Today Jack Webb is best remembered for his portrayal of Detective Sergeant Joe Friday on the radio and television series Dragnet. Friday – a stiff, slouching, robotic cop who chain smokes as he rails against drug abuse – embodies for many folks the definition of a hypocrite and a square. However, the real Webb was also quite the hepcat, an amateur jazz musician with a massive collection of records. In addition to playing hard-boiled detectives, he also used radio to attack social injustices (on One out of Seven) and, with Pete Kelly’s Blues, indulge his lifelong love of jazz and Chandler-esque noir.
Pete Kelly’s Blues lobby card
Pete Kelly’s Blues began as an unsponsored replacement series for The Halls of Ivy after a 13 February audition. It debuted on NBC on 4 July, 1951 and aired on Wednesday nights in most markets (Saturdays in others). It was created by Richard L. Breen, who’d previously worked with Webb on the wonderful and not-at-all dissimilar radio noir series, Pat Novak, for Hire, which Webb had left in 1947. Throughout the series’ short run, Webb continued to star on both the radio version of Dragnet, which ran from 1949 until 1957, and the television version, which began a few months after Pete Kelly’s Blues and continued to air until in its first run until 1959).
Downtown Kansas City in the 1920s
Pete Kelly’s Blues was a period drama set in Kansas City (“on the Missouri side”) during the roaring ’20s. During Prohibition, (and until 1939), Kansas City was run by “Boss Tom” Pendergast, a man whose rule of the region kept the alcohol flowing and allowed for gambling without fear of arrest – with help from “Brother John” Lazia and the Kansas City Crime Family. A writer for the Omaha World Herald wrote “If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris and go to Kansas City.”
The freewheeling climate in Kansas City also helped fuel the Kansas City Jazz scene, in which musicians fired up the sound of big band jazz by throwing boogie-woogie, jump blues, ragtime, and Harlem stride into the mix. Key figures on the scene included Count Basie and (from Kansas City, Kansas) Charlie Parker as well as many Missouri-born giants like Bennie Moten, Big Joe Turner, Coleman Hawkins, Harlan Leonard, Pete Johnson, Walter Page, and many others.
On Pete Kelly’s Blues, Kelly is a coronet player who leads a jazz combo, Pete Kelly’s Big Seven. Each episode of the series featured two numbers by Kelly’s band (in actuality Dick Cathcart on coronet, Bill Newman on guitar, Matty Matlock on clarinet, Moe Schneider on trombone, Morty Corb on bass, Nick Fatool on drums, and Ray Sherman on piano). Pete Kelly’s Blues takes place in 1921 and ’22 and the combo’s music owes more to New Orleans‘s hot jazz than the variant with which Kansas City would soon come to be associated.
The Big Seven’s home was, Rudy’s, a speakeasy at 417 Cherry Street, in the River Market section of town – and not far from the jazz (and before that, ragtime) scene’s epicenter at 18th and Vine. The episodes follow a simple yet effective formula – Kelly just wants to play music but he invariably manages to find himself in trouble with various hustlers, mafioso, and government agents.
The cast of the program was small and George Lupo, the club’s owner, never appears on mic. Other than Webb’s portrayal as Kelly, the only regularly recurring cast members were Jack Kruschen (who’d played Sgt. Muggavan on Broadway is My Beat) as Red (the combo’s bassist) and real life blues singer Meredith Howard, who played Maggie Jackson, the singer at Fat Annie’s (a club “across the river in Kansas”). Other actors who appeared on the series include the semi-regular Barney Ricketts, played by Tudor Jones, and various characters played by Barton Yarborough, Herb Butterfield, Roy Glenn, Homer Welch, Peggy Webber, Stacy Harris, Vic Perrin, and William Conrad.
The show’s announcer was George Fenneman. Most of the episodes were written by James Moser (who’d also written for One Out of Seven and Dragnet) and Jo Eisinger (co-writer of the film Gilda and sole screenwriter on Jules Dassin‘s Night and the City). The episodes were directed by George Voutsas.
Although Webb was a big name and Pete Kelly’s Blues was at least critically well-received, it was poorly documented by the media and of the thirteen episodes (“The Gus Trudeau Story,” “Veda Brand,” “The Stockbroker’s Daughter,” “Hot Letters,” episode 5 [title unknown], “Veda Brand,” episode 7 [title unknown], “The Marie Walters Story,” “The Young Girl and The Mug,” “A Little Hole in the Wall,” “Dr Jonathan Budd and the Dutchman,” “June Gould,” and “The Kidnapping”) only six are in circulation today. Five are available for streaming or download at the Internet Archive. Various folks have compiled episodes onto old time radio compilations and when those come through Amoeba‘s doors, they’re afterward filed in the Spoken Word section.
The series aired over three months. Its final episode aired on 19 November, 1951. In 1955, Webb starred in a film version of Pete Kelly’s Blues which he also produced and directed. The role of Maggie Jackson was played by Ella Fitzgerald. An NBC television series followed in 1959, directed by Webb but starring William Reynolds playing Kelly. Music from the series was released by Warner Bros as Jack Webb Presents: Pete Kelly Lets His Hair Down in 1959. It was later compiled with Jack Webb’s spoken word album, You’re My Girl: Romantic Reflections and released by Rhino as Just The Tracks, Ma’am.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century varieties of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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