Ottawa Citizen article, June 7, 2013
By Peter Robb
From musician to bureaucrat and back
At 65, Russell Kelley follows a crazy dream to release a solo CD
Russ Kelley gave up a promising singing career after damaging his vocal cords, then took a job with the Canada Council for the Arts. Now retired, he’s realizing a dream by writing and releasing a CD, Crazy Shade of Blue.
When & where: Wednesday, June 19 at 7:30 p.m., National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Tickets: $20, available through Ticketmaster and the NAC Box Office
There aren’t too many things worse for a singer than to have nodes on your vocal cords. It is the kind of injury that ends careers. That’s what happened to Russell Kelley in the late 1980s. The Montreal native “had sung all my life and had good vocal training and one day I over-sang badly and that led to a year of trying to work (with the damaged vocal cords).” Kelley had surgery and emerged “with five notes from the middle of my range gone.”It was a crushing moment. “I had had a (singing) voice that I really really liked and it made me a lot of money for 25 years.”
This was a guy who had been signed to a songwriting contract with MCA in New York when he was going to university at Sir George Williams (now Concordia). This was a guy whose band Rings and Things was popular enough to be touring U.S. colleges in 1968 and 1969 and was, just before breaking up, offered an international contract with an agency that also represented Miriam Makeba and Nana Mouskouri.
Kelley tried to carry on after the surgery but the voice let him down, so in the middle of a career that he had hoped to be in for a lifetime, Kelley quit. It was the end of the 1980s, and he was in Nova Scotia performing as a solo act and feeding his family.
They say when one door closes another opens. For Russell Kelley, that door was opened by a Halifax gospel group called The Gospelairs. In between selling dictionaries and cookbooks, he produced a record for them, and that led to the filling out of a grant application for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. Through a twist or two, that application led to a chance at a two-year internship at the Council, and ultimately a full time job as a program officer there. And after a brief but prominent career back in Nova Scotia’s cultural scene, Kelley would return to the council as the head of the music section, a post he held for a decade starting in 2001.
That’s where the story might have ended, except for a chance jam session with the musician Harry Manx at a friend’s house midway through his music section tenure at the council.
“I didn’t know who he was at the time but I had a really good time and I realized how much I missed playing.”
So Kelley decided to try writing again. If you haven’t deduced, Russell Kelley is very goal-oriented, he sets targets. First: Write a song that had lyrics he could stomach. He did that. Then: Write enough songs for a CD. He got 13 down.
“Now I’ve got songs, I think they are reasonably good songs. I had been 10 years as the head of music at the council, that’s the longest serving head of music, and I had always believed you do these jobs for five years because after that you start losing touch.” This was a job from which he witnessed the remarkable explosion of Canadian music in the 1990s through today. He credits MuchMusic and the music video with that, because it gave Canadians a chance to see that homegrown music was as good or better than the rest of the world’s best. He still believes in Cancon rules even though he doesn’t think broadcasters have any real influence over musical success anymore. And he is sure public funding of the arts is vital still to a thriving culture in this country.
But he decided that 10 years at the council was enough.
“What am I going to do, I thought, ‘I’ll do this (record a CD).’ ” So he started asking around, and was sent to producer Jaxon Haldane in Winnipeg, who had cut his chops in the music scene in Memphis, Tenn. “We went to Jaxon’s parent’s cottage on Lake Winnipeg and recorded there.” Haldane, who plays guitar mandolin and bowed saw on the disc, brought in some solid session players from Winnipeg to help out. Kelley took that recording to Toronto and convinced the very talented Canadian woodwind player Jane Bunnett to join in. “I’ve known Jane from the funding thing. We had a really nice relationship over a long period of time. She would always complain about funding and she was struggling. She’s not necessarily struggling now.”
That recording went to Montreal to get horns on a track or two and then to B.C. for slide guitar work by Doug Cox. Final mixing and mastering was in Montreal. Kelley paid for the whole thing out of his own pocket. “I didn’t believe I could apply for a Canada Council grant. I will for the next one. I’m out and people know that I’m out and another starving musician.”
The whole process took two years. The result is called Crazy Shade of Blue and it’s a very accessible disc, a little bluesy and a little jazzy. Just where Kelley wanted it to be.
These days Kelley has another goal. And now that he’s 65, he’s in a hurry. He wants to be a songwriter, but to get the word out he has to perform, so on June 19, he’s booked the NAC’s Fourth Stage for a solo show based on the new CD.
