by Len Lear and Lou Mancinelli
Stephen C. Kelly of Mt. Airy came into the Local offices last Wednesday morning very excited. “A limousine is picking me up at 3 o’clock this afternoon to take me to the airport,” he said. “A group of producers in England saw the article on the internet that you did in the Local (February, 2012) and hired us to play gigs on a 15-day tour of the United Kingdom, Amsterdam and other locations in Europe. And we are leaving today!”
In 1965 a singing quartet that Kelly was a member of, The Volcanos, released a single, “Storm Warning,” that 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).
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 book written by Kelly that tells the behind-the-scenes story of these groups and what it took for its members to succeed. It is Philadelphia’s Motown story. In fact, Smokey Robinson once tried to purchase the band, a deal halted by a stubborn manager. The group performed at venues like the Apollo Theater and the former Uptown Theater at Broad and Dauphin Streets in North Philly.
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, 72, in an earlier interview about his life during the ’60s with the popular touring doo-wop act.
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, 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. 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 in 2010.
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.
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.”
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. 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.
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 at Norristown State Hospital from 2005 to 2010.
For more information or to obtain a copy of “Behind the Curtains,” email email@example.com or visit Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com or your local bookstore.