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Remembering "Fat Vinny"
February 26, 2009 - Jim Price
“Altoona PA In the middle of the night
Six strings down On the heaven-bound flight
Got a pick, a strap, guitar on his back
Ain’t gonna cut the angels no slack
Heaven done called Another blues-stringer back home
See the voodoo chile Holding out his hand
I’ve been waitin’ on you brother Welcome to the band
Good blues-stringin’ Heaven-fine singin’
Jesus, Mary and Joseph Been lis’nin’ to your playin’
Heaven done called
Another blues-stringer back home
Lord they called
Another blues-stringer back home”
- “Six Strings Down” by Jimmie Vaughan (adaptation by Sterling Koch)
Eric Vincent “Fat Vinny” Kelly passed away early on Saturday morning, February 21, after suffering a heart attack at his home in Duncansville. He was just a few days shy of his 42nd birthday.
Eric was a man of many talents. He was a singer, songwriter, guitarist, radio broadcaster, storyteller, philosopher and friend. He had served in the military, with stints in both the U.S. Army and Air Force. On the music front, he played in various Altoona area blues-based bands and projects over the years; including the Porch Dogs, the Lodge Lizzards, and the project that elevated him into the regional and state spotlight, Fat Vinny & the Wiseguys.
Founded in 1999, and named in deference to Eric’s expansive frame and interest in the popular HBO mob comedy/drama The Sopranos, Fat Vinny & the Wiseguys enjoyed regional popularity and acclaim for the next several years; including recognition in the official Sopranos newsletter “The Skinny,” a third-place finish in the 2000 Pittsburgh Blues Challenge, a performance at the 2002 Johnstown Folkfest, and showcase appearances in the 2001 and 2002 editions of the Millennium Music Conference in Harrisburg. “Fat Vinny’s” robust blues growl and smoking bottleneck slide guitar work defined the group’s signature style and sound, and helped earn the Wiseguys a healthy fan base that spanned from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, and even as far away as St. Louis, Key West, Austin and Louisville. Fat Vinny & the Wiseguys released three full-length CD’s: 1999’s The Blues You Can’t Refuse, 2001’s A Different Kind Of Blues, and 2005’s Tight Play. The group also included two songs on the 2001 Johnstown-based charity compilation CD Rocksbury: Musicians for Kids.
Eric was passionate about the blues, his music, art and beliefs. He was especially passionate about the blues, and constantly yearned to spread the popularity of this musical form to every audience he touched. In Fat Vinny & the Wiseguys, Eric used blues as the launching pad to explore various musical directions, spanning rock, jazz, country and more. His selection of blues-driven remakes in the Wiseguys’ discography reflects this; including Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (off The Blues You Can’t Refuse), Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” (A Different Kind Of Blues), Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (Rocksbury: Musicians for Kids) and AC/DC’s “The Jack” (Tight Play).
Eric was a clever storyteller in his lyrics, and loved to use double-entendre and wit in his words as well. Double-entendre surfaced in the Wiseguys’ body of work, most notably on the tongue-in-cheek “Vet Bill Blues” (based on a true story about a family pet, but worded to suggest something more risqué) and the somber delta blues-flavored “One More Last Trip Down” (the dark mood of the music suggested mortality, but the lyrics were actually about loading out gear after a show). Eric was topical as a lyricist, and even gained notoriety in local news with his 2001 song “Time Was (The Norfolk Southern Song),” a somber and reflective ode to the closure of the Hollidaysburg Car Shops. Eric later reflected his fascination with poker’s growing popularity on the clever and witty “Shuffle Up & Deal,” a song from the Tight Play CD. He also liked to spin stories of bad guys, shady deals, mysteries of the opposite sex, hanging out with his bandmates and more.
After 2005, Fat Vinny & the Wiseguys slowed down their live performance schedule, playing the occasional private party or public event. Eric became involved in local politics, and worked with the Blair County Democratic Party. He stayed involved with music; teaching guitar to students, and playing at coffeehouses from time to time.
It was at a coffeehouse in January where I saw Eric for the last time. It was during Open Mic Night at the newly-opened Commonplace Coffeehouse near Penn State Altoona. I walked in as Eric was performing an acoustic mixture of classic rock, blues and country; he finished his set with the aforementioned “Vet Bill Blues,” to the chuckles of the gathered audience. Moments after Eric’s performance ended, a young woman stepped up to the microphone to recite three poems she had written. It was her first time ever reciting in front of an audience, and although shy and nervous, she did a good job and received a pleasant response. A short while later, during a short intermission between other performers, I overheard Eric chatting with the woman nearby, and offering her encouraging words about not being afraid to pursue her art. That final image of Eric helping an aspiring writer and artist will forever stand out in my memory.
Eric had a heart as big as his frame, and was often first in line to offer his talents to charity concerts and benefit events. He and the Wiseguys were involved with a number of benefits I helped organize over the years, and helped out such organizations as the American Red Cross, the Make A Wish Foundation of Western Pennsylvania, the Blair County Chapter of PA Cleanways and others.
I’ll carry many happy memories of Eric, including his music, friendship, fun times at shows, conversations, late night post-show breakfasts and radio workplace memories. (Eric was “Jack Stone” on Q94 for a few years, and also worked some radio in the Huntingdon area.) He was outgoing, happy, boisterous and proud. He was a personality, and lived his life with zest and enthusiasm. You didn’t forget him once you met him.
“Fat Vinny” will be sorely missed.
Eric "Fat Vinny" Kelly, fronting Fat Vinny & the Wiseguys during a Millennium Music Conference showcase performance at the Gingerbread Man, Mechanicsburg in February 2001.