He’s done other performances and he’s had decent reaction. He’s even got a bit teary-eyed because of it. “These are emotional songs.” The voice is still a little rough, and it’s tough to get it crystal clear. But, “at this point what I care about is pitch and to be able to be expressive. I think I’m pulling that off.”
He’s also gone back to his old buddy who contacted him in the late 1960s from MCA, Dave Wilkes, who has contacts in the U.S. Who knows? Maybe another door will open.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
Cashbox Magazine Canada
Russ Kelley Crazy Shades Of Blue
Submitted by cashbox on Wed, 05/15/2013 – 23:45
Submitted by Don Graham
Did you ever have a singer or artist that impressed you many years ago as having an awesome talent and wonder what became of them and their gift? Russ Kelley is that artist for me.
I met Russ back in the days of the great folk scare of the 60’s when coffee houses in Montreal were as prevalent as Tim Horton’s stores are in present day Ontario. We both had guitars and hung out at the various venues in town soaking up the incredible musical vibe. Russ was part of a folk group and I would go see them perform at places like The Coalbin, in the basement of a church downtown. Russ had something special even back then. A natural on stage with a unique voice and delivery. Later, as part of a rock/country folk group called Proof, Russ was rockin’ stages and making records.
As is the way of life we went our separate ways and lost touch and I didn’t see or hear from or about Russ for years. I would often wonder what became of him and his talent. Then, this year , my question was answered! Thanks to the internet and digital music Russ Kelley reappeared, better than ever.
After having some throat problems Russ had slipped behind the scenes and was working in public funding of the arts and music in particular with the Canada Council for the Arts, the first edition of the Nova Scotia Arts Council, the Culture Division of the Province of Nova Scotia and finally ending up back at the Canada Council as Head of the Music Section. During this last period he began playing guitar at home every day to help deal with the stress of the job and to his surprise he was able to find a voice again.
The end result is a fine 10 song CD led by the title track Crazy Shades of Blue. Recorded in Winnipeg Manitoba with some that city’s finest musicians and produced by Jaxon Haldane this CD is a great listen and shows Russ at his finest. Crazy Shades of Blue is a folky/jazz song with a great lyric and highlights Kelly’s smoky vocals as well featuring great sax work by Jane Bunnett. Somewhere Down the Road is a bluesy song sung in a smooth emotional fashion with a great message. Sometimes It’s So Simple is a great simple song of hope and love reminiscent of the Beatles White album song Mother Nature’s Son. Signs of Love shows a little more of the rockier side of Kelley and the emotional, heartfelt vocal on Elaine is a definite highlight. In The Middle of the Day is a song about desired escapism delivered in that distinct Russ Kelley fashion. If My Dog Don’t Know Me is a riff driven song about the perils of being on the road too long. I Got The Blues is rollicking tune reminescent of Russ’s days in Proof with a distinct Jesse Winchester influence. Signs of Love is a commercial R & B flavoured song with an infectious hook. I Disappear is beautiful in it’s simplicity of melody and lyric. Well done. The set concludes with Everybody Sees, a perfect way to end this well crafted collection of songs. .
Russ Kelley is an artist who deserves a listen and once you do you’ll be a fan for sure! Russ will be performing at his CD Release Party on June 19th at The National Arts Center Fourth Stage in Ottawa, Ontario.
© 2013 Cashbox Magazine Canada
Mike Regenstrief’s review of Crazy Shades of Blue June, 2013
While Crazy Shades of Blue may be Russ Kelley’s debut CD as a singer-songwriter, he’s no newcomer. I knew Russ back in the early-1970s and used to listen to him a lot in the bars and coffee houses of Montreal. He’d been a member of Rings and Things, a Montreal folk group of the ‘60s that was just a little before my time, and was working a lot then in a duo with Sue Lothrop, who had also been part of Rings and Things. I remember Russ and Sue for their sweet harmonies and eclectic repertoire.
I lost contact with Russ for many years after he left Montreal and later learned from him that he’d moved to Nova Scotia and was performing there until he suffered a vocal cord injury in the late-1980s that led to surgery and the loss of part of his vocal range.
Russ quit performing after the vocal cord injury and became a cultural bureaucrat. When I reconnected with him about 10 years ago he was living in Ottawa as head of the music section of the Canada Council. He retired from the Canada Council in 2011 and, happily, got serious again about songwriting and performing.
Of course, Russ’ voice is now rougher than I remember from back in the day – it’s a ragged but right kind of voice well-suited suited to the conversational kind of delivery he’s adopted and Russ knows how to use it to communicate the words and emotions behind the songs.
