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Kelly Bell Band to headline ‘Cool’ Berlin anniversary

(April 16, 2015) While Berlin has officially been “cool” for a year, courtesy of the Budget Travel Magazine designation, one could argue that the Baltimore-based Kelly Bell Band has maintained its cool status for going on two decades.
The band’s year-long birthday celebration/victory lap includes headlining the Cool Berlin Day bash on Saturday, April 18.
For Bell, it all began in a little club in Charm City.
Bell was a backup singer, the self-described “baby in the band” of Fat Tuesday, a New Orleans-style jazz and blues group that once backed up the legendary Muddy Waters.
Bell also doubled as the bouncer at the 8×10 in Baltimore, a tiny bar with a sterling reputation among diehard musicians and music fans, which just so happened to book one Bo Diddley in January 20, 1995.
“Bo didn’t travel with his own band at the time,” Bell said. “Bo was real smart. After getting ripped off all those years, when he got to his twilight years in his career he did it the right way. He would book a show in D.C. and book a show in Baltimore and both clubs would pay him $5,000. The club in D.C. would be responsible for his lodging and food and everything, and the club in Baltimore would be responsible for his flight. So Bo would hit the airport with a cigar box guitar and a bag of clothes, and that’s it, and the clubs would be responsible for getting him background bands.”
Bell approached Fat Tuesday about playing behind the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
“They really weren’t that interested in it, and I was kind of disappointed,” Bell said. “My friend Automatic Slim, who was sitting in with the band that night, saw the disappointment in my face and came up and asked what was wrong. I told him the situation and he said, ‘Look man, if they’re not interested you go ahead and take the gig. I’ll find you the musicians to back this up.’”
With the help of Slim and the rhythm section from another local band called the Persuaders, Bell took the job.
“I wanted to call it the Baltimore Blues All Stars, and Slim convinced me that was a stupid idea,” he said. “He said, ‘go under your own name, man. You never know if you’ll want to do this again.’”
The new group, dubbed the Kelly Bell Band, set up two shows in one day at the 8×10, playing a solo set with Bell as the front man, bringing Bo out for an hour set, clearing the house, filling it back up, and then doing the whole thing all over again.
“The shows were completely kick ass, and Bo absolutely loved me,” Bell said.
In the immediate aftermath of the breakthrough sets, Bell began fielding calls during his shifts as the 8×10’s bouncer.
“People are calling and asking, ‘When’s the next time the Kelly Bell Band are in there?’ And I’m trying to answer the phone without saying, ‘Well, this is Kelly and there is no such a thing,’” Bell said. “I’d say, ‘just keep calling back to the club and I’m sure they’ll probably be back here sooner or later.’ I didn’t know what else to say. We didn’t have a website. We weren’t a band.
“I had no desire for the Kelly Bell Band. I had my fun with Bo that first night and I thought that was going to be it,” Bell continued.
A month later, the 8×10 booked another blues legend, Bobby “Blue” Bland, at the club.
“He was my music idol and always has been,” Bell said. “Bobby was coming to the 8×10 and the manager came up to me and said, ‘Do you have something you want to say?’ I said, ‘Yeah, if you don’t put me on that 8×10 gig I’m going to kill you.’ Anybody that knows me knows how I feel about Bobby Bland.”
Bell got the gig, again, and the band took off.  
For the next four years, the Kelly Bell Band crisscrossed the East Coast as the first-choice backing band for Bo Diddley. Bell himself developed a friendship with Bobby Bland and his son, Rod, and his group began putting out its own records, earning a reputation as one of the best blues acts in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“My life has been very blessed,” Bell said. “I shook hands with James Brown before I opened for him. I’ve hugged Nelson Mandela. I’ve played with Buddy Guy. It just goes on and on.”
This month the Kelly Bell Band released “Coming Home: Live from the 8×10,” a double-album retrospective tapped at the band’s birthplace.
“That show was crazy,” Bell said. “It started with Sweet Leda, who just put out a new record themselves about a month ago. They’re a fantastic band out of Annapolis and their lead singer, Julie, actually sang on our last record. And then, what I think is probably the most creative and interesting act to ever to come out of Baltimore, which is the All Mighty Senators, played second on stage. And then we came on and did a two-and-a-half hour set and recorded everything.”
“Coming Home” is the band’s 10th album.
“This whole year is really a celebration,” Bell said. “In Berlin, we’re bringing a horn section, we’re bringing harmonies, we’re pulling out all the stops.
“Our show is kind of like a variety show,” Bell continued. “There’s comedy, there’s plenty of visuals and there’s great music, which is essentially rooted in the blues. People ask us all the time what kind of music do you play? We tell them, ‘phat blues music, P-H-A-T.’ And that, simply put, is if you could imagine Muddy Waters wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt riding on Black Sabbath’s tour bus on their way to a Parliament Funkadelic concert listening to a James Brown 8-track tape humming a Run DMC song with a Nighthawks ball cap on all in the glory of Bo Diddley.”
The band is also preparing for another landmark live recording, at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, later this summer.
“We’ve played at Quiet Waters Park 19 years in a row,” Bell said. “We’re the most-requested act there behind the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The park is struggling financially a little bit, so we’re doing something special that we’ve never tried before. We’re doing a live recording at the park, and people can do an advance purchase and all that money is going to go right into the park. It’s been one of our favorite shows every year, and we want to do what we can do to pay the park back.”
To date the band has raised almost $3,000 for the park. For more information on the Quiet Waters project visit