Red Kelly, Seattle-area bandleader and gag politician, dead at 76

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TACOMA - Thomas "Red" Kelly, a well-traveled jazz bassist who scored a direct hit on the funnybone of Washington state politics with a mock campaign for governor, is dead at 76.

Kelly, who played with stars ranging from Frank Sinatra to Charlie "Yardbird" Parker and Billie Holiday and had stories about them all, died Wednesday, apparently of complications from cancer and other ailments, friends and relatives said.

"He burned the candles at every possible end and had a good time," trumpet player Lance Buller said. "He had a sparkle in his eye. He was very supportive. He lived life to its fullest. It almost seemed like he had nine lives."

Kelly made his biggest offstage stir by accident in 1976, when he owned and performed at the Tumwater Conservatory, an Olympia-area watering hole frequented by state legislators, lobbyists and reporters.

One night Kelly was joking with a group at the bar after closing time about running for office and was overheard by John White, state Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press.

White's report the next day struck a nationwide chord. Interviewed on national television, Kelly was off and running with the OWL party, based on the combined slogans of "Out With Logic" and "On With Lunacy."

"I went to sleep a drunken musician and woke up a drunken gubernatorial candidate," Kelly told Seattle Magazine in 1998.

Joining him on the ticket, outfitted with new nicknames, were such associates as "Fast" Lucy Griswold, his mother-in-law, who ran for secretary of state on a promise to learn how to take shorthand, and Don "Earthquake" Ober, a fellow musician running for commissioner of public lands on a pledge to "go forth and gently commission the land."

Part of Kelly's statement in the official voters pamphlet read, "It is apparent that unemployment isn't working but ... inflation is. I feel we have done a good job of getting inflation off of dead center and back on the move again."

That November he got 8 percent of the vote.

Born in Shelby, Mont., Kelly grew up in Seattle and spent three decades on the road with Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Harry James, Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington and many others.

Their pictures filled the walls of the series of clubs he owned as places to perform and tell off-color jokes. For each, Kelly had a story.

Some celebrities, such as Bennett, dropped by unannounced when they were performing in the area.

In an interview with The News Tribune shortly before his last club, Kellys, closed in September after a 17-year run, he told how Parker once stole a police officer's horse and rode it into a tavern, igniting such gales of laughter that even the officer didn't get angry.

He claimed Count Basie died owing him $3 dollars on a World Series bet in 1959 and described actress Betty Grable as "a good pal" who "just liked the dirtiest jokes."

Slowed by illness, Kelly switched from the upright bass to a lighter electric instrument and continued to play until close to his death. By Memorial Day weekend he was so sick that friends had to fill his slot in the Tacoma Jazz Festival.

Funeral arrangements were pending. A tribute will be assembled this week from the hundreds of photographs, recordings, instruments and other memorabilia Kelly donated to the Tacoma Public Library last fall, spokesman David Domkoski said.