Editor’s note: We recognize how quickly Charlotte has changed over the years, so here’s us trying to preserve its story. In this series, local author David Aaron Moore answers reader-submitted questions about unusual, noteworthy or historic people, places and things in Charlotte and the surrounding metro area. Submit inquires to [email protected]
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s there was a singer and piano player that I used to catch at a few bars and restaurants around town. I think her name was Chris Kelly. Do you know what became of her? — William Dukes, Charlotte
Chris Kelly was quite the well-known local entertainer during the period you’re referring to. She was known as a lounge singer, which is practically an outdated art form. Gone are the days when local acts kept patrons entertained with mellow vocalizing over the lush sound of fingers playing an ivory keyboard.
Kelly, however, managed to draw her career as a singer and piano player in the Charlotte area out well past a time when most night club owners had opted for less expensive entertainment, such as DJs and/or (often excruciating) karaoke contests.
She was still singing and playing the piano at the Rhineland Haus up until the last days of the longtime restaurant and bar’s reign in the Charlotte culinary scene around 2005.
Kelly was born in Cleveland County in 1931. She and her family moved to Charlotte in 1947. By the late 1950s, she had arranged a quartet with four young men, performing popular, danceable music of the day.
But that didn’t last long. Eventually, she married. Then came children, the responsibilities of family, and a husband who wasn’t too keen on his wife playing at nightclubs. Her musical career came to a screeching halt.
“He wasn’t supportive of the idea, and he didn’t want me doing that,” says Kelly, who’s now 83. “After we divorced ... I eventually landed a chance to play at a club called The Lodge. That was 1967. I played nights from 9 p.m. until 3 a.m. I was only supposed to be filling in for someone else, but that turned into five months.”
Kelly, a preacher’s daughter, admits she was a bit embarrassed about the gig at The Lodge. It was once part of the Quality Inn Motor Court complex on Wilkinson Boulevard (since torn down), and known for its somewhat sketchy clientele. Still, she was grateful for the opportunity to return to work as a professional musician and looks back on the period with a sense of humor.
“Some of the things I saw,” she laughs. “It was basically just a pick-up joint. But fortunately, I was able to move on to the Barringer Hotel after the five months.”
In later years she played many other local spots in and around Charlotte, as well as Asheville and Myrtle Beach.
By the early ‘70s she landed at The Rhineland Haus. “I was a regular there for a few years. It was a great time. I loved the audiences and the people I worked for.”
The image of a blond singer at a piano in the early 1970s in a place like an upscale hotel or restaurant conjures up scenes from films like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure. So, what kind of music did Kelly perform?
“I love Gershwin. I did a lot of requests. The standards. The classics.” The most requested song she ever got was “As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931. “My father used to say the only issue he had with spending so much money to send me to school to study music was that he didn’t expect to spend thousands of dollars to end up watching me perform ‘Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey?’”
After her stint at Rhineland, Kelly formed a trio (The Chris Kelly Trio) and later still another group known as Chris Kelly & Us. She and her musical partners performed at places in Charlotte like The Raddison Plaza, The Charlotte Country Club, Ciggies and Valentino’s. She also made appearances at Asheville’s Sky Club and Saint John’s, in Myrtle Beach.
“I worked with some amazing talents during my career,” she says. “And I got to meet some wonderful and interesting people.” Among those she crossed paths with were Rufus and Chaka Khan, Regis Philbin Loonis McGlohan and former Charlotte stripper turned nationally known baseball “Kissing Bandit” Morganna.
In 1989, she wrapped up a three decade musical career, at Valentino’s. Or so she thought. “In 2002, I got a call from Rhineland Haus. They were thinking about closing down then, and they wanted me to come and play until they did.”
Rhineland closed its doors in 2005. Kelly, then 74, performed for the last time in the Queen City.
These days, she is living in Greensboro so she can be closer to her children. “They thought it was best. And I like having them near.”
In her spare time she volunteers as a musical therapist working with Alzheimer’s patients. “It’s incredible to see how they respond,” she says. “They may not remember something from a few minutes earlier, but an old tune they grew up with ... they’ll know every word.”
Kelly stays busy but, she emphasizes, she’s still not quite ready to close the door on her Charlotte musical career. “I’m in great shape. I’d love to be performing back in Charlotte a couple of nights a week. As long as they’d pay for my hotel room.”
David Aaron Moore is the author of “Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem.” His writings have appeared in numerous publications throughout the U.S. and Canada.