After close to 30 years entertaining on cruise ships, Ed Kelly is hanging out his shingle as Niagara’s Piano Man.
The 49-year-old and his wife Claudia bought a home in the McNab area last April, and have been using the time ashore to make necessary renovations. When he’s not swinging a hammer, though, Kelly has been honing his craft, adding to his repertoire of close to 1,000 songs that include everything from the Beatles to Ed Sheeran, from Broadway to Spanish canciones.
Originally from Etobicoke, Kelly graduated from the music program at Humber College in 1992, where a recruiter from Royal Caribbean visited in his senior year. He had not been much of a traveller to that point, but decided to audition. The 19-year-old wowed the recruiter, and signed his first contract to head out to the Atlantic aboard the Nordic Prince.
“It was a really good experience,” Kelly raves. “It was my first chance to be out on my own, and to work on my craft, my piano playing, and to learn to play in all kinds of situations on the ship. That first contract, I had never been to Bermuda, or New York City. It was lots of fun meeting people from different parts of the world and travelling.”
Kelly decided to become a piano teacher following that first experience with Royal Caribbean. But the salt air remained in his lungs.
He kept in touch with an agent for the ships, and every year he would take off on short gigs on the cruise lines, lasting from between 10 days to a couple of months. He was able to maintain his piano classes in between, returning to the Etobicoke condo he shared with his mother and step-father. In a way, he was taking his vacation time on board while being paid for it.
In 2003, Kelly decided to put his teaching aside and become a full-time musician on the cruise lines. For seventeen years he would head off to sea for eight to 10 months, picking up contract after contract with a number of different companies. By the time the pandemic hit last March, forcing the big boats to dock, he had seen all seven continents, set foot on six of them, saved a bit of money, and worked on becoming a consummate musical entertainer.
He speaks of some of his adventures with wide-eyed wonder.
“The only continent I didn’t set foot on is Antarctica,” Kelly explains. “But I got to see it aboard the Princess. I saw the penguins suntanning on the icebergs, and we could see the science stations, and we saw whales jumping out of the water occasionally. It was the worst weather I ever experienced, though, going from South America down to Antarctica.”
Another lasting memory for Kelly took place at Port Canaveral in Brevard County, Fla.
“I saw a NASA shuttle launch from the top floor of a cruise ship,” he says. “It was about 5 a.m. It was so loud I was actually concerned about the volume level. But it was really nice to see it from that vantage point.”
His work has taken him all across Europe, to Australia, Africa and the Caribbean. Among his favourite ports and destinations he has experienced are Norway, Japan, Amsterdam, Paris, Hong Kong, Sydney, the south of France, New York City and the pyramids in Egypt. But he says his absolute favourite was hiking in the natural beauty of Alaska.
Perhaps the best memory for Kelly has nothing to do with where he travelled. He met his wife Claudia, who was born in Peru, while they were working together on a Disney cruise ship.
“We have our own crew area, which is completely private,” Kelly explains. “Every ship has a crew bar, and it’s open every night for us, with dancing, karaoke, trivia nights. People become very close. Crew members are like family. Most join the crew alone, about 95 per cent. Everybody comes and goes at different times, and you really miss them when they leave.”
Love blossomed for the two of them in that crew area. Today, the couple count people from all over the world as their greatest friends, and have had the fortune of visiting many of them in their homelands.
Musically speaking, Kelly credits his 30 years at sea for building his chops as an entertainer.
“Each cruise ship has a show band,” says Kelly, “usually in the main theatre. They play the production shows, with four singers or 10 dancers, and they’ll play with the guest entertainers. But they also have a pop or rock band, like a duo, or trio or a quartet, they’ll have a classical pianist, maybe a classical group. Holland America, Cunard and Carnival, all had classical groups.”
Kelly’s first 10 years primarily playing in those show bands made him a better musician. “You have to be an excellent reader, you have to be able to perform with little rehearsal time, the same night you get the music. I played all musical styles, except for rap and heavy metal.”
Eventually, he was able to break away from the bigger productions and begin to do solo piano performances, becoming a singer along the way. “I’ve been working on my voice, memorizing and learning songs, playing specialty sets as a solo pianist and singer, really interacting with the crowd in the lounges.”
All that experience makes Kelly ready to take on gigs for landlubbers. Weddings, wineries, family events, corporate events, he’s willing to take pretty much anything on. A visit to his website reveals the vast number of songs he can play, including Billy Joel (his favourite), Elton John, Michael Buble, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. He can do theme shows based on country hits, Broadway music, and hits of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and the 2000s.
Since moving to Niagara-on-the-Lake he has learned to sing in Hebrew, and has developed an entire authentic Irish music set. He also runs a YouTube channel called Butterfly Piano, through which he offers instruction on piano improvisation. And he’s been doing online shows for some seniors homes, including one regular Tuesday morning gig in the Bruce Peninsula.
It may come as no surprise that the house he and Claudia purchased a year ago is on the water, though definitely not of the salty type. Once the work is completed on the house, the couple plan to begin improving their access to the Lake Ontario shoreline, so they can take up canoeing or kayaking from their backyard.
He enjoys the quiet and quaint atmosphere of his new digs. But perhaps his view of the lake has reconfirmed his desire to get back onto the cruise ships in the near future, though not in a full-time capacity. He’s confident that the cruise industry will bounce back from COVID-19.
“I don’t know their balance sheets, but these cruise lines are ready to come back,” he says. “They’ve been talking to the CDC (U.S. Center for Disease Control), and they want the same treatment as the airlines. They’ll come out with the proper safety protocols, and people are just itching to go travel again. And thousands of crew members want to return.”
Mark Ed Kelly as one of them.
For more information or to book him for an upcoming event, visit www.niagara