Last Sunday, I learned of the passing of two friends. Neither event was unexpected, but it does cause one to stop and reflect.
First, learned of Mike’s passing. I was copied on an email from Bobbie, his significant other. It was not unexpected. Mike had been gamely battling a rare cancer for quite some time, and recent missives had indicated that the end was near.
I first met Mike about 20 years ago. At that point, he was already well along on his journey of personal growth. He had come a long way from the angry, driven person he had been. He was a big, soft spoken, loving guy.
I once had a gig in Osaka, Japan with Otis Rush, and it happened that Mike’s son Aaron was living there, and he was going to be visiting at the same time. What a sight it was to see my big friend from Chicago find his seat in the crowd of Japanese fans. Afterward, we all met and walked around Osaka, Mike gamely limping along as he was dealing with a bum knee.
After his retirement, Mike left Chicago, but he always made it a point to look me up and spend some time with me when he was visiting. I always got a lot out of a conversation with Mike. He was one of the few non musicians I knew who could look at my situation and size it up with great insight. He “got” it without me having to explain a thing. I found that to be very validating. The last time I saw him he and Bobbie came to the house and had lunch with Kris and me.
Mike met his end with dignity, peace, and a sense of wonder as to where his journey was taking him next. And, happily, was surrounded by loving friends and family.
Then came the facebook posts about Joe Kelley losing to lung cancer. This was not unexpected either.
I first heard of Joe Kelley in my late teens. I would wait all week in the late ’60s for late night FM radio, which we referred to as underground radio, as opposed to the top 40 on the AM band. There were a couple of DJs I listened to on WOPA, broadcast from the Oak Park Arms Hotel. First, we would hear Scorpio, and then Psyche. Psyche (Her actual name was Gwen) would play a lot of Albert King (my mind-blowing introduction to the man), and kept asking “Have you heard the Joe Kelley Blues Band?”
The first time I heard Joe Kelley play was at an amazing 12 hour blues event that was held at the old, old, band shell in Chicago’s Grant Park. We got there at 5 or 6 AM to be up front, and the line-up was a who’s who of Chicago Blues. It started with Willie Dixon and Johnny Shines, progressed to Otis Spann (In a green suit that I’ll never forget,) and ended with Muddy Waters. And in the middle of all this, was Joe Kelley. He may have been the only white performer, but my memory is a little blurry.
I got to know and gig with Joe a few years later. One place I remember well was the Gallery, a hole in the wall in Albany Park, on Lawrence Avenue. I also used to play there with Lonnie Brooks. Joe had a few substance problems. He told me some amazing stories of addiction. I remember that I had just gotten my car out of the body shop, and at the end of a gig at the Gallery, he hit it. But it was hard to be angry at him. He was a sweet guy, and a great player.
Joe went on the manage the Kingston Mines for a few years. He was in and out of recovery. He would walk around the Mines drinking from a gallon milk container of coffee. He went to Texas for a time, returned, slipped, recovered, slipped, rode his motorcycle.
The last time I saw Joe was when he sat in on a gig with my band back in March. I thought he sounded good. The last time I spoke with him on the phone, he told me the doctors thought they had found a mass in his lung. I guess they were right.
And so it goes…