R.I.P. Kenneth "Wally" Kelly of the Manhattans

(February 18, 2015) In a year that has been filled with sad news for the millions of fans of the singing group The Manhattans, we have another piece: Kenneth "Wally" Kelly, the last surviving founding member of the group, has died. Kelly was there at the beginning of the iconic act and remained a member right through to the end of their hitmaking days in the late '80s. His death follows the December passings of two other original members, Blue Lovett and Sonny Bivins.  Now, only Gerald Alston, the wonderful singer who joined the group in the early 70s and sang lead on their biggest hits, remains from the most popular version of the Manhattans.

(February 18, 2015) In a year that has been filled with sad news for the millions of fans of the singing group The Manhattans, we have another piece: Kenneth "Wally" Kelly, the last surviving founding member of the group, has died. Kelly was there at the beginning of the iconic act and remained a member right through to the end of their hitmaking days in the late '80s. His death follows the December passings of two other original members, Blue Lovett and Sonny Bivins.  Now, only Gerald Alston, the wonderful singer who joined the group in the early 70s and sang lead on their biggest hits, remains from the most popular version of the Manhattans.

Though he was perhaps the least known of the bedrock members of the group, Kelly played an important role as a vital part of an all-time favorite group. Kelly is also notable for how he left the group: walking away from music to become a biology teacher in the public schools in New Jersey. As he told Soul Express a few years ago, “When I joined the group (in 1963), I had a Bachelor’s degree in biology, so I came in already with my degree.  After I left the group, I moved to New Jersey and taught in public school.  After that my mother got sick and I moved to North Carolina in ’90, where she had bought a house five years earlier.  First I was in the school system out there, but after that I made a transition into retail, and I’ve been in retail ever since."

The Manhattans were formed in the early 60s in New Jersey as a quintet led by writer/bass vocalist Winfred "Blue" Lovett and emotive lead singer George Smith, along with Bivins, Richard "Ricky" Taylor and Kelly, all of whom had just returned from service in the armed forces.  The group was popular regionally and had minor national success on the strength of some solid recordings for Carnival Records (their version of the country tune "From Atlanta to Goodbye" was a gem) in the late 60s before gaining the attention of Columbia Records in 1970.  Unfortunately, their Columbia signing coincided with the sudden illness of talented lead singer Smith.  During a tour through North Carolina, the Manhattans came upon a college student with an amazing Sam Cooke-like voice.  Recognizing the incredible talent of this 21 year old, the group invited Gerald Alston to join, and he became the lead singer who would bring stardom to the quintet, with the blessing of Smith, who sadly died just a few months later. 

With Alston's smooth lead vocals, solid songwriting talent within the group and the always wonderful work of Philly producer/arrranger Bobby Martin, the Manhattans began to score on the R&B charts, putting out a string of fairly traditional ballads that became Soul hits.  Then in 1976, the quintet released Lovett's composition "Kiss and Say Goodbye," a song originally written for country star Glen Campbell, but which instead become the group's signature tune.  "Kiss" rocketed to the top of the R&B and Pop charts, and moved the group to the upper tier of R&B acts.  And the companion self-titled LP became the first of several top notch albums that the group released in the 70s.  With such great singles as "It Feels So Good to be Loved So Bad," "I Kinda Miss You," "We Never Danced To A Love Song" and "Am I Losing You," the Manhattans' late 70s albums It Feels So Good, There's No Me Without You and Love Talk, were among the decade's best.  Love Talk was perhaps the Manhattans' greatest disc - though not their most popular - a near-perfect adult Soul album that sounds as great today as it did more than 30 years ago.

After "Kiss and Say Goodbye," the Manhattans spent the remainder of the decade scoring almost exclusively on the R&B charts.  Then in 1980, they again surprised the Pop world, crossing over for a Pop top 10 hit with their loping 1980 ballad, "Shining Star."  The group continued to record through the 80s, hitting on the Soul charts with such hits as "Crazy" and "Honey Honey."  Their last album for Columbia Records was the wonderful but overlooked 1986 disc, Back To Basics, produced in part by Bobby Womack and featuring a young Regina Belle singing background vocals.  Unfortunately, the Manhattans' smooth, adult soul style seemed out of place amid the frenetic, electric funk sounds dominating late 80s music, and they were dropped by Columbia in 1987.

Gerald Alston left the group for a moderately successful solo career in 1988, and was replaced by former Cameo vocalist Roger Harris.  The group's 1989 Sweet Talk album on small Valley Vue Records stiffed, and Lovett left the following year for medical reasons. Kelly left the group to become a high school teacher. With the group's most visible members gone, founding member Sonny Bivins reconstituted the group with Harris and some new members and continued touring, ultimately landing a record deal with Hektoen Records for 1994's Manhattans Now LP.  A number of personnel changes have occurred after that, but the Bivins-led Manhattans continued to perform internationally in multi-act soul music shows for more than two decades.

In 1993 a healthier Blue Lovett wooed Alston back and added David Tyson (brother of the Temptations' Ron Tyson) and Troy May to form a more familiar version of the Manhattans (often billed as "The Manhattans Featuring Gerald Alston and Blue Lovett"), in time for the group's 30th anniversary.  That version of the act toured extensively in multi-group Soul music shows and recorded a very good "Live in South Africa" album in 2000. The group found some of its most loyal fans in South Africa, where much of their public appearances were broadcast on national television.

The Alston-Lovett version of the group, along with and producer Ted Perlman (former musical director for Stephanie Mills), gave soul music fans a wonderful surprise in 2002 with the studio album Even Now.   In 2008 they returned with the beautiful Al Johnson ballad "Men Cry Too," which was originally recorded in the Even Now sessions, as part of a reissued, expanded version of Even Now titled Men Cry Too.  It was a memorable addition to an already strong album and made the reissue a must-find for the group's sizeable fanbase. In February, 2014, the Manhattans were featured on the TV One biography show, Unsung

With Kelly's death, we again look back lovingly at one of the great vocal groups of the 70s and 80s and recall the memorable music that will continue to resonate for years to come. Godspeed, Wally.

By Chris Rizik

 
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