Artist Ken Kelly turns seventy-three today. Among many other things, he can boast a proud legacy of heavy metal cover paintings that spans five decades.
Ken was born in Connecticut and grew up in the general area of the NYC metroplex. His Aunt Ellie just happened to be married to some guy named Frank Frazetta. Frazetta encouraged Kelly to pursue art. After Ken got out of the Marines, he did just that. As he put it, "The only thing I had on earth was my talent as an artist." Ken began working for Warren Magazines in 1970, where Uncle Frank had been getting steady cover jobs thoughout the '60s. One would think Frazetta had something to do with that, but I haven't seen any confirmation.
Ken got his big break in 1975, when KISS tapped him to do the cover for Destroyer. As it turns out, the band had approached Frazetta first, but they couldn't agree on money. Apparently, Kelly was then suggested as the next choice by Peter Criss, who was an avid fan of the Warren horror mags. The album went on to sell millions and the cover became one of the most iconic in rock history. I can certainly say it rocked my world as a preteen. My first taste of metal.
Soon after he got the Destroyer gig, Kelly was approached by Rainbow, apparently at the instigation of Ronnie James Dio. His cover for Rising is a fan-favorite to this day.
Ken was then commissioned to do the cover for KISS's 1977 lp, Love Gun, which remains the second-most iconic KISS cover for most fans. Kelly’s KISS and Rainbow covers were all original compositions, not done for any previous books or magazines, which was quite different from Frazetta's approach of just licensing previously-used art to bands. In that sense, Kelly was far more "metal" than Frank--whose tastes tended toward the likes of Sinatra--ever was.
After Love Gun, we see no more album covers from Kelly until Asgard's In the Ancient Days, which reused an old Kelly book cover painting. However, it was his original cover for Manowar's Fighting the World that signalled a new epoch of Kelly metal covers. The cover itself is reminiscent of Destroyer, just as 2007's Gods of War recalls Love Gun. Ken maintained a strong relationship with the band for over two decades, providing the majority of their cover art and coming up with the Manowar mascot that appeared on numerous covers and merchandise from Kings of Metal onward.
Ken had these comments regarding his twenty-five years of collaboration with Manowar:
"Manowar is more personal because we're friends and we talk offsite together and we chat basically almost like family. We're that close. We're very close... I've done certain Manowar covers where I listen to the music and it gave me some really nice pictures in my head. (…) My work for Manowar has given me some of the largest challenges I've ever tackled and I've loved every minute of it, painting their covers for over a decade, something that just isn't done in the music industry anymore. Loyalty like that is a sadly fading relic these days."
Kelly hasn't limited himself to just Manowar over the last three decades. He spreads the love around and bands are happy to get him. As Ken has said, “I feel for these new groups and am very happy to help them move forward. I guess I just have a soft touch for musicians.” Check out his full entry at Discogs here. Coheed & Cambria, Alabama Thunderpussy, Electric Magma and many others, right up to 2017. However, be warned that Discogs doesn't appear to be totally exhaustive or accurate, since it leaves out Ken's cool cover for Ace's Space Invader from 2014. If the Gentle Readers of the DMR Blog know of any other omissions, feel free to say so in the comments below.
When asked to name his all-time favorite cover, Ken had this to say:
"It's a tough call. But I think Manowar's Triumph of Steel. If you look that up, it is a warrior with four or five babes around him and a fire pit. It's beautiful. So, I think that would be my favorite."
Happy birthday, Ken!
Previous installments in the "Painting Metal" series: