Creepy Ghouls, Eerie Automatons and Rock n Roll Demons: The Horrifying Life and Career of Ken Kelly!

Louisville Halloween’s exclusive interview with iconic fantasy artist Ken Kelly!

Welcome, my friends and fiends, to a very special edition of the Phantom Gazette. It’s the Phantom of the Ville coming to you from this weekend’s VinylFest at the Crowne Plaza Hotel where I was lucky enough to score a sit down chat with a man who has become an icon in the world of fantasy, horror and Rock n Roll. I would wager that you could take Ken Kelly’s epic painting that graces the album cover of KISS’sDestroyer” to just about any country on earth and show it to any passerby on the street, and they will immediately recognize both the iconic image and everything it represents.

Ken Kelly was born in New London, Connecticut in 1946, but was moved as a toddler to Brooklyn, New York and has lived most of his life in the Long Island area. His proclivity towards art began to manifest itself almost as soon as he learned to walk.

“There was a plain, white wall in our house, and I decided to draw a picture of Mickey Mouse on it,” remembers Kelly. “I thought it was a good idea, but my mom disagreed. I got spanked good for that one.”

A tough upbringing and a fractured relationship with his father found Kelly living on the streets from the age of 14 until 17 years old. “Let’s just say that I didn’t get along with my old man, so as soon as I could get out of there, I got out,” relates Kelly.

“I can thank my career and my life to my High School art teacher, Mrs. Valarous,” says Kelly. “She was really my life saver. She recognized my interest and early talent in art, and I took every class with her all the way through High School.”

Mrs. Valarous even helped the young artist score his first professional job. “Mrs. Valarous recommended me to a local community college that needed some promotional art done, which I did some sketches for, and a couple of weeks later she came back to me with a check for a couple of hundred dollars. I couldn’t believe I actually got paid for doing it. I was rich!”

“If the art career hadn’t worked out, I would’ve probably become a career Marine,” admits Kelly. “After High School, I joined the Marines, and for four years I had a ball! I traveled to every port of call all over the world, and then the Viet Nam War broke out.”

“After my time in the Marine Corps, I came back home and got a job working at a gas station,” says Kelly. “I still had this idea of being an artist, and probably my biggest influence was my uncle Frank.”

Kelly’s uncle was, in fact, legendary fantasy artist and Conan the Barbarian cover artist, Frank Frazetta. “I remember as a little kid, sitting on the back porch watching Frank draw sketches of Daisy Mae (Editor’s note: Daisy Mae was the “pin up” love interest in the classic “L’il Abner” comic strips).”

“I ran into Frazetta at my father’s wake and decided to show him some of my work,” says Kelly, “but he wasn’t very impressed. He said I needed to refine my drawing and painting, and so I took a year off, moved to Europe and did nothing but work on my technique. Finally, I completed a painting called ‘The Lurking Terror,’ in which I used the buildings outside my window in Cannes, France as the model for the backgrounds. Once I finished that painting, I knew I was ready.”

“My sister bought me a plane ticket back to Plainview, New York, and I came back to Long Island and showed ‘The Lurking Terror’ and some of my other work to Frazetta. This time he liked them. He liked them enough to take them to Warren Publishing, where he was getting a lot of work, and showed them to publisher, James Warren.”

James Warren is probably most familiar to readers of the Baby Boomer generation and Generation X as the publisher of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine, as well as the iconic horror comic magazines, “Creepy,” “Eerie” and “Vampirella.” Warren signed Kelly to a contract to paint 13 covers for his magazines, and this led to a five year working relationship with Warren Publishing until the two men ultimately clashed.

“Jim Warren was an asshole,” states Kelly. “He screwed a lot of artists over back in the day. He really was a cheap, greedy bastard. I was lucky, and he ended up giving me my original art back only because I was Frank Frazetta’s nephew. Even Warren didn’t want to fuck with Frank.”

Ironically, it was one of the “Creepy” magazine covers that Kelly did for Warren, a piece Kelly calls “The Tin Man” from Creepy issue number 72, that ultimately led to the job that would change his life forever.

“I got a call about a job from the advertising company that was working with KISS, and I went to a meeting in Manhattan,” says Kelly, “and when I pulled up, there was a whole line of Rolls-Royces parked in front of the building. I knew right then, this was it. This was the big opportunity.”

“The office we were meeting in was completely painted this artificial black.” Kelly met with Dennis Woloch who had recently designed the cover for “Alive!” to great commercial success.

“They wanted Frank Frazetta, but they couldn’t afford him,” admits Kelly. “They were trying to get him for cheap, and Frank demanded that he be able to keep his original art. They just couldn’t work out a deal.”

After failing to make a deal with Frazetta, Dennis Woloch went down to the magazine rack, knowing he needed to find a good fantasy artist to bring his vision of the “Destroyer” cover to life. He found the copy of “Creepy” magazine with Kelly’s “The Tin Man” on the cover, took it back to his office and called Warren Publishing to get hold of Kelly.

KISS’s first three albums had failed to generate the sales that Casablanca Records had expected, but the band was building an audience via constant touring and the live shows were providing a buzz in the music industry. An idea was hatched for a live album to try and capture the energy of the live concerts and in 1975, “Alive!” hit the charts and gave the band their first big hit. They needed to make a big impact with their follow up studio album.

“I had never heard of KISS before,” admits Kelly. “I thought they looked ridiculous. I had no idea they were headed for anything, but I also saw all those Rolls-Royces parked outside and I knew somebody with a lot of money thought they were good.”

Kelly’s first submission for the “Destroyer” cover was rejected by the record company. “They thought it was too violent,” says Kelly. “I drew the band standing in front of a burning building, and they thought it made the band look like that’s what they did. They came to your town and burned it down.” (Editor’s note: Kelly’s original cover was eventually used for a remixed and re-mastered version of “Destroyer” known as “Destroyer Resurrected.”)

“The band also changed costumes for the new tour, so I re-painted the same image with the new costumes and put the burning buildings in the far background,” relates Kelly. “Destroyer” was released on March 15, 1976 and it immediately catapulted KISS to the top of the Rock n Roll world. Kelly’s signature artwork has become the band’s single best known image, and is still used to sell thousands of KISS products around the world today.

After experimenting with another artist to design the cover of their next album, the record company hired Kelly back to paint the cover of “Love Gun” in 1977 even though the company’s art director didn’t want him for the job.

“I put every stitch of energy I had into those covers,” Kelly says with confident authority.

After Kelly’s worldwide success with KISS, the offers started pouring in. Just like his uncle Frank, the artist contracted to do a series of “Conan the Barbarian” novel covers. In 1976, the MEGO Corporation hired him to design the packing for the popular series of “Micronauts” toys. TSR, creators of “Dungeons and Dragons,” hired him to create imagery for their popular series of role playing games. Other rock and heavy metal bands like Man-O-War and Rainbow hired him to bring a little of the Ken Kelly magic to their album covers and careers.

Just two weeks ago at the time of this article’s publishing, on August 19th, Ken Kelly made a triumphant return to the KISS Army when the album cover he painted for former KISS lead guitarist, Ace Frehley’s new solo album, “Space Invader,” hit store shelves.

“I tracked Ace down at a Chiller Horror Convention where we were both appearing a year or so ago,” says Kelly. “Ace and I have been friends for years. I had heard he was working on a new record, so I cornered him at the convention and said, ‘If you’re doing a new album, I want to be the guy to do it,’.”

Kelly is also currently in bu$$iness with Gene $immon$, hand painting a series of high end art GS Axe and GS Punisher bass guitars for extreme KISS fanatics.

Like KISS, Kelly shows no signs of slowing down. He has a long list of commissions and projects in the works, and in fact was working on a new King Kong sketch for a private collector during this interview. On behalf of Louisville Halloween and all his fans in the Ville, I want to thank him for all the dreams and nightmares he has conjured for multiple generations of horror, fantasy and Rock n Roll fans.

Thanks also to the fine folks at VinylFest for bringing him back to the Ville and making this interview possible.

The Phantom of The Ville

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