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The Unlikely Musical Life of Tom Kelly

You may not know the name Tom Kelly, but I guarantee that you've sung along to songs he wrote. 

Born in West Lafayette, Indiana in 1952, Tom moved to Effingham, Illinois when he was 11 years old, just in time to witness the Beatles' debut on Ed Sullivan. Bit by the rock music bug, he joined a local band called the Trifaris, singing and playing bass. His family moved back to Indiana in '66. When Tom finished high school, he decided to go to college in Illinois, but his choice was made based on extracurricular factors, not academic ones. "I started at Eastern [Illinois University] because there was a band,” he told the Effingham Daily News in 2011, “Then I transferred to Southern [Illinois University] because there was another band.” 

Champaign, Illinois 
Continuing his college hopping, Tom headed closer to home to attend Purdue, and there he had a group called The Gaping Huggers, comprised of former fellow Trifari JC Marshall on drums, and University of Illinois student Doug Livingston on guitar. The band played gigs at Purdue and all over southern and central Illinois as part of a scene that was thriving in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The unlikely center of this scene was Champaign, Illinois, where artists like Dan Fogelberg and REO Speedwagon were at the very beginning of their eventual respective rises to stardom.

Kelly dropped out of Purdue to join a band that often played with REO, The One Eyed Jacks. In fact, when they fired their second singer, REO poached Mike Murphy from the Jacks. Tom Kelly went on to be in The Guild along with players such as Denny Hanson and brothers Jim and Rich Lang. The band eventually took on a young singer and keyboardist, Michael McDonald (yes, that Michael McDonald) who had been introduced to them by former REO guitarist (and Dan Fogelberg’s housemate), Steve Scorfina. Scorfina and the McDonald, had been childhood friends in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Los Angeles and Fools Gold
The Guild had management and a recording contract, but in by 1974 the Champaign music scene was turning over. Fogelberg and REO had decamped to Los Angeles to find their fortunes, and Kelly decided to follow with his wife and two young children in tow. He had an offer of $350 per week to be in Fogelberg's backing band, something that was nearly derailed by a chance to make five times that much with the Beach Boys. Amazingly, manager Irving Azoff convinced Kelly to choose the less lucrative path.

He'd play with Fogelberg off and on for a few years, in the process forming a band of friends with former his former Guild bandmate Denny Hanson and former Gaping Huggers bandmate Doug Livingston on steel guitar. Drummer Ron Grinel filled out the group, who called themselves Fools Gold. In 1976 the released their first album, a self-titled affair featuring harmony-laden country rock. Guests included Eagles Joe Walsh and Don Felder.

A follow-up album, Mr. Lucky, appeared in stores in 1977, but Fools Gold were no longer a "band" per se. Grinel was gone and Livingston only appeared briefly. They were replaced by a murderer's row of L.A. "yacht rock" studio aces: Mike and Jeff Porcaro (later of Toto), Waddy Wachtel, saxophonist Tom Scott, David Foster, "Lonely Boy" hitmaker Andrew Gold, Bill Champlin, and Dan Fogelberg himself. 

The album wasn't a hit, and Kelly and Henson went their separate ways. The latter moved to Nashville to become a songwriter. Kelly, meanwhile, used his connections to became one of those studio aces himself. 

Backing Vocalist
In 1978 Kelly began providing backing vocals on recordings by high-profile artists. It seems a strange specialty, but Kelly says, "The way to survive in the music industry is to do a lot of different things." Fittingly, one of his first credits was on REO Speedwagon's You Can Tune a Piano, but Can You Tuna Fish, marking the beginning of a 12-year relationship with the band. He also became a go-to backing vocalist for Alice Cooper, Rick Springfield, Survivor, and Barry Manilow. He also became a touring member of Toto and offered background vocals on many of their recordings, including "Rosanna."

Other artists to feature his backing vocals include Tom Jones, The Eagles (on The Long Run's "The Greeks Don't Want No Freaks"), Barbara Streisand (on her 1979 cover of "Splish Splash"), Sammy Hagar, David Lee Roth (on the hit "Just Like Paradise"), Sheena Easton, and Dionne Warwick.

In this midst of this, Kelly was also continuing to write songs. In 1980 he co-wrote two tunes on REO's smash Hi Infidelity. He also contributed the song "Stranded" to the debut album by Airplay (featuring David Foster and Tommy Funderburk). His true breakthrough, however, came with "Fire and Ice," which hit #17 for Pat Benatar in 1981.

