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Red Kelly Dies

Bassist Red Kelly died on Wednesday June 9, 2004 at age 76 of complications from various ailments. Kelly, who was born Thomas Raymond Kelly, spent three decades of his life on the road with musicians like Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Harry James, Buddy Rich and Duke Ellington.

Not only an acclaimed musician, Kelly was also well-known for his stint in politics as a Washington state gubernatorial candidate in the 1970s when he ran under his self-conceived OWL party. OWL-which combined the slogans “Out With Logic” and “On With Lunacy”-was a pseudo-serious independent political party that managed to attract eight percent of the votes in 1976 when Kelly ran for governor.

Kelly, who was born in Shelby, Mont. and grew up in Seattle, taught himself to play bass as a high school freshman when he found an old, school-owned acoustic bass that no one was playing in the school band. Eventually Kelly’s advanced skills on the bass led to an extended stretch on the road alongside numerous acclaimed musicians.

In 1974, Kelly and his wife Donna settled in Olympia, Wash. where they opened a jazz club called the Tumwater Conservatory. The club became a favorite of Washington politicians, and it was the constant presence of those politicians that encouraged Kelly to run for office in 1976.

One of the Conservatory’s regulars, a correspondent for the Associated Press, overheard Kelly joking about running for office and wrote story about Kelly that was all over the national press by the following day. Kelly’s mother, “Fast” Lucie Griswold, ran for secretary of state and his piano-playing friend Perciful ran for state treasurer. The tongue-in-cheek campaign reportedly attracted 250,000 votes for Kelly-the highest minority vote in the election. The numerous votes infuriated politicians and resulted in the creation of the Owl Law, which changed the way independent parties can get on the ballot.

In 1978, the Conservatory closed and Kelly stayed close to home for several years playing local gigs until he and Donna opened Kelly’s in Tacoma, Wash. in 1986. Kelly’s remained open until last September and featured unannounced performances by jazz musicians Kelly had worked with in the past. When the club closed Kelly donated his large collection of jazz photographs to the Tacoma Public Library.

Kelly’s wife Donna died in 1999.

Originally Published