In 1940 the Kelly family moved to the little Suburb on Moratuwa. Dad started school at the Convent of Our Lady Victories in 1941 and started in show-biz almost immediately when, at the age of five, he sang his first solo on-stage for the Convent’s annual concert. When he was ten, he met a young Wally Bastiensz. The original “King of Baila” taught Dad the art of singing baila. Again on-stage, Dad won professional baila competitions singing mostly “Kunuharupa”. This made him the first “Burgher Baila-Belter”, if you like. Although he hadn’t a clue as to what he was actually singing about, he loved seeing his audiences enjoy what he was doing. This was when he decided he wanted to become an entertainer. Money was always secondary. Entertaining audiences and hearing them applaud was much more important to him.
At Bambalapitiya, Dad went to St. Peter’s College and immediately joined the Music, Art and Drama Society under Fr. Noel Cruz. He continued with both singing and acting in various roles and tought himself to play the ukulele. He started his own Christmas-Carol Party at Lorensz Road where he met the first love of his life, Maureen (Neliya) Hingert. It was now 1950.
When an English circus troupe came to Ceylon under contract to Donavan Andree, Dad decided to leave school and run away from home to join the curcus. By this time he had learned to play the acoustic guitar. He played and sanf with the show that The Jenkins and Schuberts Circus Troupe called the “Continenral Non-Stop Revue”. They played all around the island for nearly 5 months, 3 separate shows, 7 days a week, 2 hours at a time, featuring music, magic, comedy and general circus acts non-stop and he enjoyed every single minute of it. The circus was the ultimate in show-biz for him. When they were about to leave Ceylon, Fred and Edna Jenkins wanted to adopt him as, sadly their eldest son had passed away in India en route to Colombo. Dad would have loved to have gone around the world with his new circus family but his mother refused point-blank to sign-over her eldest son to anyone.
Being held back from joining the circus, Dad went to work part-time for Donavan Andree who was, my Dad says, “Undoubtedly, the biggest and the best showman Ceylon ever had and will ever have”. Dad was the first professional entertainer to work for the great man. Dad had many firsts up to this point and at the age of 16 this was yet another.
Upon looking back, Dad knew his mom had made the right decision in not to letting her son leave Ceylon while still so young. She didn’t know it, but while he was touring with the circus he had money stolen from him at knife-point and got bashed up very badly twice. Once in an all-out brawl with some Sinhala thugs and again when he lost his way when heading back to the circus venue shortly after midnight. He walked into a small village cemetery and was mistaken for a ghost. He almost have the villager who thought he had done this on purpose, almost bashed him to death. What they didn’t know was that he was just as scared as their friend was and even more so when he woke up the following morning from the “bashing semi-coma”to find himself reclining on somebody’s grave mound. And here was another first for Dad. For the first time, he found himself wishing he was back in the safety of his home in Lorensz Road.
Now (safely) back at Lorensz Road. He had no full-time job but nevertheless, had plenty of girlfriends simply because he played a mean guitar. Then one of Ceylon’s radio greats, Vernon Corea, took him under his wing and tought him how to handle the radio. Dad became the first radio entertainer to be featured on a show called “Spotlight”. Once interview created so much publicity that he ended up with a fan-club of around 250 people, mostly women. Even after he was married, much to the consternation of his new wife, he got marriage proposals from women he hadn’t even met. Had he decided to become a bigamist instead of an entertainer, he could have possibly become one of the biggest land-holders in the country. The dowry on offer was acres of prime land and many such dowries were his for the taking. Although, there was one big problem. His talend was singing, a cultivator he was not. Even today, he cannot make a weed grow.
During 1953, there was hardly a week that passed when Dad was not featured on radio and doing various floor and stage shows for Donavan, and there wasn’t a night-club or hotel worthy of their name where he didn’t feature in a show. He sang everything: baila, ballads, calypso, country, latin. You name it, he sang it. And the reason he was so popular? He knew what people wanted and sang what they wanted to head. A natural performer and entertainer, he knew how to engage his audience with music and make them want to sing and dance. Always a professional, he respected that when people paid to see him, they were entitled to his best performance, or else he would not expect to be back for an encore or a second chance.
