My. Airy singer tells Philly’s Motown story
by Lou Mancinelli
In 1965 the Philadelphia group The Volcanos’ single, “Storm Warning,” sold more than 65,000 copies throughout the city. But the singers insisted that they were robbed and cheated by their manager and saw little if any money from royalties (not unusual among early rock ‘n’ roll groups).
Rather, they were pent up in theaters during the day while they waited to perform at night. Some members of the group later formed The Trammps. Their song, “Disco Inferno,” won a 1977 Grammy Award and was part of the soundtrack for the iconic John Travolta movie “Saturday Night Fever.”
“Behind the Curtains” (Friesen Press, 2011) is a new book that tells the behind-the-scenes story of these groups and what it took for its members to succeed, written by Mt. Airy resident and founding Volcanos member, Stephen C. Kelly. It is Philadelphia’s Motown story. In fact, Smokey Robinson once tried to purchase the band, a deal halted by a stubborn manager. And while the group performed at places like the Apollo Theater and the former Uptown Theater, located at Broad and Dauphin Streets in North Philly, their story is one of a workingmen’s band.
Perhaps the best illustration of the group’s work ethic is that after performing one night on Jerry Blavat’s television show “The Discophonic Scene,” in 1965, Kelly went to work the following morning at his day job.
“I had my left foot in the music industry and my right foot in 9 to 5 [work],” said Kelly, 68, about his life during the ‘60s with a popular touring doo-wop act. This, after Kelly got into show business because he figured he could earn money quick to pay for college.
As a kid, Kelly used to hear a singing group practice on weekends next door to his North Philadelphia home. His neighbor, Mr. Neal, told him the group planned on being famous. Sometime later, Neal, who lent Kelly’s family his car to travel to Maryland, gave Kelly a 45-RPM record by the Blue Notes, the group of men Kelly heard sing in Neal’s home. They recorded their song “My Hero.” Kelly heard the song on the radio, saw how its dynamics made girls cry and told his mom he wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.
In 1956, Kelly cut a single with The Superbs, a group of neighborhood boys. He entered the recording industry at the age of 13. The record did not do well, but Kelly’s desire to perform thrived. In 1957 he moved with his family from West Edgley Street to 58th and Walnut Streets in West Philadelphia. He eventually formed a group with some neighborhood teens. They performed on weekends and at talent shows at their school, John Bartram High School.
In those days, their lineup featured a girl named Patricia Holte. With Holte, they won every talent show at school, but Holte’s mother landed her a record deal in 1960. She left the group and went on to become the famous Patti LaBelle, one of the great soul singers of all time. That same year Kelly and a friend named Harold Wade joined the U.S. Naval Reserves. When they were honorably discharged in 1963, they began to perform again.
The group continued to evolve and underwent some member changes, as so many young bands do. Its original members were Stanly Wade (Harold’s brother), Robert Jones, Sylvester Rose, Kelly and Wade. They picked up lead singer Teresa Chambers and performed under the name Terry and the Epsilons. That year they won a talent show hosted by Solomon Burke, known as the “Godfather of Soul,” who was born in West Philadelphia and who died last year.
Two years later, after making their rounds at parties and record-hops around town, in 1965, the group landed its first record contract. They auditioned for representatives from Harthon Productions, signed with Arctic Records and changed their name to The Volcanos. Their hit song,“Storm Warning,” was a B-side on their first recording. It was then that their tribulations began.
Their manager was a local radio disc jockey who allegedly guaranteed airtime for any artists associated with Harthon, but he kept them under his thumb. He paid each member of the group at the time $100 in royalties from the sales of “Storm Warning” and supposedly told them if they didn’t like it, they could get an attorney.
“At that time we knew we had been robbed of our royalties and the books had been fixed,” Kelly says. He claims that during the group’s tenure with Arctic (1964-1968), the manager never bought the singers outfits they needed for performances and never paid travel expenses. Kelly says 85 percent of the time the group even booked its own gigs.
Nonetheless, the shows thrilled audiences. The Volcanos performed with the likes of the Four Tops and other Motown acts. It was always the cheering crowd that fueled the performers with energy. “When you hear the announcer say your name, and all of it sudden it happens,” said Kelly, “you perform your butt off.”
The tours lasted a few weeks. They went to places like the Apollo in New York and venues in Washington D.C. and Baltimore. On holidays, they might work five shows per day, and on other days, they worked three shows per day. Most of the time backstage there was only one rest room with one commode, no showers and a basin with running water. The conditions were harsh, but it was their love for singing that inspired the performers to press on.
But by 1968, it seemed The Volcanos’ ship to fame was wading in shallow water. Band members decided to leave Arctic Records. Some went on to form The Trammps. The book tells their story, one studded with hits like “Disco Inferno” but not without its hardships, from domestic abuse to one member being busted for selling drugs.
Kelly himself went on to form Pretty Boy Records in 1968 and later New Day Rising Productions, affiliated with BMI, a music publisher in New York. Today, he still runs both companies. He wrote “Behind the Curtains” to share his experience and show readers what it takes to climb the stairs to success in show business before the curtain rises.
Kelly leads a comfortable life at his home in Mt. Airy with his wife, Gwendolyn, where he has three cars, including a new 2011 BMW 128i, a spa and swimming pool. (He also once ran his own swimming pool and spa business on the side.) His hobby is building model trains, and he is a member of the Chelten Hills Model Railroad Club. “None of it came from show business,” Kelly insisted. “It came from hard work, 9 to 5.”
During his time in the Volcanos, Kelly always worked a day job, from pumping gas to being an operating room technician and respiratory therapist at Philadelphia General Hospital (now Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia). In 1968, he became a police officer under then- commissioner Frank Rizzo. Kelly suffered an injury while pursuing a robbery call in Fairmount Park that led to his being recommended by Rizzo to become an investigator with a state agency. He then worked for 31 years as a federal agent for the Department of Defense. He retired in 2003, got bored and returned to work for the Pennsylvania Control and Liquor Board before shifting to work in at Norristown State Hospital from 2005 to 2010.
And Kelly and his singing buddies still perform as The Trammps in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, as well as Naples, Italy; Holland and other European venues. In fact, they just performed at the Kimmel Center with Jerry Blavat on Jan. 28.
“I don’t travel with the guys on all the engagements,” he said. “The lead singer, Jimmy Ellis, and I are sort of retired. Now I am able to spend a little time with my spouse, friends, and family.”
For more information or to obtain a copy of “Behind the Curtains,” email firstname.lastname@example.org