Crazy Shades of Blue is a varied album of mature songs that draw on contemporary folk, blues and jazz influences. One song, “Elaine,” is from back in the days when I used to see Russ play in Montreal, with the rest, I believe, being of recent vintage.
Among my favourite tracks on the album are the folkier songs like “Sometimes It’s So Simple,” which kicks off the CD, “Somewhere Later Down the Road,” which features some nice slide guitar work by Doug Cox, and “In the Middle of the Day,” inspired by a story Russ heard told by comedian Margaret Cho.
Others highlights include the jazzy title track which features Jane Bunnett’s saxophone moving nicely in and around Russ’ singing, and “I Disappear,” an exploration of personal identity after the dissolution of a marriage.
For folks here in Ottawa, Russ launches Crazy Shades of Blue at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage on Wednesday, June 19, 7:30 pm.
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The folk, roots, and world music magazine
Issue No. 57 Spring, 2013
Crazy Shades of Blue (Ark Road)
To comment on the caliber of Russ Kelley’s vocals after his untimely brush with career-threatening throat surgery would only make sense had I known what he sounded like before. Taking it as it lays, Crazy Shades of Blue Kelley’s first post-op recording and it’s taken him some time to get the wobble out of his legs. The good news is that the resulting 10 track recording is reminiscent of the warm, cuppa-coffee world of Ray Materick, Willie P. Bennett and, for my money, Harry Chapin.
Kelley owns a slight rasp and one gets the feeling he’s over-extending his reach in his approach. He sings like he’s stretching to get there, not quite landing where he wants to. But the takeaway is lovely; he accomplishes his goals by going for it and the gentle accompaniment by the likes of bassist Gilles Fournier and drummer Daniel Roy tastefully offsets the slight burl of his voice, adding depth to each composition. The fact that this artist is the now-retired former head of music of the Canada Council for the Arts has no bearing on his musical talent. Yet, as clearly evidenced here, Kelley can write a mean song and play it forward with smoky-toned conviction.
He’s also got the smarts to surround himself with musicians who add their own significant voices to his own, including Juno-winning sax player Jane Bunnett, West Coast Dobro master Doug Cox and Multi-instrumentalist Jaxon Haldane who produced this Winnipeg-based project.
From the opening Sometimes It’s So Simple, driven by his upbeat guitar playing, to the title track, which benefits from Bunnett’s moody, adventurous sax excursions, Kelley succeeds in bringing his craft to bear on the material. With luck, he won’t stop here and his newfound confidence will open new opportunities for his songwriting.
– By Eric Thom
Russ Kelley – Crazy Shades Of Blue
By Sarah Greene
RUSS KELLEY plays tonight (Thursday, January 10) at C’est What. See listing.
The debut solo album by Russ Kelley is his first recording since his vocal cord surgery in the late 80s. The retired Canada Council head of music was a songwriter and member of Rings n’ Things before he was an arts administrator, and you can hear the strength of his writing in the album’s oldest song, Elaine. (Renée Martel had a hit in Quebec with a French version, Partir Au Soleil, in 1972.)
A number of Kelley’s new tunes are excellent as well, notably acoustic guitar and mandolin opener Sometimes It’s So Simple, soul-pop song Signs Of Love and the title track (featuring Jane Bunnett on sax). And though Kelley’s post-surgery voice sounds a bit hushed, it establishes a distinct, subtle vibe that makes Crazy Shades Of Blue an atypical-sounding folk/blues/jazz disc.
Top track: Elaine
• NOW | January 10-17, 2013 | VOL 32 NO 19
JEFFERY MORGAN: OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHER OF ALICE COOPER AND THE STOOGES
JEFFREY MORGAN’S MEDIA BLACKOUT #351 Sunday, January 20, 2013
WILL YOU BE MY JEFFREY MORGAN’S MEDIA BLACKOUT #351!
Russ Kelley – Crazy Shades Of Blue (Ark Road Music Productions) :: What with Valentine’s Day fast coming around the clubhouse turn and all, you could do yourself a whole lot worse than get the jump on things by giving your significant druther this ten pack of thoughtfully persuasive and slightly pensive romantic paeans. That’s because Russ has the kind of ragged black coffee and unfiltered nicotine vocal delivery that just oozes been-around-the-block sincerity. It’ll also have you reaching for a pack of industrial-strength HallsMentho-Lyptus which, unfortunately, aren’t included with the sticker price.