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Jammin' with Mike Kelly

Jamaica's music lives in the heart of Gig Harbor

KICKIN' IT: Mike Kelly and Steer Town Posse at the beach, circa 1989 / courtesy photo

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Among the dense evergreens that surround the banks of Carr Inlet a rhythmic island beat thumps. From behind Peninsula High School, between the art department and the football field, emanates reggae, ska, dub, rock steady, mento and dance hall. Every Wednesday night, KGHP FM plays host to Mike Kelly and his radio program, Kelly's Heroes, a show that's been going strong for 20 years.

Before Kelly moved to Gig Harbor in 1990, he managed reggae bands in Chicago, Illinois, most notably Smokey and the Seventh Seal. But Kelly's love for the island sound was grown from a young age.

"My first reggae album was Desmond Dekker with the Israelites," Kelly says. "I bought that in 1970, at the time not knowing that it was called reggae. It was just a cool song and still is a cool song. I remember buying that for 45 cents at K-mart in Westminster, California. I was 11 at the time."

After the location shift from the Midwest to the Northwest, Kelly took a radio class taught by KGHP founder Don Hofmann. Shortly thereafter, he found himself spinning records at the high school station. Kelly's Heroes started in 1991. After two decades on the air, the show is now the longest-running Jamaican radio show in the United States.

"In part what makes my show unique is for a time I was involved with importing and exporting records out of Jamaica," explains Kelly. "So I had a lot of single releases where they were test press or things like that that I was coming across."

Over the years, Kelly's interest in music has built long-lasting bonds with Jamaican recording studios, artists and all sorts of fans. One of the most unlikely encounters for Kelly was at Bumbershoot in 1996, when Kelly met with Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and the two shared an in-depth conversation about the finer points of reggae music.  

Frederick "Toots" Hibbert, of Toots and the Maytals, became a fast friend of Kelly's after a chance run-in. Hibbert was playing a show at a local Chicago club in 1987. Through a mutual friend he ended up at Kelly's home; Hibbert stayed and played an impromptu performance on Kelly's Steinway piano, then hung out to watch the Mike Tyson fight.

"Mike Kelly is one of the best people I have met in my years on tour and I love him and his family," says Hibbert.

Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, KGHP is facing financial hardship. The station is part of the Peninsula High School‘s Occupational Education facilities, meaning that funding has primarily come from the school's budget. As with all government programs, money has gotten tight of late. Fundraisers and community outreach are on the move to stem the downward trend.

KGHP's station manager, Spencer "The Walrus" Abersold, recognizes the talent in his midst.

"(Mike Kelly) is a serious DJ who puts a great effort into each and every show," he says. "His professionalism and dedication is evident in each broadcast he does, his knowledge is vast and his song selection is awesome."

On a regular Wednesday night, Kelly has a band of dedicated followers. He plays family-friendly Jamaican music, as well a selection that old-time dance hall fans would appreciate. For Kelly, there is too much music that speaks to violence today. The political messages, biblical stories and up-tempo love songs at the core of reggae are what you will find here.

"I just want to keep the vibes nice for the three plus hours that I play," Kelly says of his radio experience.

One love.

Listen to Mike Kelly on Kelly's Heroes every Wednesday at 7 p.m. on KGHP FM, 89.3, 89.9, 93.7. Also streaming live at

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Comments for "Jammin' with Mike Kelly" (4)

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Dr Neal Andren said on Jun. 20, 2011 at 10:17pm

Great article Coach! We love your show! Keep on jamming! Andren Family

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Charles H. Dawrs said on Jun. 21, 2011 at 11:32am

I was fortunate enough to have been Mike's roommate in college and we were in the right place at the right time to see live performances of the greatest reggae artists in the late 70's. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals, ect., etc. Mike is now my main link to the reggae scene with his magnificent collection of records which he so generously shares with all. Cool running with you man! Aloha from Chuk D. !

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Dakota Moist said on Jun. 23, 2011 at 10:53am

Loved working out four years at the pool listening to your music coach, especially the reggae. Never get tired listening to all your music stories, glad you're getting some recognition. Take care, Blackout.

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j Alman said on Jun. 28, 2011 at 9:56am

Mike Kelly has the most comprehensive collection and understanding of roots reggae in the US. Thanks for continuing to shear both with us. Keep Jah mon!

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