Must have been back it the late 1968 or early 1969 driving home after a night of club hopping was when I first heard a Jo Ann Kelly cut, “Hard Time Killing Floor,” on KZAP, an underground radio station out of Sacramento, California. I knew for certain I was listening to a Black woman right out of a North Mississippi juke joint. The voice and guitar work sounded so authentic - like a 1920s Western Electric recording done in some musty, smoke filled room at an abandoned Memphis warehouse during the Great Depression. She captured the era remarkably and cut it into a wax disk as if she did it before in a past life.
Well, the next day, I headed off to Tower Records and bought the album and wasn’t disappointed with a lot of mundane filler material. Every cut was suburb.
Kelly was one of the best (consistently listenable) female blues singer I ever heard - even to this day.
As far as Country Blues goes she mastered every regional style from North Carolina to Texas - Reverend Robert Wilkins to Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Her six and twelve string guitar work was absolutely brilliant and powerful incorporating all the traditional (obscure) open tunings, hammering styles, and exquisite slide playing.
When it comes to Country Blues, Kelly had it all down, and I have as of yet heard her match.
My first big surprise came when saw a White girl on the cover. The second was when I read the liner notes and discovered Kelly was from Streatham, South London!
With the exception of material on Savoy Brown’s album, “Getting to the Point,” all the other British Blues bands had a distinct UK signature - they did great interpretations (for the most part), but alway had a Rock and Roll/Jazz feel. However, Kelly was as authentic as it gets for Country Blues.
In 1969, Mississippi Fred McDowell who almost always performed solo teamed up with Kelly for “When I Lay My Burden Down” at the Mayfair Hotel in London. The legendary Mississippi Hill Country Bluesman, Fred McDowell was a also fan of Kelly’s work.
When Johnny Winter and the American group, “Canned Heat” heard Kelly, they attempted to persuade her to go back to the states and tour with them, but she prefered to stay in the UK.
Jo Ann Kelly died from a brain tumor in 1990. In 1997, Tony Russell , in his book “The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray,” wrote, “To many American performers Jo Ann Kelly was the only British singer to earn their respect for her development of what they would be justified in thinking as 'their' genre".
Jo Ann Kelly should be a name that resonates and echoes throughout the Blues world, but unfortunately, her work lays hidden in the shadows of other great Blues artists. Kelly was, as many, including myself say - The Queen of Blues.
The album “Jo Ann Kelly: Retrospective - 1964 - 1972” is a body of work I have no reservation about recommending to anyone.
If Kelly’s work gets you interested, check out Jessie Mae Hemphill on Youtube