Not to be confused with trumpeter Joe "Red" Kelly, this noted jazz bassist was born Thomas Raymond Kelly in Shelby, MT, on August 29, 1927. He battled polio as a toddler, and while his first instrument was the drums -- he played with a fife-and-drum band organized at the St. Thomas Orphanage in nearby Great Falls -- his childhood affliction left him unable to control the hi-hat cymbal with his foot, prompting a switch to the bass.
Already a professional musician by the age of 16, Kelly dropped out of high school and relocated to Seattle; he spent much of his professional life on the road and eventually ended up in New York City, where in the years to follow he played alongside the likes of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Barnet, Jimmy Dorsey, and Les Brown. In 1952 Kelly joined clarinetist Woody Herman, remaining with his group until mid-1955; from 1957 to 1959 he also served behind pianist Stan Kenton, and spent much of the '60s touring behind Harry James.
While on the road with James, Kelly befriended drummer Buddy Rich, who remained a close friend and occasional collaborator in the decades to follow. In 1976 Kelly mounted a tongue-in-cheek campaign for the seat of Washington's state governor, forming the Owl ("Out With Logic, On With Lunacy") party and running under the slogan "Unemployment Is Not Working." (He came in third in the voting.) In 1986 Kelly retired from performing and opened his own Tacoma jazz club, Kelly's; he was inducted into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 2000 and died June 9, 2004.