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Singer-picker Bill Kelly rocks across the decades

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Members of The Buoys on their Dinner Music album, featuring their 1971 Top-20 hit “Timothy,” are, from left, Jerry Hludzik, Chris Hanlon, Fran Brozena, Bill Kelly and Carl Siracuse. Photo submitted
In the 1980s Bill Kelly, left, and Jerry Hludzik paired to form The Jerry-Kelly Band and toured the U.S. as the opening act for Queen. Photo submitted
Jerry-Kelly Band

Buoys-Dakota musician toured with Queen

The list of artists whom vocalist-guitarist Bill Kelly has crossed paths or joined on stage across six decades of musical meanderings covers a pretty wide swath through the rock 'n' roll encyclopedia.

The names include The Young Rascals, Eric Clapton, Queen, Blood Sweat and Tears, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Dionne Warwick, Chicago, B.J. Thomas and Rupert Holmes. And then there was a nifty Grand Ole Opry gig with country star Charlie Louvin.

Kelly, one half of the local Christian song ministry Angel Armies, hangs his guitar strap in Old Hickory these days but half a century ago provided the lead vocals in the pop-rock band The Buoys, which had a rather curious No. 17 hit in 1971 with "Timothy," possibly the only pop hit with cannibalism as its theme.

"I started at about age 14. I picked up the guitar after seeing The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and I was done," said Kelly, a native of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who holds a degree in philosophy from King's College. "My career was laid out by the time I was 19. I had my first record deal, and by 20 had a Top-20 hit record, 'Timothy.'

"The Buoys were the proverbial garage band. We went from playing high school dances to touring with The Young Rascals," he recalled. "We did a lot of covers. Our sound was really a kind of an amateur Crosby, Stills and Nash. We loved three-part harmony and The Beatles. We always did Beatles, Hollies and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The band was good."

Indeed, The Buoys were tight enough to tour the U.S. with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (and lead guitarist Eric Clapton) and play with Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Their main claim to fame came while recording for Scepter Records, a New York label that also produced B.J. Thomas, Dionne Warwick, among others.

"We were the only rock band, but we didn't have any hits. Our producer-engineer Michael Wright suggested we bring in a friend of his, songwriter Rupert Holmes [later famous for 'The Pina Colada Song']. He came in and was hanging around and started writing and sharing music with us. He was a hoot," said Kelly.

'Timothy' hits mainstream success

"During a break in a session he started playing this song, 'Timothy,' but it sounded like a funeral song, a dirge. Once we picked up on the lyrics, we said 'We need to cut to this,' and we made it an upbeat Creedence Clearwater Band feel."

Note: For those not listening to Top 40 radio in the early 1970s, "Timothy" is a song about a trio trapped in a mine for a length of time and only two come out. The third body is never found.

"We cut it and the record sat on the shelf for 11 months and did nothing. Then Michael decided to put horns and strings on it and then the song became alive. Within the next year, we were just killing it," Kelly said of their sudden success.

He explains the story behind the song, saying, "Rupert had a twisted sense of humor, and he trying was to come up with a take-off of the mining song 'Sixteen Tons.' It was a joke, a goof, not about anything real and was just meant to be silly and have fun with.

"I don't think he intended for it to be recorded or out in public. We didn't take it serious. At that point we were hungry for something to happen in our career. The record label loved the song and was ready to put money behind the song. We were like, 'Yeah, works for us.'

"From our hometown area, there had been a mining disaster [the Sheppton Mine Disaster of August 1963], and the song is about three guys who were trapped in a mine for days and only two got out, and they had not lost any noticeable amount of weight. The knuckleheads out there said maybe they ate the guy, so the rumor started.

"When we got out on the road, we would go to different radio stations and tell different stories. What was Timothy? Was it a dog, a donkey and nobody ever knew, but everybody thought they had the straight story."

Bitten by the music industry bug

Armed with a solid hit The Buoys released an album, "Dinner Music," which fared poorly.

"Scepter ended up dropping us, and we ended up becoming one-hit wonders," said lead vocalist Kelly, who left the band in 1976.

But he and his best friend and band mate Jerry Hludzik had been compiling tunes for another Buoys album.

"Jerry and I had tasted the big time and were not about to go backward. We finally quit and cut a demo tape of new originals which came to the ears of Chicago's drummer, Danny Seraphine. It happened because every night our best friend Mike Stahl would tune Chicago's sound system using our demo tape.

"One night Danny got to the show early and said, 'Who are these guys? I love their sound.' Mike told him, 'Those are my buddies Bill and Jerry.' Danny called us one day, and said, 'I want to produce you guys.'

"So we did an album that came out to mixed reviews, The Jerry-Kelly Album. After that Danny moved us to Columbia Records, and we headed to Montreal to do our next album. In the midst of sending tracks down to New York, they came back and told us, 'You guys are way too heavy to be called The Jerry-Kelly Band. You got to change the name.'"

After throwing some names around, their drummer, John Robinson, the most recorded drummer in pop history and studio drummer on many Michael Jackson hits, suggested the name Dakota. CBS loved it.

"In support of that album we probably did the biggest tour we ever did with Queen in 1980. We opened every show. It was absolutely a thrill and the high point of my musical career," said Kelly.

Kelly and Hludzik recorded a second Dakota album, Runaway, in 1984, which turned into an Album Oriented Radio classic in Europe, but the partnership split in 1987. In 1992 he headed for Nashville.

"I came then to basically get involved with the creative process. I had been a lead singer, guitar player and songwriter, and I needed a break. Several my friends were now playing for major artists doing backup and studio work. Within the first year I got my best and longest running gig with Canadian artist Charlie Major. That lasted until 1999," said Kelly.

Grand Old Opry comes calling

After taking a two-year break, he got a phone call from Grand Ole Opry star Charlie Louvin in 2001.

"I heard a scruffy voice say, 'Billy, my name is Charlie Louvin. Do you know who I am?' I told him, 'Yes, sir, I do.'

"What he didn't know was that back in 1964 when I had my stack of Beatles 45s, I would have to wait for my uncle and Dad to quit using the stereo as they were listening to Ernest Tubb, Red Sovine and the Louvin Brothers. It used to drive my nuts," said Kelly. "I played with Louvin right up until he passed away and served as a pall bearer at his funeral."

Divorced when he came to Music City, he says, "At that time a musician in Nashville without a girlfriend was considered homeless. I had not come to the Lord yet, had not given my life to Christ. I was pretty much on my own, doing it my way.

"In 1993 I met Annie [now his wife], and she was a Christian and dragged me to church, down to Belmont. The word hit me between the eyes, and I couldn't hide it anymore," he said of his conversion.

Producing and focusing on Angels

These days from his home studio he operates Sweet Suite Music as he occasionally produces demos for singers and songwriters.

And he and Hludzik, who patched things up long ago, are trying to complete a new Dakota album, "The Long Road," they started on two years ago,

"This is the only album we've ever done together long distance so we sit on the phone a lot. Jerry and I wrote most of it. It is in the mastering process, and we're hoping it will be out by mid-March.

"The No.1 session guitar player in Sweden did the guitar work on this album, and we also have Danny Seraphine and Bill Champlin, former members of Chicago," Kelly says enthusiastically. "However, right now my passion musically has got to be Angel Armies. That is really my love."

Good Buoys

For details on the pop-rock bands The Buoys, Dakota and The Jerry-Kelly Band, go online to: dakotajerry.com

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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