Peck Kelley

KELLEY JOHN DICKSON [PECK] (1898-1980). John Dickson (Peck), a jazz pianist, was born in Houston, Texas on October 22, 1898. He was one of nine siblings. His mother was reputed to have a great singing voice but the Kelleys weren’t particularly musical. Charlie Dickson, a cousin, was a Houston musician and pianist in the 1920s. Peck was the only brother to take an interest in the upright piano. The teenage daughter of a neighbor gave him his first lesson on the instrument, but he soon stopped because she kept tapping his fingers with a pencil whenever he made mistakes. He continued to be interested in the piano and was playing in the red-light district, south of Buffalo Bayou, with Jack Sharpe by 1919. Peck’s Bad Boys was his band. It included Jack Teagardenqv and Pee Wee Russell as well as Johnny Wiggs, Snoozer Quinn, Wingy Manone and Leon Roppolo. They performed at the Washington Hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1926 and danced and held fraternity parties in the Houston-Galveston region. Kelley also played solo gigs in Houston, and was an accompaniment to silent films at local theaters. In the mid-1920s, he studied harmony and musical theory in Houston with Aldrich Kidd. His friend Patricio Gutierrez taught him classical piano and perhaps Albino Torres. Although Kelley idolized Vladimir Horowitz and jazz legend Art Tatum, he was the pianist to which his peers most often compared him. Many of his fellow musicians called Kelley “the greatest white jazz pianist of all times.” Kelley traveled briefly to St. Louis in 1925 with Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra, which included Bix Beiderbecke and former Bad Boy Russell. Kelley began playing with local bands in 1929. They performed at the Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, Adolphus Hotel, Dallas, and the Hollywood Club, Galveston. He also briefly played in New Orleans. He also performed regularly at the Rice Hotel cafeteria in Houston in 1931. Kelley was a legend in jazz circles as his band members moved on to other bands and spread the word about his talents. But he refused to accept the fame that seemed like his due. He once stated, “I didn’t like to play for a living, but I enjoyed playing the piano.” He refused to leave Houston and turned down offers from Paul Whiteman (Paul Whiteman), Tommy Dorsey (Jimmy Dorsey), Benny Goodman(Artie Shaw), Rudy Vallee, and Rudy Vallee. He said, “If I was working for a top band, it would be rehearse and record, broadcast, play. Rush, hurry. With no time to spare.” Decca and OKeh also declined to sign him recording contracts. His growing fame was reflected in a July 1939 article written by John Hammond entitled “Peck Kelley Is No Myth”, which appeared in Down Beat. Kelley was more prominent when Collier’s published an article entitled “Kelley Will Not Budge” in February 1940. Kelley started an engagement at the Southern Dinner Club in 1938. He played there until late 1950. In 1942, he joined the United States Army and was stationed at San Antonio. He formed a band there, but eye problems caused him to be discharged in March 1943. After that, he was hired in a Houston shipyard. Kelley, who was plagued by blurred vision and glaucoma, retired from music in 1950. However, he did spend hours at home practicing on a silent, stringless piano to not disturb his neighbors. He was beginning to exhibit the signs of Parkinson’s disease. At the request of his friends, he recorded informally in 1951, 1953 and 1957. In 1983, a double album was released of the 1957 session that was recorded at KPRC’s studios. In 1960, Kelley was invited to join Teagarden at a Houston gig. However, Kelley, who was almost blind, refused to perform in public. Kelley was married to his wife in 1920. However, they divorced two years later. This is reportedly because she refused to go to a Christmas party at the movie theater where he worked. He lived with his nephew and the wife of his nephew in later years. He was an avid reader of philosophy, despite not having received formal education. He was particularly fond of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. Johnny Wiggs, his former friend, said that he was “extremely modest.” He wanted to live in Houston and be quiet. Kelley died in Houston on December 26, 1980. from

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