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THE CALL TO THE POST NEARS LAST CALL
The days of horse soldiers defending the plains and shores of faraway lands and those of our own are long gone. The trumpeted song, "Boots and Saddles" would call the cavalry to their mounts when the duty of their post called. A sound still popular today.
It is that classic melody by which Thoroughbred horses have been called to the post ten minutes prior to race time for well over a century. It is the brief "Boots and Saddles" tune and a little bit of jazz that has made bugler Joe Kelly a legend among horse racing fans across the country for over twenty years.
It won't be long however before Kelly's improvisational flare is also gone the way of the cavalry.
After the current Thoroughbred meet concludes at Arlington Park with the separate Breeders' Cup World Championships on Oct. 28, the 62-year-old jazz musician will hang up the four-footed herald trumpet that has become part of him.
"I really don't want to retire, but I've been working seven days a week for too many years," says Kelly in an exhaustive manner. "I need to free up my weekends. My plan is to be totally retired in three years."
Since moving up the ladder from sales rep in 1990 to Regional Manager last year for the Illinois Lottery, and earning a pension from the Chicago Federation of Musicians for starring in his own jazz band for over 30 years, Kelly has enjoyed the best of both worlds, a real job and a fun one. He has also lived a past life that many would envy, and one that we would not.
As an orphan, he joined the ranks of St. Mary's Training School for Boys at age six in 1946. The northwest suburban facility changed its name to Maryville Academy three years later. Seven years after arriving at Maryville, Kelly met a 12-year-old female student there named Maxine. She would later become his wife. He also met his musical destiny there.
"They made us take music classes and by time I was 11, I was on the trumpet," recalls Kelly. "By 13, I was in the Academy Jazz Band."
After four years in the U.S. Air Force Band, Kelly sold insurance and played music on the side, until 1969. At a time when the turbulent 60s were coming to a close, Joe Kelly's Four-Plus-One Band won an audition to play regularly at the once famous Gaslight Lounge at 13 E. Huron St. in downtown Chicago. The live jazz and laid-back dance and dining rooms were still cool then, and so was the little gregarious trumpet player who fronted the band that later grew to six musicians and three female singers. He would become music director at the Gaslight for nearly twenty years.
"Joe was a great entertainer and a great personality on stage," recalls Bill Thayer, longtime Arlington Park official and member of the Gaslight Lounge. "His music and personality kept the Gaslight going. They came to see Joe Kelly."
After a break from one show downtown, Thayer, upon the suggestion of friend Ted Kowolski, asked Kelly if he'd come out to Arlington to call the horses to the post with his trumpet for the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981. Thayer brought Arlington Park owner Joe Joyce to see Kelly play and they signed him up.
"I started the '81 meet there in May, and they told me they wanted me all the time," Kelly states with a humorous shrug. "At $100 a day, six-days-a-week back then, well, I couldn't turn it down. I was out of there by 5 pm and didn't play at the club until 9 pm."
Following one too many late nights after the music gig and long days at the track, Kelly got impatient with the traditional call to the post. So rebelliously he added a long jazzy finish one day in June of 1981. He didn't care if he got fired. He was miserable, tired and just wanted to go home and sleep.
"Thayer called me into his office and said, 'Joyce called asking what the heck was you playing?' " Kelly tells it. "Joyce liked it and so did the crowd. So instead of firing me, they gave me a $25 raise and told me to jazz it up like that a couple times a day."
That is how Kelly's "signature" playing of the call to the post came to be. Since then, he's been entertaining fans with his music and outgoing personality at over 13 tracks throughout the country.
Tom Carey, Jr. hired Kelly to call the horses to the post at Hawthorne in 1986 when they stepped in for Arlington while the big track was rebuilt. Sportsman's Park asked for his services that same year and like Hawthorne, has ever since. He has even performed the past seven years for harness fans on Super Night at Balmoral Park.
How Kelly began a string of 15-straight years calling the horses to the post for The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Maryland is one of those "horse stories."
Pimlico General Manager Chick Lang called Thayer requesting Kelly trumpet the horses to The Preakness for the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, but Kelly says Thayer told him, "you send me two $5,000 claimers and I'll give you Joe!"
That's their story anyway, and they're sticking to it.
"He's the end of another era," says Thayer. "He was the first to ever 'jazz up" the call to the post. Other's have tried to imitate him, but Joe's an original."
Joe Kelly's Jazz Band continued to play the Gaslight in Chicago and during the 80s, The Gaslight in Naples, Florida, and one last year in 1990 at Flanders in the Carlton Hotel in Oak Park before leaving the nightclub scene behind, for good.
What music and horse racing lovers in the crowd always saw in Kelly was the upbeat, positive fun-loving performer, whose sincere chatter with fans from every stage was part of the scenery. Without him putting smiles on a fan who lost a close one, or a jockey who worked a long one, the scenery would be a less creative one.
He talked to everyone about nearly everything. However, there were some things he didn't talk much about.
In between the fun gigs, and after taking off the long bright red hunting coat and black leather riding boots at the track, or after packing away the trumpet and turning the lights off at the club for another night, there was a challenging home life to deal with.
He seems at peace, and in a sense grateful, when describing how for the past 30 of 41 years of marriage, Maxine has suffered from MS. That his 39-year-old mentally retarded son James still lives with them at their Lombard home. That his son Robert was only 35 years old when he passed away, and that his third son Michael lives in Florida and he doesn't get to see him or his grandson enough.
"I used the time in the band as a relief from my personal family issues," Kelly admitted. "My work helped stabilize me and kept me sane. When I was on stage playing music or performing at the track, I could forget about the tragic things in my life. For that short period of time each day I didn't have to worry about what I couldn't control. It was a break for me. Then I got home and I dealt with those issues."
Hope shines in his eyes and across his smile when he tells how Maxine has reversed the typical MS patient trend, going from being bedridden to a wheelchair to a walker, instead of the other way around.
He accepts the past and present status of his sons James and Robert. And his computer-geek son Michael is recording CDs of his dad's jazz music to make available to fans on a soon-to-be dot-com website, joekellyjazz.com. Back at "his office" in between races, the apron bar behind the winners circle, Joe Kelly talks about other important issues.
He still enjoys "giving something back" by playing at the annual Chuck Wagon Benefit at Maryville Academy the past 13 years. He still loves big band, blues and jazz music, and how much the fans, the horsemen and track employees mean to him. He thinks the younger aggressive management of the tracks today will help the sport and how slots and bigger fields need to be part of horse racing's future. He looks forward to moving to Florida with his entire family someday and "playing a whole lotta golf."
That's his style. Always positive. Always hopeful. Always with a
jazzy spin to the world's beat. Always Joe Kelly.
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