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Cleveland performer Reggie Kelly remembered for his many talents

Evelyn Wright (left) remembers her friend Reggie Kelly as a consummate entertainer with a love for the Great American Songbook. Kelly passed away Sunday.
Reggie Kelly
Evelyn Wright (left) remembers her friend Reggie Kelly as a consummate entertainer with a love for the Great American Songbook. Kelly passed away Sunday.

Reggie Kelly, award-winning choreographer, dancer and singer, has passed away. He was 62. The news was posted by friends late Sunday on social media, and confirmed by Bryan Kennard, director of the Bop Stop. Kelly was slated to perform there on Dec. 21.

“He was a consummate entertainer,” Kennard said. “He was someone who was definitely there to entertain and give life to a performance. He had a nice following.”

Kennard said the December 21 date could shift to being a memorial concert.

Gabe Pollack, director of performing arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art, had been discussing a possible appearance at the museum for Kelly.

“What stands out is that he was one of those guys who knows what he wants,” Pollack said. “He would go above and beyond to make sure his show was special. Besides being a perfectionist on the bandstand, he would bring extra lighting and rugs for the stage to set up a specific vibe for his show.”

Kelly’s friend, Cleveland jazz vocalist Evelyn Wright, said she was still in shock over the loss on Tuesday morning.

"He would come around the clubs with me because he started to engage with the jazz world," she said. "He would sit in with me... we exchanged a lot of songs."

Wright was nurturing Kelly’s love of the Great American Songbook in recent years as he transitioned away from acting. The duo performed together several times. She also recalled his work with young people at summer theater workshops – something memorialized online in several social media posts.

Karamu House also remembered him in a post on Monday, writing, “Whether he was performing a Holiday concert at Bop Stop, Directing Black Nativity or Blues in the Night at Karamu, or performing in Five Guys Named Moe, he is well beloved and will be remembered and missed. We gained an ancestor.”

Kelly’s career included performances with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, Black Theatre Troupe in Phoenix, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota, the Paul Robeson Theatre in Buffalo, Florida A&M and Howard University.

In 2000, he directed and starred in the well-received musical “Spunk” at Karamu. Based on the fables of Harlem Renaissance folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, the production included Dennis Chandler in the role of Guitar Man.

“It was all about getting people to put their hearts and soul into it,” he said. “You could feel the love and that was what was so special about all of it.”

Chandler and Kelly were interviewed by Ideastream’s Dee Perry in 2000 on “Around Noon” about the play.

Dee Perry interviews Reggie Kelly, Dennis Chandler, Joyce Meadows (2000)

“He was not just a triple threat, he was a quadruple threat,” Chandler said. “Being able to dance, sing and act, that's only part of it. But he was a leader. He could bring you to a level that you had no idea that you could achieve.”

Chandler’s wife, Liz, broke down when learning of Kelly’s passing, and said the couple had been planning to have him over during the holidays to see Dennis’ model trains. Liz recalled Kelly as a “bundle of talent.”

“I watched him rehearse,” she said. “The energy, the vibes, the feng shui, the vibrations - I don't think anyone will ever be able top that.”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.