Today we remember James "Pig Fats" Kelly, one of the most influential blues singers of the latter half of the twentieth century.
Mr. Kelly, of course, was one of the most recognized voices out of Alabama, that, admittedly, being a pretty small group. His nickname, "Pig Fats" or "Pigs," was often said to come from the fact that his family was so poor they could only afford to buy pig's fat from the butcher, which his mother would serve on brioche or scones. The story was disputed later by his cousin, Archibald "Twinkle Toes" Kelly, who said that "he got yclept 'Pig Fats' because he weighed three hundred pounds by his senior year in high school."
Either way, "Pig Fats" was unquestionably a powerful and influential blues singer, who played in clubs all over the south and eventually throughout the north, except in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (The citizens of Wilkes-Barre just told him, "Please, keep rambling through. Thanks.") His many blues songs were renowned for their depth of feeling. Numbers like "Morbid, Morose Monday," "Life Is Horrible," "Everything Is Miserable," "Agony Is My Friend," "I Wish I Was Dead," "I'm Going to Hang Myself with the Extension Cord," "My Head Is in the Oven," and "Moribundt Cake" quickly established his reputation. During a show in San Diego he once made SEAL Team Two leave a jazz club in tears.
"Pig Fats" recorded two albums in those early days, Can't Get Up and My World Is Hell, and things were really beginning to come together for him. Sadly, though, like so many blues artists, Mr. Kelly had his Achilles' heel, a substance that threatened his career and changed the course of his life. This, for "Pig Fats," was the turning point.
On the advice of a physician, Mr. Kelly began taking a regimen of antidepressants. It very quickly had a thunderous effect on his music and his career.
"Pig Fats" began to perform his standards less often in shows, and introduced new material such as "I Think the Sun Came Out" and "Things Don't Suck as Much." His fans, who had come to expect something quite different, reacted poorly. When playing "I Feel Pretty Good Today" in Chicago he was chased into the streets. His record label, Terri-Billy, reluctantly released his third album, Rainbows and Butterflies, which cratered.
It's a sad and often told tale, how substances can ruin a man, and this was to be the end of "Pig Fats" Kelly's short but brilliant blues career. By 2005 he had changed his moniker to "Polyunsaturated Fats" Kelly, taken up yoga, and moved to California, where he found occasional work writing commercial jingles and background music for preschoolers' cartoons. It was an awful end to a promising talent.
His fans still play those two first incredible albums, and weep, thinking of what might have been, if he had just kept away from the pills.