The Irish American rock and roll community was gutted to its core this week with the news of the sudden death of Ray Kelly, 46, former singer and guitarist on some of the best Prodigals albums and lead singer of the Mickey Finns. Kelly, a carpenter in the construction industry, was injured while at work and passed away suddenly.
Kelly had that one-of-a-kind rocker voice that sounded like broken glass wrapped in velvet. It rang with a rebellious energy over the furious noise of the Prodigals jig punk sound and in recent years, and had that creaky croak of a last call at closing time at a honky tonk country bar that suited the Mickey Finns southern-fried soulful Irish music so perfectly.
“We cannot say how much our hearts go out to Brian, Mattie (from Mickey Finns) and all the musicians who have had the joy of playing with mad, wonderful Ray,” said the Prodigals in an official statement.
“Our hearts go out to his beautiful family and our hearts, prayers and thoughts are with Ray himself.”
“We'd like to thank you from the bottom of our broken hearts for all the kind words, thoughts, and prayers that you have sent our way,” his heartbroken bandmates in the Mickey Finns said in a statement.
“We're not just missing our singer and guitarist, we're missing our best friend. Ray Kelly was a man with a giant heart and a giant laugh. He brought light into the lives of everyone he touched.
“He leaves behind two sons, Robert and Jude, a daughter, Rachel, his wife, Liz, his mother, Alma, a grandson, Luke, and two brothers, Marcus and Barry. He also leaves behind so many people that loved him more than he'll ever know. Ray was and is a legend. We love him dearly and we miss him with all of our hearts. Please keep the love, prayers, and thoughts coming. We all need it at this time.”
“There’s an indestructible bond between bandmates that the rest of the world only glimpses so I’ll leave it to Ray’s brothers and sisters to tell us about their friend,” said Black 47’s Larry Kirwan.
“For me one word summed him up – soul. He had a heart full of it, both as a person and a musician. He was a beautiful person -- kind, charismatic and very much his own man. Makes you wonder why so many of the good ones are taken from us before their time.”
I caught up with Brian Tracey, leader of the Mickey Finns and his drummer during Kelly’s time in The Prodigals, over the phone this past weekend. The conversation was punctuated with momentary bouts of silence as the emotion caught our throats on both sides of the phone line.
Tracy described his feeling of sadness and shock as the worst hangover ever. “I have that dehydrated, achy feeling of a hangover,” he said.
“Only this time, I dehydrated myself because literally every drop of water in my body has come out of my tear ducts.”
“I was his only drummer for 15 years,” Tracey said. “Whenever I stayed in Ireland, I stayed at his family’s house. I was there he met his wife Liz for the first time. He was just so much more than a bandmate.
“We did so much driving together to so many gigs -- we were like two little eight year old kids laughing with one another and making up song bits. I just can’t believe we’ll never have that laugh again.”
The Prodigals was a launching pad for many successful solo acts, including singer/songwriter Colm O’Brien, who replaced Kelly after he departed the band. He has fond memories of the succession plan.
“I first met Ray around March 2000 at a festival in Fort Lauderdale,” O’Brien recalls. “It was my first time seeing the Prodigals and I was blown away. The band put in a terrific performance and I remember, as a singer/guitarist myself, paying particular attention to Ray's performance.
“I quickly realized that I was going to have to radically improve my own performances if I was ever going to come close to what Ray was capable of on a stage, particularly when it came to the energy he exuded. I was a fan from then on, and went from fan to friend very quickly as we all went for a few pints afterwards and a close friendship with all the lads grew from there. He had a fabulous sense of humor and I recall laughing an awful lot in his presence.”
Tracy, raw with emotion, teemed with great memories of his fallen friend.
“When you come offstage from a great show, there were always beautiful girls trying to chat you up or a ton of guys at the bar waiting to buy a pint,” he explained.
“But if there was a child in the audience who wanted his autograph, Ray would wave everyone else off and would give the child all the time in the world. He loved children in particular and loved talking with people after the gig.”
Like all the good musicians taken from their fans too soon, Kelly was cut down in the prime of his artistic life. Readers of this column will recall that just a few weeks ago, I had named the Mickey Finns’ latest disc, Prayers and Idle Chatter, as the best thing I heard in all of 2012.
I consider myself fortunate to have had one more pint and a chat with my old friend Ray during our interview for that “best of” column; we left the noisiness of the bar and conducted our interview out on the sidewalk while he blew cigarette smoke into the cold night air.
What struck me was how he recoiled at the praise I was heaping on him. He preferred to heap the credit of the album’s success on his buddy Brian than toot his own horn about his own contributions.
A musician without a trace of ego is a rare bird indeed.
“The fan reaction is amazing,” said Kelly of Prayers and Idle Chatter. “It was so great to see Brian come into his own with the writing. Just hearing some of the rough tracks he came up with, you knew we had something.
“After some hard work, we really found our sound. I am so proud of this album!” There was an overwhelming outpouring of grief on the Mickey Finn’s website and Facebook profiles over the weekend.
“The Mickey Finns are the reason a Mexican like me loves Irish music!” enthused Victor Jaimes on the band’s page. “
Tracey chuckles as I read him that post during our phone call and he quickly reminisces about this particular fan.
“That Mexican gentleman works at a hotel in Missouri, where we played an Irish festival,” he recalls.
“We only went there once a year, yet these folks connected with us and Ray in that kind of chance encounter. That was the kind of guy Ray was. You didn’t have to know him long before you felt like you knew him forever.”
Tracy intends to get the Irish American community together in the near term for a proper Irish wake for Kelly that will raise funds for his widow and family. Keep your eyes peeled here for more details on when that will take place.
Kelly sang the lines, “As I wonder in the night/I’ll sit and watch the pale moonlight and dream of ‘Paddy’s Heaven,’” on the Prodigals’ album Dreaming in Hell’s Kitchen.
As his family scrambles to make funeral arrangements, I pray that dear old Ray saves me a seat on the barstool next to his in Paddy’s Heaven (though not too soon) and if he’s not there, I’ll take my drink somewhere else. May he rest in peace.
Key Tracks of Kelly for download from the Prodigals are “Weile Waile” and “Green Card” from Go On and from the album Dreaming in Hell’s Kitchen, “Lord Randall,” and “Paddy’s Heaven.”
His best Mickey Finns work includes “Return of the Prodigal Son,” “Tanks and Barbed Wire” and “Sweet Clare Girl.”