The man who turned his musical children into recording sensations


DAN KELLY: Dan Kelly's death was front-page news for Bild, Germany's equivalent of the Sun. The Irish-American immigrant, who died on August 6th, turned his musical children into The Kelly Family, a ragamuffin band that crossed The Osmonds with the Von Trapp Family Singers and sold 15 million records world-wide.

He was born Daniel Jerome Kelly in Erie, Michigan in 1930, the son of two Irish emigrants.

After studying mathematics and philosophy he became a schoolteacher, but left his job at the end of the 1950s.

It was while travelling the US that he met Barbara-Ann, a ballet-teacher also of Irish parentage. The couple married and their first child, Danny, was born mentally disabled in 1961. Three other children followed in the next four years and in 1966 the rapidly-growing Kelly family moved to Spain.

Here they settled in Toledo, where Dan Kelly, wary of the Spanish educational system, taught the children everything from reading to music himself. When not teaching his children he earned a living as an antiques dealer.

Three more children were born by 1972, and the family moved to Pamplona and opened an Irish pub.

The Kelly Family band was founded in 1974 with the eight Kelly children singing and playing the guitar, accordion and fiddle, lead by "Papa Dan".

The group performed at local festivals and in 1975 for the first time on Spanish television, followed by a tour across Spain.

After the tour was over, Dan Kelly bought a double-decker bus and took his family on a tour of the big European cities, earning their keep as street musicians.

The first breakthrough for the family came in Rome. While Dan Kelly and the family were on a sightseeing tour of the city, thieves broke into their bus and stole everything the family owned except their musical instruments. According to family's official biography, the destitute family started to perform on the streets.

"Our money bag kept getting more full," wrote Dan Kelly later. "At the end of the day, I said to the children: 'Kids, our life has changed!'"

With replenished finances, the family continued on their tour, taking in Austria, the Netherlands and Ireland, with a little-remembered turn on the Late Late Show.

In 1979, Dan Kelly managed to get his children on German television and shortly after the appearance, he signed the Kelly Family's first recording contract.

The family had its first number one hit in the Netherlands and Belgium in 1980 with Who'll Come With Me. But Dan Kelly's long dreamed-of success was overshadowed when his wife Barbara was diagnosed with cancer in 1981, the same year as their 12th and final child, Angelo, was born. Barbara died a year later aged 42.

According to Dan Kelly, her last words to her family were: "Keep on singing." He made sure the family kept the promise, touring Europe and the US.

Dan Kelly suffered the first of many strokes in 1990 which left him crippled on his left side and his declining health in the following years contrasted with the rising fortunes of his children.

By the mid-1990s, the Kelly Family were filling stadiums across Europe, at one point performing in front of 250,000 screaming fans in Vienna. Their 1994 album Over the Hump was a runaway success, selling over 4.5 million copies in Europe and even went platinum in Ireland.

Though now confined to the wings, Dan Kelly kept his children on a tight rein. He left his children to do the interviews but drummed into them the maxim: "We will always keep independent of the structures of the modern entertainment industry." He had the commercial nous to found his own record label, Kel-Life, in the early years, ensuring the family kept a larger slice of the record revenue pie than is usual with musical artists.

By the 1990s, the Kelly Family had become a huge enterprise with over 50 employees. Despite Dan Kelly's determination, his children have yet to make it into the big-time in the English-speaking world. A spokesman for EMI, their record distributor, admitted the Kelly Family was a very specific taste. "The type of people who buy Kelly Family records don't read critics," he said. Nevertheless the band has sold over 15 million records, earning them 48 platinum discs, and two million videos.

The Kelly Family's swelling finances soon attracted the attention of German tax officials and in 1996 after they were accused of raising over €150,000 at concerts for AIDS research and keeping it for themselves.

The money was controlled by the Dan Kelly Foundation, which investigators discovered wasn't a registered charitable foundation. The German AIDS Trust (DAH) attacked Dan Kelly in public for "lack of transparency" in what happened to the money."We find it irresponsible that this money has not been used for its intended purpose," the DAH said at the time.

The Kellys said in a statement that they had been "too overworked" to forward the money, but they rapidly did so after the scandal broke.

Their image suffered further after German tax authorities launched an investigation into alleged tax evasion.

Dan Kelly suffered a second stroke in 1999, and last December doctors discovered brain haemorrhaging which left him wheelchair-bound and unable to speak.

His few public appearances in recent years showed a shaken old man with a wild white beard that made him look more like an ancient druid than a showbusiness Svengali.

Dan Kelly is survived by 11 children.

Daniel Jerome Kelly: born 1930; died, August 2002