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Emma Kelly a trailblazer for local musicians

August 01, 2017

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Emma Thompson Kelly was born Emma Thompson in 1918 in Leefield, and was a remarkable talent on the piano from a young age. When Emma was just 3 years old, her mother heard her picking out the melody of “Jesus Loves Me” on the piano and began cultivating the child’s talent. 

The story goes that Emma’s father was so fond of his daughter’s music that he would excuse her from chores as long as she was playing piano. So, that she did. She played any time she had the chance.

“My Father said, ‘If anyone asks you to play, you play. Don’t play long, but you play!’” she said.

At 18 years old, she married George R. Kelly and began a family, all the while playing piano every chance she had.

Emma’s skill on the piano, wonderful personality, and willingness to play frequently gave her a level of local fame that few could match. During World War II, that fame spread regionally and nationally as she began playing with the United Service Organization (USO) at Camp Stewart in Hinesville, Georgia. From there, she began playing at other bases throughout the south and, for the first time, earning a living through her music.

Over the next 20 years, Emma became a local legend, not only for her music, but for her family. By 1959, Emma not only had a booming music career that kept her on the go all over the region, she also had become a local legend for a very different reason. If you ask any Statesboro native between the ages of 55 and 85 if they know the Kellys, the answer is probably, “Yes! I went to school with…”

In the midst of a non-stop music career, Emma and George were raising a family of 10 children – The Top Ten.

“She was a liberated woman before that was even a thing,” says oldest son, Ross Kelly. She was working and raising a family and pursuing a career that she loved, all with the support and encouragement of a loving husband who had his own career as a sign painter.

For decades, Emma Kelly made her name for herself and her family from Jacksonville to the Carolinas. Through the USO she had the opportunity to perform for presidents and dignitaries, but her legacy came when she was introduced to Johnny Mercer. Mercer had been told that Emma knew every one of his songs. After some time talking with her he was so astounded by her memory and the number of songs she knew that he dubbed her “The Lady of 6,000 Songs,” a moniker which she carried with her throughout her career.

From there, Emma gained even more fame when her regular performances at the house parties of the Savannah elite landed her in the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,”which was then made into a feature film directed by Clint Eastwood. Emma was originally not slated to be in the film, but her personality and talent won over the director’s heart and he added her into the party scene portraying herself. This opportunity led to tours and performances all over the country, garnering her fans from across the nation.

By the late 1990s she had been performing for over seven decades, bringing more than just music to her fans. She genuinely connected with each person she met. In 1998, that career was honored as she was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

Her legacy in Statesboro continues on, as well. Her name is still in lights as the marquee for the Emma Kelly Theatre shines each night in her honor, announcing theater and music performances and bringing the arts to Statesboro.

There are still stories of musicians who were encouraged to play or given an opportunity to join her band. Many of us are still connected to the family, and now, generations later, music is still an integral part of the legacy she left not only in her own family, but in our community as a whole.

For local musicians, Emma Kelly was a trailblazer. She never gave up. She worked hard to do what had to be done to carry her music to the people. She loved her audiences. She supported other musicians. She raised a family, loved her community, did her job well and, in the end, was recognized for it.

I guess all those things make her a role model for all of us, musicians and others, as well. 


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