Billy Steinberg and i-Ten
That same Pat Benatar album, Precious Time, featured a title song written by a California native named Billy Steinberg. Producer Keith Olsen introduced Kelly to Steinberg on a hunch their writing styles might compliment one another. Steinberg was Bard graduate who was trying to make a go of it as both a performer, with his band Billy Thermal, and as a songwriter. Linda Ronstadt had taken his song "How Do I Make You" to #10 in 1980.

Olsen's hunch was right on, as Steinberg's specialty was lyrics and that had always been Kelly's least favorite part of songwriting. The duo's first collaboration to appear was "Just One Kiss" for Rick Springfield on his 1982 album Success Hasn't Spoiled Me Yet, but more than writing for others, the guys had eyes on becoming performers themselves.

Taking the name i-Ten, Kelly and Steinberg netted a contract with Epic (REO's label, as well) to release their first record, Taking a Cold Look, in 1983. Featuring Toto members David Paich, Steve Porcaro, Steve Lukather (who arranged the album with Olsen), as well as Rick Springfield's drummer Mike Baird, the record sounded more like those bands than Kelly's country rock work in Fools Gold. But it wasn't a hit, and i-Ten wouldn't make a follow-up. Even so, Taking a Cold Look would prove to have a surprisingly long musical life.

Writing for Other Artists
In 1984 the fruit of Kelly and Steinberg's collaboration began to show up on the record racks, with their name in credits for albums by Juice Newton (the i-Ten song "Easy Way Out"), REO ("Gotta Feel More"), and Benatar ("A Crazy World Like This"), They penned the theme, "Kiss Me Red" for the short-lived CBS show Dreams, which featured John Stamos and Jami Gertz as aspiring musicians. But it was late in the year where things really began to happen. On Halloween 1984 their song "Like a Virgin," was released as an advance single from Madonna's second album. It hit number one just before Christmas.

In 1985 they were back in the top 40 with Pat Benatar's "Sex as a Weapon," but otherwise it was a fairly quiet year. The next three years however would be consumed by an improbable hot streak for Steinberg and Kelly. 

In 1986, the pair scored their second #1 hit, Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors."

In 1987, Heart covered i-Ten's "Alone" on their Bad Animals album (Tom himself sang the high harmonies on the hit) and the song went to the top of the Billboard 100. That same year their collaboration with REO Speedwagon, "In My Dreams," went to #19.

In early 1988 Whitney Houston's "So Emotional" became Steinberg and Kelly's fourth number 1 hit.

The i-Ten album ended up producing three cover versions in addition to "Alone." Soap opera actor Jack Wagner covered "Easy Way Out." Canadian band Honeymoon Suite covered the title track in 1988. And REO Speedwagon made "I Don't Wanna Lose You" the opening song on their 1988 compilation The Hits.

Later in 1988, the Bangles's third album, Everything, was released. Kelly and Steinberg co-wrote three songs with Susanna Hoffs for the record, "Waiting On You," "In Your Room" (which peaked at #5 on the charts in early 1989), and "Eternal Flame." The latter was their fifth number one song in as many years. 

"Eternal Flame" would be their last number one, but the songwriting duo would hit the top ten two more times in the next couple of years, with Cyndi Lauper's "I Drove All Night" (#6 in 1989) and The DiVinyls' "I Touch Myself" (#4 in 1991). During this time period they also placed songs with the likes of Belinda Carlisle, Little River Band, Tina Turner ("Look Me in the Heart"), and Bette Midler ("The Gift of Love"). 

Kelly Calls it a Career
After working with Susanna Hoffs on her first solo album (co-writing three songs including the minor hit "My Side of the Bed"), Kelly and Steinberg began to slow down. Tom says now that during those prolific years it all felt automatic. "I got up every day and did what came naturally to me," he told the Effingham Daily News. But after extensive work on the Pretenders' 1994 album Last of the Independents (they wrote five of the album's songs, including the hits "Night in My Veins" and "I'll Stand By You"), he fell out of that zone.

Kelly co-wrote a couple of songs on the Pretenders' 1999 Viva el Amor and then called it a career. It was the end of as unlikely a musical success story as you'll find.

Steinberg continued to write, first working with Rick Nowels (placing some songs with Celine Dion), and more recently Josh Alexander, with whom he wrote JoJo's "Too Little Too Late" (a #2 hit in 2007) and Demi Lovato's "Give Your Heart a Break" (a #16 hit in 2012).

Tom Kelly has stuck steadfastly to his retirement, only coming out only briefly to join Denny Henson on a rerecording of "Old Tennessee" (originally on the first Fools Gold album) for a 2017 Dan Fogelberg tribute album. Otherwise he's occupied himself with family and golf. “The songs are working for me now,” he said. “I’m not working for them anymore.”


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