone, echoed that sentiment: “Canada has finally found another act able to compete in the top ten of the world charts.”

Their 1969 song “Oh What a Feeling, Oh What a Rush” was the hit single that launched Crowbar as a major force in Canadian rock. Even Hawkins was impressed. “These guys are now as tight as a frog’s ass stretched over a boxcar,” he said. “And that’s watertight.”

Kelly and Crowbar bassist Roly Greenway had written “Oh What a Feeling” to celebrate the birth of Kelly’s daughter, Tiffany Rain. However, the Nixon administration saw something more ominous in the song. The White House asserted that “Oh What a Feeling” promoted drug use (“oh what a rush”) and banned it from the U.S. airwaves. “That stung us,” said Kelly. “It hurt like crazy not to have ‘Oh What a Feeling’ a success in the States.”

There were, however, tours to the States. Concert appearances with Van Morrison, Johnny Winters, Alice Cooper, Bob Dylan, and other pop luminaries. Friendships established with the likes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. When they clapped hands in 4/4 time on Lennon’s recordings of “Meat City” and “Institution,” made at The Record Plant in New York City, Crowbar became known, said Kelly, as “the noisy rock ‘n’ roll band from Canada that keeps bringing hookers in from 42nd Street.”

They embraced a partying lifestyle that could have killed them. “We went to Hollywood and ended up drunk in James Mason’s swimming pool. We got drunk with the Rolling Stones at Sunset Recorders. We could have done a John Belushi real quick if left to our own devices.”

Instead, they opted for Canada, where mostly they could stay out of trouble, and be big fish in a little pond. They kept the vibe going through the 1970s and well into the 1980s before they started to slow down. That’s when Kelly decided to move out west (“way out the 401,” he told his bandmates) and try something different.

He never intended the Canmore restaurant stint to last forever. After a couple of years at it, Kelly returned to his first love, singing and playing keyboards. Whenever the right gig came along, he would make a few phone calls and Crowbar would be ready to rock again. “As long as King Biscuit Boy and I are drawing breath, there will be a Crowbar,” he said.

He settled in Calgary and played regularly at the King Eddie, the Shamrock Hotel, and other blues venues in the city. He had no desire to go back to his native Hamilton, he said. “I was dying out there. The pollution was affecting my breathing. I had to get out of Hamilton if I was going to survive.”

Kelly did that interview with me, for the Calgary Herald’s old Sunday magazine, in October 1989. Two years later, he and Crowbar starred in a ten-hour classic-rock extravaganza at Vancouver’s Plaza of Nations. Four years after that, in 1995, Kelly returned to Hamilton to host the Juno Awards banquet. “We’re back in the Hammer, baby,” he said to whoops of delight from the audience. In 1999, as reported by Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle, Kelly “wowed a stunned nation” with his rendition of “Oh What a Feeling” at CBC’s annual Canada Day party.

Kelly remained active in the music business through the first decade of the 21st century. In 2002, at age sixty, he performed at a musical fund-raiser for his old boss, Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, then being treated for pancreatic cancer. In 2005, Kelly and dozens of other Canadian musicians helped raise more than $3.2 million for the Red Cross to aid tsunami relief efforts. In 2009, he granted permission for “Oh What a Feeling” to be used as the official theme song for the Calgary Grey Cup celebrations. In 2011, Kelly and former Crowbar bandmate Roly Greenway entered the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. By that time, Kelly was dealing with numerous health issues. When he sang the national anthem at the 2013 Alberta Flood Aid pre-concert show in the McMahon Stadium parking lot, you could tell that Kelly’s mobility was impaired.

Last time I saw him was a year ago, in Calgary at Bill Dowey’s regular Sunday afternoon jam in the Blues Can. Kelly was then in a wheelchair. He told me that a mysterious throat condition had stopped him from singing and that a stroke had stolen his ability to play keyboards. Yet there he was, still grooving to the blues, pleased to see that the younger generation was keeping the vibe going.

He died early this morning at age 77 after suffering another stroke. Rock on, Kelly Jay. Your music gave us more than a feeling, more than a rush.