Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009


Remembering Kelly Joe Phelps

By TERRY CURRIER // Kelly Joe Phelps passed on May 31 at his home in Iowa. Terry Currier of Music Millennium managed him for a time. He recorded for Terry's Burnside label. 

It was 1993 and I had been encouraged to go see a new talent play by several friends. His name was Kelly Joe Phelps, an acoustic blues guitar player. The noisy club he was playing at in Vancouver served drinks and dinner. I watched this solo performer perform as loud conversations and clinking of glasses filled the air. Usually, this type of environment would make me want to leave but the mesmerizing playing captivated me.

Over the coming months I went to see him multiple times. Over the years of 93’ and 94”, Kelly joe played over 800 times…. breakfast places on Hawthorne, Mexican restaurants on Vaughan and yes, this noisy place in the Academy in Vancouver.

My record label was starting to more focus on the blues, much because I was very involved with the Cascade Blues Association and was seeing as much of local and national talent I could while keeping up with all the other genres I loved.

A recent success on the label had been by a local band called Back Porch Blues but they broke up as a band while having many dates booked around the country from the many phone calls member Jeffrey Dawkins made from cold calls and the recent 5-page expose in Living Blues magazine on the band. I had this idea that lead singer Sheila Wilcoxson could still perform these dates with the assistance of Kelly Joe on guitar. And at the same time, people across the country would get to see him play and then I would make a record with him. Things did not gel with him and Sheila. I decided not to wait and took him into the studio.

This would become the first record I produced. We booked time at Dead Aunt Thelma’s Studio with engineer Mike Moore. We set up things at 9am, started recording at 9:30 and broke for lunch at noon. We had also finished the album as Kelly Joe, with those 800 live dates under his belt, nailed all but one track on the first take. We came back from lunch and mixed it and were done. The album had Kelly Joe playing lap style acoustic and a contraption called a stomp box, which was just an empty wood wine box.

Kelly Joe became the one and only artist I ever asked to manage. I was a believer in his talents and wanted to help his career go forward. July 5th 1994 was release date for his debut album “Lead Me On”. We sent 1500 promotional copies out to radio, retail and press. We started getting community radio stations and NPR stations playing it. Bill McNally, who worked with me at the label and I were getting many positive phone calls about the record and an NPR station in Philadelphia wanted to have him come play their festival with another new artist on the bill, Keb Mo. KCRW in Los Angeles called and wanted him live on air. And everyone was fascinated with the stomp box which seemed to be a regular question in any interview he did.

I set him up with a gig at the American Music Hall in San Francisco opening for former Byrd member Roger McGuinn. Two booking agents were invited, Rosebud Agency who worked with artists like Robert Cray, Los Lobos and the likes and Mongrel, who worked with artists such as Dave Alvin and Alejandro Escovedo. When it was all said and done, Mongrel became the booking agency for Kelly Joe.

Mongrel was hungry, a small agency with a real love for the music and the artist they worked with. They managed to get him a 3-week tour with BB King. At the same time, larger labels started knocking at the door. I met with American Records, home of bands like the Black Crowes along with an entertainment lawyer Bill had suggested. Kelly wanted to be on this label though as a manager I felt “being a bigger fish in a small pond” with labels like Rounder and Ryko would be a better career direction for him than “being a small fish in a big pond” with a major label. Plus being in the industry, I had some inside to American by chance having financial issues. He signed with American and they sent him a 4-track recorder and told him to record the album in his home.

Summer of 1995, Kelly Joe moved on to another manager due to recommendations of that attorney, stating “Having a manager that owns his own record label is a conflict of interest.” The lawyer became his manager. In early 1996, American filed fpr bankruptcy after repeated calls from Kelly Joe to see what was going on with what he recorded. They eventually stated they were releasing him from his contract and asked “If I had recommendations of labels to talk to.”

Pretty much went back to my short list and Ryko became is next home.

The next album would find him stepping away from the lap-slide playing and the stomp box. He also stopped wearing his trademark hat. He had mentioned that the “Burnside blues artist roster seemed to all wear hats.” He was definitely looking for a new identity. Over the years he drifted to different styles and for a spell even used a band on stage, stretching into experimental playing., being a tunesmith troubadour and just a great fingerstyle player.

His talent showed through with each evolution, just as it did before he started this career, being a jazz bass player. In all, Kelly Joe delivered 11 very good to exceptional recordings for various labels including 6 for Ryko, and additional albums for labels like rounder and Black Hen.

His talents were admired by many musicians as well as his legions of fans around the world. One day 6 years ago he hit the wall and said he was tiering of touring, driving long miles to get to areas of the country to play solo shows. He had had a recent scare where his hand was not functioning also, which would concern any guitarist but that issue subsided. Without playing there was not going to be much income and he began to sell some of the 20 some guitars he had collected along the way and his record collection. I visited him a few times during these times but answers to emails in the following years became absent.

