Kansas City has come to consider herself somewhat of a Jazz Capitol in recent years. While it is true that great performers played here and even developed a regional “style” of Jazz, Kansas City’s musical roots go much farther back.
Even before the turn of the century, Kansas City was a well-established musical market. On Walnut and 8th Streets in Kansas City were located two regional giants of music publishing, the Carl Hoffman Music Co. and J.W. Jenkins Son’s Music Company. Both competed fiercely for business and were always on the lookout for the latest trends in popular music. And the music that was sweeping the nation at that time was Ragtime.
Ragtime’s greatest composers hailed from what is today known as the “Cradle of Ragtime,” an area roughly bounded by Joplin on the south, Columbia to the east, St. Joseph to the north and Lawrence, Kansas to the west. Kansas City, being the largest market in the area, and being located in the center of the “cradle,” drew some of the area’s top composers. Scott Joplin’s first published Rag, “Original Rags,” was published by Carl Hoffman in 1899.
Carl Hoffman employed three young men to help arrange compositions and demonstrate tunes for customers. They were, Charles N. Daniels, Charles L. Johnson, and E. Harry Kelly. All three ambitious men would compose national hits and go on to bigger and brighter careers, but the first to do so in Ragtime was E. Harry Kelly.
Edward Henry Kelly (Henry was his given name) was born on July 11, 1879, in the living quarters of his parents’ hotel and saloon at 1300 West 9th Street in the West Bottoms of Kansas City. His father, Ed Kelly, was an Irish immigrant who settled in Kansas City soon after the Civil War. He bought the Mechanic’s Hotel in the late 1860s and began a brief career in Kansas City politics, serving as Alderman through the mid 1870s. Edward Henry was the first of three children born to the Kellys, and their parents saw to it that each child had a well-rounded education including the finer arts, namely music.
E. Harry Kelly (he preferred Harry) began piano lessons at an early age, and took to it easily. In 1890, the family moved out of the Mechanic’s Hotel and into a small but cozy Queen Anne cottage at 14th and Park in Kansas City. Harry later graduated from St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s, Kansas and began his musical career at Carl Hoffman’s.
It was while Harry was working at Carl Hoffman’s that he composed a Folk Rag called “Peaceful Henry.” A “slow drag” in the dance terminology of the day, Peaceful Henry was reportedly written for the black janitor at Carl Hoffman’s Music Co. The tune became the first nation-wide Ragtime hit to come out of Kansas City. It was also the first Ragtime tune to be recorded, first by noted banjo player Vess L. Ossman in 1902, and the Columbia Orchestra on cylinder records for the Columbia Recording Co., then by the Edison Military Band for Edison Records in 1903. It was also recorded for no less than five British record labels and reproduced on piano rolls for the Universal Company. The piece was sold to the Whitney-Warner Music Co. of New York and remade into a song that enjoyed similar popularity. At the young age of 22, E. Harry Kelly had made a huge splash in the world of popular music.
So, what do you do when you hit a home run your first time at bat? Try again! Having a personal affinity for band music and marches, Kelly wrote “None But The Brave” in 1902, also published by Carl Hoffman, followed by “Georgia Echoes,” another national hit called “Southern Smiles,” and “Gallant Hearts,” all in 1903. He wrote a few vaudeville songs with Seymore Rice during this time, and by 1906, had joined with local bandleader Jack Riley to form Kelly’s Band and Orchestra. Kelly’s Band played at parades, fairs and political rallies, while his orchestra was booked for formal events at the best hotels and clubs in Kansas City. He played everywhere from Electric Park to the Baltimore Hotel for the next 16 years.
Unlike other popular musical composers and performers that got their start in Kansas City, E. Harry Kelly never left his home town for greener pastures. After becoming a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, Kelly moved from his parents house to the Elks home at 7th and Grand in Kansas City.
E. Harry Kelly continued to write music that people wanted to hear. Popular Vaudeville songs like “Miss Dinah Green,” “I Want Somebody To Love,” and “I’m So Sleepy,” were written alongside Rags and Marches such as “All The Candy,” and “Be Careful Mary.” Kelly started his own music publishing company in 1910, publishing pieces for soon-to-be-famous composers Lucien Denni, Ted Quadlander and Joe Bren, as well as other composers he had been friends with for years.
Kelly’s last known composition is “America, Ireland Loves You” written for the troops of World War One in 1917. Kelly then directed the 50 piece orchestra that played at the new Convention Hall to welcome the troops home from the war that same year. His band and orchestra continued playing the top spots in Kansas City through 1922, when Kelly retired from the hectic life of a musical performer. He continued to write pieces for friends, but nothing has been found to date published by him after this time.
In 1932, Harry was hospitalized for chronic emphysema. He met Agnes Glaab, who was working as a nurse at the hospital, and they were soon married at St. Aloysious Church in Northeast Kansas City. Harry moved in with Agnes at 538 Highland in a house owned by the Northeast Hospital Association and used as living quarters for nurses and staff of the surrounding hospitals. Harry became the caretaker of the facility.
Agnes and Harry retired from hospital work in 1944 and moved into the house at 407 Benton Blvd. left to Harry by his late father. Here they lived quietly, attending church up the street and visiting with family and friends. Harry died in the home on April 17, 1955 of chronic kidney disease and is buried in Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery in Kansas City. The head of his tombstone is inscribed with the words “RAGTIME COMPOSER.”
Today, the music of E. Harry Kelly is still played around the world at Ragtime concerts, contests and festivals, by single pianists, full orchestras and everything in between. The house at 407 Benton Boulevard stands as the only surviving building associated with E. Harry Kelly’s life, and as such, has been formally designated as a Kansas City Landmark by the City of Kansas City. Ragtime performers from around the country and as far away as Sweden have visited and performed in the former home of E. Harry Kelly.