Gig Harbor swim coach still jammin’

Mike Kelly’s Jamaican-themed radio show shows no signs of slowing down— even after 23 years

Staff writerJuly 9, 2014 

As Mike Kelly listened to the Jamaican vibrations in the KGHP studio last Wednesday evening, he reflected back to when he fell in love with reggae.

Behind the mic of his “Kelly’s Heroes” radio show broadcast from the campus of Peninsula High School, the Gig Harbor High swim coach took time in between sets to paint a picture of his love affair with a genre of music not often played on mainstream airwaves.

It was 1977, and Kelly was a wide-eyed freshman at the University of Southern California. He was roaming the dorm hallways and heard the reggae classic “I Shot the Sheriff” blasting from one of the rooms.

“I thought it was Eric Clapton, but in fact, Bob Marley wrote it,” Kelly said. “I was listening to it and fell in love with the music. It was quite different than what was current.”

Kelly started to buy all kinds of Jamaican music. He was drawn to the message.

“The musical content matched the lyrics,” Kelly said. “You’re at a rebellious age, 18 and 19 years old. Songs like ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ seem to take on more meaning.”

Living in Los Angeles, the West Coast hub of entertainment, helped his love of the music really grow.

“We used to go see all kinds of great reggae shows at The Roxy and other night clubs in LA,” the coach said.

Among those was Bob Marley, who Kelly finally had the opportunity to see in 1979. The show cost a whopping $10 per ticket, while most other shows were $5 at the time.

“We thought it was a rip-off,” Kelly said with a laugh.

Kelly moved to Chicago after college, and had the good fortune of living across the street from a record store. As CDs became available in the early 1980s, Kelly took advantage of an opportunity.

“I started building up my vinyl (record) connection,” he said. “People were trying to get rid of them.”

During that time, Kelly also managed a reggae band called Smokey and the Seventh Seal.

“We even got an audition for Star Search,” Kelly said. “It was just fun.”

Kelly moved to the Gig Harbor area with his wife Lisa in the early 90s. Kelly began working at a record store in Lakebay, and also began hosting “Kelly’s Heroes” in 1991. It’s been going strong ever since.

Kelly’s reggae show is a chance for him to relax in the midst of a busy schedule coaching at Gig Harbor High School. Kelly coaches extremely successful boys and girls swimming programs, as well girls water polo. Kelly said he has no plans to retire from the weekly radio show, which runs from 7 to 10 or 11 p.m., anytime soon.

“(I’ll go) till they fire me,” Kelly said. “They don’t pay me. It’s a good outlet for me. I do have a vast library of music and love for the music. As long as I can make it work with my schedule, I’ve always enjoyed it.”

Coaching three different seasons of sports, as well as club sports in the summer, keeps Kelly busy. He’s visited Jamaica several times in his life but hasn’t made it back since 2001. In Kelly’s view, Jamaican culture has shifted negatively, causing hesitation at the prospect of a return visit.

“(There are) a lot more guns on the street,” Kelly said. “There were always gangs to a certain degree, but it seems a little easier to shoot the guns now.”

For now, Kelly is satisfied with hosting his weekly radio show, jamming to reggae tunes and coaching.

Jon Manley: 253-358-4151 Twitter: @gateway_jon

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