Kelly Joe had truly moved on from music, something that had been the driving force in his life. Many of those around him kept hoping he would come back to it but on May 31st, he passed away at home in Iowa. We will always have the music to remember him by. “Lead Me On” will always have a permanent place in my heart and mind.

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Bill McNally

Thank you Terry for the memories.

Henry Franzoni

What a pair of stellar human beings. Terry... Kelly was a great one.

Timothy Helmer


Courtney Von Drehle

I first saw Kelly playing bass, and he was great. Like REALLY good. A few years later I heard him playing lap steel and singing and his sound was so true, without any unnecessary showiness yet full of virtuosity - just a deep pool of soulful blues that was easy to dive into and get lost in. Sorry he is gone, and for the challenges he had along the way as he created so much beauty. Thankful that you got to help him along the way, Terry.


I'm saddened by this. We've lost many recently in no short order. I, too , really enjoyed KJP and enjoyed at least a few shows , couple short visits and a couple CDs I believe he gave me. Good article and rememberance, Terry ☺️

Jan Mancuso

Very sad news. Terry, thank you for your keen ear, your advocacy & these memories. RIP KJP.

Daniel J Curran

Kelly Joe RIP. You were a special musician.

Cheralee Dillon

Oh dear Kelly Joe rest in peace so hard to let you go.

Mark Randall

Thx so much , I owned this cd back in the day. Wonderful to hear it again. Music and art are a hard road. Art meteors burn bright with their contributions. Thx again.

Norm grinstead

I owned Cafe Espresso in Seaside Or. 1995 , my dear friend , fellow guitar player Craig Mather told me of a talent I needed to have play at the cafe. Went to see him on Sunday morning at Cafe Lena in Portland. Playing for tips only out of a coffee can,this human with more soul than I had ever seen channeling the delta blues as I had only experienced watching Fred Mc dowel ,Gary Davis,in Chicago . The break came and we offered him a gig ,with grace and humbleness he accepted. Telling us he had a manager/ booking agt that we had to deal with. The contract was for 350 dollars a deal we thought! When I paid him after the poorly attended performance he was seemingly astounded by the money. We made a great connection as he came back again. I personally have witnessed thousands of live music events in my 70 plus years,but never anything that captivated an audience like Kelly Joe! One of the sweetest humans I have ever encountered. Thank for the music Kelly! Wish I had recorded them. Lead Me On ! Thanks Norm & Luanne

David Malcolm Currie

I had just got through listening to the entire "Lead Me On" recording for.....well over 100th time, and I'm NOT exaggerating. After listening to it I did a search on his name, wondering what happened to him, so now I know. RIP KJP, I hope to see you in heaven someday brother, you helped me be saved.

Mitch Lee

Thank you Terry for such a lovely informational article on Kelly Joe. It must have been around 1999. I was at a low point in life. Shopping for music the old way by going to the music store and sampling staff pics. Listening to them by head phones. One of sampling stations had “Shine Eyed Mr Zen” Listened to that album and Kelly Joe’s rendition of Goodnight Irene”. Absolutely floored me. Bought album as well as “Lead Me On”. They healed me. Helped me feel and release the sadness and loss. There was something very special about Kelly Joe and his music. He was Shaman-like. Saw him live as much as possible. He inspired me to do music. Bought a PA and rented rehearsal space off Hawthorne. Worked and worked. Learned to sing. Ultimately joined a band. We played many hard gigs. Ultimately playing at Jimmy Mak’s frequently. Live in Austin and finishing my first solo album. Kelly Joe was my inspiration because I learned from him to trust what’s inside us. Music is very spiritual. RIP Kelly Joe. I’ll look forward to your music in the next life.

Dylan Vance

Thank you Terry for helping launch KJP career. Sundays at Cafe Lena were a gift with KJP. He was a kind and generous man. Lent me a couple albums of drum and fife bands he was listening to. Came over and listened to recordings of my band. Hung out and was always humble about his enormous talent. Seeing his career take off and see him climb new artistic heights was a joy.

Ted Morgan

I am one of the Cafe Lena KLP converts from the early '90s. I don't think I've ever had an experience of musical discovery like I did that Sunday morning on SE Hawthorne. Witnessing genius, mastery and purity all at once. I collected most of his work (check out his collabs with Tony Furtado!), but his first three albums are still on regular rotation - well, digitally at least. My life has been richer having his music in my life. May his soul fly far and free.

David Fink

Thanks Terry for writing about your memories with Kelly Jo. He was the player of 90s portland who was for me, emoting authentic delta blues. I enjoyed reading your story of managing him. Despite not quite reaching his full potential and national recognition, he still achieved wide acclaim. It sounds like you were instrumental in helping him get that far. I'm saddened to learn of his passing in an end of year wrap up. My last chance to hear him was at the Pickathon years ago when he had teamed up with another fine songwriter, Corrine West from northern California. I don't think he was ever as good as when he did his solo foot stomping delta blues. I'll be rolling away the stone and seeing that his grave is kept clean later this week in memory. Thanks for sharing this!

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