Smokin’ Joe singing a different song onstage in Aspen |

Smokin’ Joe singing a different song onstage in Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Joe Kelly performs in "Song of My Father" at theTheatre Aspen tent on Sunday.

ASPEN – Joe Kelly had his glimpses of what it is to be a rock star. He spent two years as a guitarist with Ike & Tina Turner, and witnessed at close range the 1976 blow-up, in Dallas, that brought to an end the famously explosive duo. Kelly went on to play with another soul legend, Bill Withers, and saw the toll the music business took on the singer’s physical and spiritual health.”I saw the big time and I said, ‘This is the big time?'” said Kelly, who also played on several of Ike Turner’s solo albums, including the 2006 Grammy-winning “Rising with the Blues.” “I steered away from it. I saw what it did to people. I could have had a record deal, gone down that road. It scared the hell out of me.”But hearing Kelly talk about “Song of My Father,” you might think he had reconsidered. “Song of My Father” is a one-man show, and it currently has just one date scheduled – Sunday, Aug. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Theatre Aspen’s Sunday Series. But for Kelly, this is big – big as in significant and life-changing.”The closer I get to the story, the closer I see it is to my life,” said the 57-year-old Kelly, who has played in Aspen under the name Smokin’ Joe Kelly for 12 years. “This story is a spiritual journey. It’s coming to terms with who I really am, especially in relationship with my father.”In “Song of My Father,” Kelly plays Charlie Tate who, in act one, is a young boy being tended to by his father, a single parent. An aspiring songwriter who had to give up his dreams for parental obligations, the father sings Charlie to bed each night with a song that describes what is going on in his life. In act two, Charlie, having had a fall-out with his dad, moves to Los Angeles, to pursue his own music career. The show has Kelly as the narrator, telling the story in flashback, and as the present-day musician Charlie, performing (with the onstage backing of bassist Zoe Lasser and drummer Chris Goplerud) the songs his father once sang to him.It is not Kelly’s story, exactly; nor was it even written for Kelly. The Denver writers Cy Frost and Doug Olson wrote “Song of My Father” for a different actor. But Kelly, who has known the writers for years, has been associated with the project from its inception, in the ’90s. Kelly cut the demo versions of the songs, and when the show finally made it to the stage, at Denver’s Avenue Theater two years ago and last year at the New York International Fringe Festival, he played in the band.From that vantage point, Kelly could see how much the themes of father-son tensions and artistic yearnings meant to him. As a kid in Connecticut, Kelly had been trained in classical guitar, and began studies at the Hartt School at the age of 8.”Then the Beatles invasion came, I got invited into my first band, and I quit the conservatory at 12. My parents were pulling their hair out,” he said. In ninth grade, when his dad told him he needed to quit the band, Kelly ran away from home and stayed at the bass player’s house for a few days before reconciling with his folks. At 16, Kelly was a professional rocker, playing all over New England.In 1974, the drummer in Kelly’s band earned an audition with Ike & Tina. Ike didn’t like what he heard, and he turned to Kelly.”He said, ‘What do you play?'” Kelly recalled. “I saw all these guitars sitting around and said, ‘I play guitar.’ We picked up guitars, jammed the blues a few minutes, and he said, ‘You want the gig?’ I had a split second to blow everybody else off, and I did it.”Kelly found himself deep in the world of black music. He became one of the first, and possibly the only, white musician to appear on the TV show “Soul Train.” “I was the only white guy for miles around. I was deep in the black scene,” he said.Kelly spent 20 years in L.A. before finding his way to Aspen. While taking a range of gigs – house band at the St. Regis, music director for the Aspen Middle School plays, loads of private and corporate parties – he stayed involved with Frost and Olson as they conceived, developed, ditched and resurrected “Song of My Father.” Earlier on, Kelly couldn’t see himself starring in the play; he had no acting experience, and as he acknowledges, “I wasn’t ready.”But recent time have seen an awakening for Kelly. He lost 80 pounds, dropped old bad habits and acquired new ones. And as he rounded into physical and spiritual shape, he focused on “Song of My Father,” and the opportunity it held for him.”I had to get ready for this show,” he said. “Before I took on this show, I had to take the other stuff on. The amount of work has been a mountain for me, the biggest mountain I’ve ever climbed.”I always thought there was something out there for me, a vehicle to express all this stuff I have inside. Eventually, it became this show.”Kelly, who plays guitar, piano, accordion and banjo in “Song of My Father,” says the music has been the easy part. Acting is tougher. “You don’t just get up and act; you have to live the part,” he said.Of course, this is a role he has been living, to an extent, for most of his life.”Music is the heart of the show. And I’m a musician,” he said. “This is geared toward my life.”