Dad always appreciated the help and backing of Donavan. He helped many artists get started at the time, including Bill Forbes and Cliff Foenander, who also did very well. They did their best wok overseas. Bill went to England and became a star with Columbia Records, while Cliff went to places such as Singapore where he teamed up with the “Fabulous Echoes”, ultimately took the U.S.A. by storm and featured on the Ed Sullivan Show on TV. There wasn’t an artist of any repute from Ceylon, in the 50’s especially, that did not have Donavan’s help.
Des stayed-put in Ceylon. He continued to work part-time for Donavan but also began a regular job early in 1954 at the age of 18 when he joined the Royal Ceylon Navy as a Supply Assistant. This was where he started smoking the old “Peacock” cigarettes and began drinking heavily, to the point where he was too drunk to feel the dozen of needles being used to tattoo both his upper arms while his Navy buddies looked on in morbid delight.
Where Dad has Donavan’s help on the outside, in the Navy it was Rear Admiral Royce de Mel who backed him. The Rear Admiral was very proud of the “Singing Sailor”, as he called him, and gave him every assistance to further his musical career while also serving the Senior Service with integrity.
By now Dad had become a household name. He was easily identified as he was rarely seen without an old acoustic guitar slung across his back and there was hardly a concert stages in Ceylon that did not feature his name in their program. It was around this time that, without any musical theory whatsoever, he began to write his own songs. He then wrote Dream-World (for Neliya), wrote a song called “Celonia” for his musician friend, Melroy de Zilva, a song for a girl named Aloma, and other songs inspired by the numerous girls he had met. It was also around this time, while still in the Navy, he met the girl of his dreams. Her name was Cynthia (Mom). He married her in 1956 and she immediately claimer Dream-World for her own.
Dad wrote lyrics and music to many songs but it was Dream-World, recorded in 1957 together with his singing group “The Semi-Tones” which included his brother, Rogan Kelly, Charley Schokman, Conrad de Silva, and produced by his friend, Chris Greet (of Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon), that became a perennial favourite both in Sri Lanka and abroad. Another first, Dream-World was the only English original composition to be accepted by Philips in Holland from a selection of many others submitted from Ceylon at the time. The single, with “Cha Cha Baby” on the flip side, sold thousands of copies before it had even arrived in Ceylon. Once there, it went straight into the “hit Parade” and topped the charts inside of one month. It stayed at the top for three months relegating Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” to number 2 for that whole period of time. From Ceylon, Dream-World went into the Indian “Binaka Hit-Parade” and reached the top in India also.
From 1936-1962, Dad had a very brief but extremely full young lifetime of 26 years in what he calls his “Lovely Island Home”. In 1962 Dad left the Royal Ceylon Navy and he and Mom migrated to Melbourne Australia with his young family, my brothers, Micheal and Douglas. Not long after arriving, they did “the right thing” by the new country and increased the population by two, having myself and finally my younger brother Warren. We hear that for all the years since he left the country, Dream-World is still requested and played-on-air in Sri Lanka.
In Australia, he took on acting roles in several Crawford Production dramas, including “Homicide” and “Hunter”; secured a part-time job as an Assistant Entertainment Manager for the huge Federal Hotel Group in Melbourne, for whom he organized and ran the biggest talend quest at the time called “Search for a star”; and managed several bands and other entertainers while still doing the odd floorshow himself at top nightclubs.
He recorded “Folk-Songs of Ceylon” for the Creast label and taught “The Midnight Five” to sing in Sinhala, making them the first and only Australian group to do so (the Sri Lankans loved it). He won a television competition with a song about road-safety (another original composition), wrote the lyrics and music of more than a hundred songs and recorded many CD’s. For many years in addition to all this, Dad ran his own Security Company (D.K. Security). Today he still plays keyboards and records various songs at his home and is now also considered an international journalist as articles written by him are accepted and have been published in America, England, Canada and, of course, Australia where, currently, he is the editor of Lanka Times.
Dad has lived two more “full lifetimes” in Australia and is looking forward to celebrate his 80th birthday in 2016. Although he cannot move around as well as he used to (due to a spinal problem), he plans to retire, but only when they “carry him out”.
There is one more important accomplishment Dad can add to his list. He has always been and is still a wonderful father. He provided well for his family, protected us fearlessly and has been an outstanding role-model and guide in our lives. My brothers and I are very proud of him and feel truly blessed to have him.
BY MICHELLE KELLY