November 19, 2013
This week’s five-question interview is with George Kelly, the smoky-voiced crooner who MCPS staff members love to see coming. He always has a tune on hand while making deliveries in the WOW (Warehouse on Wheels) Truck. He says music has always been a part of his life, and may have been influenced in part by his mother, the daughter of a minister who grew up singing in church. Since he discovered iTunes, Kelly has compiled about 300 backup tracks that he performs to, mostly 1950s and ‘60s hits, such as “Unforgettable,” “Everybody Loves Somebody,” “My Girl,” “Downtown” and “Who Can I Turn to (When Nobody Needs Me.)” For more than two years, for two hours every Monday, he’d hone his skills at a local Potbelly Sandwich shop, which had a small stage with a microphone. It was all the encouragement he needed. Today, Kelly has a standing gig with an Ashton restaurant and performs for birthdays, retirements and weddings.
Tell me about how you became the WOW driver at MCPS.
I’ve been driving the WOW truck for 12 or 14 years. It was a vision of Giles Benson [former director of the Division of Materials Management]. He established it because there were many building service managers who were leaving school, [and] coming to the warehouse to pick up light tubes or paper towels or toilet paper. Three hours later, they’d come back to the school. Giles started the truck with emergency supplies in between their regular orders, so that they wouldn’t have to leave the school. He said this will just be a pilot program; he needed someone who could make it work. Before that, I was driving pony routes for 15 years. I’d be getting off and on the truck 50 times a day and I had just come back from knee surgery. I went to Giles and said ‘I’m your man.’
So, you’re on the road all day, making deliveries. Do you enjoy that? What song are you singing when you make your stops?
Whatever song I’m singing when I get off the truck. Sometimes the secretaries will start singing with me. Sometimes I go in and I’m not singing and they’ll say, ‘Why aren’t you singing?’ I’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll sing but you have to sing backup,’ and they say, “Oh no, I can’t do THAT. I can’t carry a note in a bucket.’
I love my job. I love all the stops I get to make. I’ve got to have a word of encouragement and inspiration for every person I see. This is a ministry. I touch so many lives when I come to work. It’s not always the same ones. People tell me their life stories. They complain about their bosses. They tell me about their kids. I’m making a difference.
Has music always been a part of your life?
When I was in elementary school, I was always in chorus and choir. In high school, I didn’t sing a note. When I went to the military, we put a band together and sang in clubs. When I first moved to Maryland, I ran into some guys who were putting a group together. They were looking for a lead singer. Someone told me to call, so I did. I went down and auditioned. They said ‘You’ve got the voice we’re looking for.’
Choice Reunion was the band. We were together about a year. In the 1980s, we opened a show for Clarence Carter. We made an R&B album and a 12-inch single, It’s Summertime. The manager and bassist of our group were twins and there was some sibling rivalry going on. Somehow, our music made it to England and they wanted us to tour. But the manger wouldn’t let us go. For the life of me, I never understood that. After that, I realized I’m not good with other personalities. I would be better on my own.
So, how did the singing morph into a side business?
I started looking for backup tracks that I could sing to, instead of finding someone to sing backup or to play with me.
I went to a friend’s wedding and he had these backup tracks. I asked him where he got them and he said ‘iTunes.’ I said ‘iTunes? What is that?’ He told me to go home and look it up on the computer. So I did. Now I tell everyone, for my birthday, I want an iTunes gift card. For Christmas, I want iTunes gift cards. If you get me something for Father’s Day, I want iTunes gift cards.
My very first show was in 2011 at Leisure World. That was an ideal group of people that I appealed to. Because they were old school, and so was I.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I’m a bit of a yard sale/flea market junkie. I go looking for old records. I had a record store several years ago, selling vintage albums, tapes, CDs and movies. I’d find them for 50 cents or $1 and sell them for $5.
Even now, if I see a sign for a yard sale, I’ll follow it, just to see what they have. Since I had grandkids, now I look for kids’ books.
Sunday is for church. I’m in the men’s choir and the sanctuary choir at Resurrection Baptist Church in Ashton. Monday and Tuesdays, we have rehearsals. Wednesdays is Bible study. Thursdays, I sing at Dempsey’s in Ashton. Friday night is all me; I go home and relax.