OCTOBER 28, 1984 – Drummer/keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter WELLS KELLY (b. April 7, 1949, New Orleans, Louisiana) died at age 34 in London, England after a night of hard partying while on tour with Meat Loaf. Wells had went out with friends from the band Tower Of Power to see his old college roomate, Huey Lewis. Wells loved to drink and constantly made people laugh with his great sense of humor. He was a constant teaser, and a lot of fun to hang out or work with, but he collapsed and died on the front step of a London apartment, apparently from asphyxiation from choking on his own vomit after taking heroin and cocaine. Band member Paul Jacobs found him slumped over beside the railing outside the next morning. He was reportedly last seen drinking with Lewis. A coroner’s inquest panel returned a verdict of “death by misadventure.”Best known to rock music fans as the drummer in the pop-rock group Orleans, whose hits included “Dance With Me” and “Still the One,” Kelly (the son of Cornell University’s Dean of Architecture, Burnham Kelly) first met John Hall, an in-demand session player and member of the group Kangaroo, in the late 1960s when he played with him in a group called Thunderfrog and later played on Hall’s first solo album “Action” (1970).In 1969, Wells joined the first incarnation of King Harvest, who would have a hit a few years later in 1973, with the song “Dancing in the Moonlight,” a song written by Wells’ brother, Sherman Kelly, and first recorded by Boffalongo, a group Wells joined in 1970 after leaving King Harvest.Hall called Kelly in Ithaca, New York in December 1971 and asked him to join his new group. Multi-instrumentalist Kelly accepted the offer on the condition that he play piano.
For a brief time, the grouping consisted of Roy Markowitz on drums, Bill Gelber on bass and Kelly on electric piano. When Markowitz and Gelber left the band, Wells told John about his former bandmate from the Ithaca-based Boffalongo. Hall encouraged Kelly to call 17 year-old Larry Hoppen, who accepted the invitation to join the new group, christened Orleans by Wells, in late January 1972. For months they would play as a trio, often switching instruments during the show.Orleans found its core audience touring the clubs and college circuit of the Northeastern US, crossing paths with other up-and-comers such as Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, and Hall & Oates. Rolling Stone magazine called Orleans “the best unrecorded band in America.” Showcase performances in New York gave rise to a recording contract with ABC Dunhill Records and the release of the eponymous, self-titled debut album in the fall of 1973, which had been recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with producers Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett at the helm.Reviewing Orleans in “Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies” (1981), Robert Christgau said, “In case you’re interested, this band is mucho hot among Eastern rock cognoscenti (read, know-it-alls). Very pleasant, too, although John Hall doesn’t sing as tasty as he plays.
The only impressive song is ‘Half Moon.’ Anything Janis Joplin used to sing is impressive, so that may not mean much.”The group’s second record, “Orleans II,” recorded at Bearsville Studios, was originally released in Japan and Europe in 1974 but ABC declined to release it in the US since management felt there were “no hit singles” on the album and dropped the group from the label. “Orleans II” was finally put out in America in 1978, combined with the first album, as a double LP called “Before the Dance.” It was also released as a CD in Japan in the 1990s under its originally slated title “Dance With Me.”it was not until Orleans was heard at Max’s Kansas City, then produced by Chuck Plotkin, then head of A&R for Asylum Records, that the band scored its first Billboard Hot 100 hit “Let There Be Music” (#55), the title track taken from their third album, released in March 1975.The follow-up single “Dance With Me” (reshaped and re-recorded from “Orleans II” with Plotkin at the helm), brought Orleans to #6 on the pop charts and into the mainstream of American pop music. Atypical of the high-energy, earthy, R&B and Rock n’ Roll mix of styles they had been previously identified with, “Dance With Me” cast the band in a more “soft-rock” light and landed them a tour with Melissa Manchester.While recording their next album “Waking and Dreaming” in early 1976, the group was joined by second drummer Jerry Marotta, freeing Wells Kelly up to sing more and play keyboards.The single “Still the One” (released in July 1976), cemented Orleans’ relationship with the American public.
While the hit was climbing the charts to peak eventually at #5, the band did a major cross-country ten-week tour with label-mate Jackson Browne, ending in November 1976.In January 1977, “Still the One” was chosen as the theme song for the ABC television network (the parent of ABC Records) and has since been used for numerous commercials and movie soundtracks. The follow-up, “Reach,” with John Hall on lead, peaked at #51 in March 1977. Around then, however, internal stresses and disagreements over material and musical direction prompted guitarist/songwriter Hall to announce his intention to leave the band in search of a solo career, which he did in June 1977 after touring commitments were satisfied. Marotta departed not long afterwards to join Hall and Oates and eventually moved on to Peter Gabriel’s band. After several months of mulling things over and working with other musicians (Larry joined Jerry Marotta in the backing band for Garland Jeffreys while Kelly worked with the Beach Boys), the Hoppen brothers and Kelly decided to continue on in late 1977, bringing in new members R. A. Martin (vocals, sax, horns, keyboards) and Connecticut musician Bob Leinbach (vocals, keyboards, trombone), who’d played with Larry Hoppen during the Ithaca years and had completed a stint with the group The Fabulous Rhinestones. The new lineup signed a contract with the Infinity Records label and their debut there, “Forever” (April 1979), produced the #11 hit “Love Takes Time.” Collectively, the three Hot 100 top 20 Orleans hits have been aired over 7 million times.In 1979 Orleans continued to tour with artists such as Stephen Stills and Chicago. In 1980 Infinity went bankrupt after an album with performances by Pope John Paul II (who was on a tour of the US in the fall of ’79) failed to sell. Infinity was absorbed into MCA Records, who failed to promote their next album, simply titled “Orleans.”
This last, recorded in Woodstock, featured only the Hoppens and Kelly as Orleans since the others had left earlier in the year. Nonetheless, the album featured guest appearances from all past members, including John Hall, who was in the process of forming the John Hall Band with Leinbach as a member. “Orleans” was produced by Englishman Robin Lumley, mixed at Trident Studios in London and featured Lumley’s friend, Phil Collins, contributing backing vocals to a track.Just after recording their 1980 release, the group added Dennis “Fly” Amero (guitars, vocals) to replace Leinbach and the lineup still featured R.A. Martin. But the band, who was on a tour of amusement parks that summer, was forced to cut the tour short when their accountant misappropriated funds leaving them in debt. Martin left, “Fly” stayed and Larry and Lance recruited their brother Lane Hoppen to play keyboards and drummer Charlie Shew (at that time going under the pseudonym Eric Charles) to play alongside Kelly then replace him when he left by early 1981 to relocate to NYC.Kelly went on to join Steve Forbert’s Flying Squirrels in 1981 and also played with Ann Lang, the wife of Michael Lang, producer of the first and original Woodstock concert. He then went on to record with the trumpeter Matt Jordan in his Futurband, and Wells and Matt became good friends. Kelly also played with Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers before joining Meat Loaf’s Neverland Express in 1983.Kelly’s untimely death was the catalyst for a reunion of Hall and the Hoppen brothers.
John and Bob Leinbach joined Larry in Ithaca to play at a memorial for Wells (Lance had been unable to make the wake due to another commitment).Wells wrote several of his songs together with his brother Sherman. One of them, “Sometimes Love,” was a song that made Billboard and is the title theme song of a proposed biographical movie about Wells (their others songs included “Why,” “Givin It Up,” and “The Grass Is Always Greener”). It has been Matt Jordan’s desire to complete an album in memory of Wells, and do a movie about his life. On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Orleans among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.