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By Kyra Scrimgeour
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By A.H. Goldstein
So you think you have a stressful career? Consider Kelly, who makes his living under his given name as a senior attorney in the legal-affairs department of Qwest, a Colorado telecom that's spent more than a year making the wrong kind of headlines. The guy who said there's no such thing as bad publicity apparently didn't read the articles published this week about former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio and the allegedly hinky business practices and accounting techniques employed at the firm. The negative buzz that resulted may not have reached Enron volume, but it definitely wasn't good for business.
"The company's been going through some tough times," Kelly allows, understating the situation substantially. "It's been a wild ride."
Obviously, Kelly, 48, could use an outlet to get his mind off such matters -- and fortunately, he's got two. Better yet, these diversions could hardly have less to do with his day job. He not only works as a weekend disc jockey for Jammin', an R&B/soul station at 92.5 FM, under the moniker Kelly Randall, but he also records ambient music with a spacey edge as Kelly David. His first CD, Broken Voyage, issued on Kelly's own Rocky Mountain Records imprint, has been on the New Age Voice magazine Top 100 Airwaves chart since May, and recently received a gushing rave on the influential All Music Guide Web site (www.allmusic.com). According to AMG reviewer Jim Brenholts, "Kelly David's Broken Voyage is one of the best debut albums -- regardless of genre -- ever. In ambient-music circles, it is clearly among the Top 10 debuts of all time."
Terms like "ambient" and "new age" imply that Kelly's music is somnolent -- the sort of stuff that's only good for sedating brains overwhelmed with anxieties spawned by professions like his. Fortunately, that's not the case: The songs on Broken Voyage are sweeping, dark and often challenging soundscapes that reward active listening. But Kelly has no problem with those who feel differently.
"If you go to sleep by my music, I take it as a compliment, not an insult," he says. "I'm lapping at the edge of consciousness and trying to reach those zones you're in when you're half awake and half asleep."
Dualities like this one are recurring features in Kelly's life -- appropriate for someone who, as he puts it, "was born and raised in Washington, D.C., a white kid in George Clinton's 'chocolate city.'" His parents were classical-music buffs ("My Saturdays as a kid were tied into the broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera"), and he grew to love this style as much as they did. But his fondness for the great composers, whose works he learned to play on piano and French horn, was paralleled by a burgeoning interest in the pop music he heard on the radio. "My mother accuses me of practicing to be a DJ when I was ten, with my 45s," he says. Kelly subsequently got into prog rock, a form seemingly made for him: "When Emerson, Lake and Palmer hit, I remember it being a huge time for me. Reading stories about Keith Emerson traveling with his Moog synthesizer and all the technicians he had to have with him, I had an 'Oh, wow' reaction."
By his mid-teens, Kelly's own music was beginning to elicit that response in others. "I remember going up to the drama teacher at my high school and saying, 'I can write music for your next play,'" he says. "It was Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and I wrote the scariest music I could think of. I have a recording of it, from the fall of 1970, and you can hear Stravinski, Wagner, plus Bernard Herrmann and TV music." He laughs. "I ripped off everything I was listening to."
Upon his graduation from high school, Kelly enrolled at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. The experience proved to be formative, but not in quite the way he'd anticipated. "When I got there, I freaked out, because all the players were so good. And I found out that the school really frowned on external influences like jazz and rock and electronic music. I did a musique concrète piece with tape loops for my sophomore-year recital and got booed off the stage. That told me I was on the right track."
Kelly eventually dropped out, but not before signing up at the campus radio station and discovering that he had a passion for deejaying. He landed a part-time job at WEBN, the first station owned by Jacor, a Cincinnati-area company that grew into a nationwide radio leviathan. (It was later subsumed by an even larger concern, Clear Channel.) From there, he moved to an album-rock station in Louisville, Kentucky, beginning a seventeen-year odyssey that took him to a slew of major markets -- Boston, New York, Pittsburgh and Dallas among them. Along the way, Kelly decided to go back to school, earning an undergraduate degree in political science at the University of Hawaii during a stretch in Honolulu. Shortly thereafter, he and his radio partner, Dan Cooke, relocated in Philadelphia and stayed for eight years -- long enough for Kelly to graduate from Temple University law school.