Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

The Musical Wizard
of Polk Street


David Kelsey in a 1980s ad for Macintosh computers.
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If you think of a popular gay San Francisco musician from the 1970s, the person who probably springs to mind is Sylvester or perhaps Patrick Cowley, both of whom influenced many and are fondly remembered.

But you may be surprised to know that one of the most successful musicians in town in that era was a keyboard player whose claim to fame was playing Dixieland jazz in the era of disco, and that he packed the house at the New Bell Saloon, a bar at 1203 Polk Street, for more than a decade.

David Kelsey was born in Miranda in Humbolt County and began his career humbly, learning to play the organ he inherited from his grandmother. Piano lessons paid off and by 1959 he had made his way to San Francisco and was a working musician. He recounted the start of his career in an oral history with the GLBT Historical Society's Jim Duggins:

"I was 19 and was playing over at the Black Cat. Hazel [Jim McGinnis, José Sarria's accompanist] was having a gall bladder operation and José had no one to play his operas on Sunday afternoons...I also played Halloween there."

Along with his musical association with Sarria, Kelsey shared another thing in common with Hazel. Both were in the armed forces and made good use of their musical talents there. But whereas Hazel was in the service before working with José, Kelsey went into the Army in 1963 and played with the Seventh Army Chorus in Germany.

They were both part of a tradition of gay men working in the Armed Forces to entertain the troops that Allan Berubé documented in his book Coming Out Under Fire .

However Kelsey did it in the Sixties after having worked in gay bars in San Francisco, a considerably more dangerous environment as it came after the gay purges of the 1950s, particularly as he did it as a conscientious objector.

After getting out of the service, Kelsey returned to San Francisco in 1965 and played at several gay dinner clubs including On The Levee (987 Embarcadero), The Big Basket (238 Columbus), and Page One (431 Natoma). He did benefits for the S.I.R. Center and accompanied Charles Pierce at Bimbo's in 1971. He became a well-known entertainer, the late Bay Area Reporter 's publisher Bob Ross calling him "a gifted musician and talented comedian" in the magazine Vector.

David Kelsey in a 1971 Vector magazine article.

Kelsey left the Bay Area for an extended stay at the House of Charles in Honolulu in the early '70s. But even while he was gone, he made his presence known as the Hawaiian club advertised in the Bay Area Reporter.

In 1974 Kelsey returned to San Francisco and began a seventeen-year run at the New Bell Saloon on 1203 Polk. His first few years there were as a solo musician.

On July 4, 1979, at a post-parade party for one-year-old San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band in Redwood City, Kelsey threw out an invitation for a jam session at the New Bell the following night.

In an article in the B.A.R. the following year, Allen White recalled that at that jam session "Jon Sims, in his usual Judy Garland style, prompted the group to get together."

Sims (founder of the Marching band and the Gay Men's Chorus) occasionally sat in with the band. From 1979 through 1984, the band played every Sunday night at the New Bell. Pure Trash was a sight to be seen.

David Kelsey's album, Flights Of Fancy. courtesy Queer Music Heritage

In City Arts Monthly, Lois Smith said this in a review of a benefit concert: "The jazz world's answer to the Village People: Pure Trash. David Kelsey, leader of the band, and perhaps its most conservatively dressed member, simultaneously played piano and organ. Wearing a lovely red wig, red satin boxer's robe and tres chic denim platforms with red piping was Richard Best on second trumpet. Jeff Glines, the sax player, was nattily attired in a white tuxedo with black pants and resembled Groucho Marx in a blond Lana Turner wig."

Kelsey was entirely aware that he was going against type by camping it up and playing Dixieland. He told Duggins: "There's kind of a macho mystique to jazz musicians and there has been for years."

Both as a solo musician and with Pure Trash, Kelsey was extraordinarily popular. I asked Wayne Friday, former political editor of the B.A.R. (and former bartender at the New Bell) about his act.

"He was very talented, the most talented musician I ever knew," said Friday. "I've never seen anyone who could play like that. It [Pure Trash] took off right away. You couldn't get near the place on Saturday or Sunday night."

David Kelsey at the piano. courtesy Bob Alder's David Kelsey website

Friday also told me that Kelsey maintained a lively banter with the audience during performances and that he drew celebrities to the bar. He counted Eartha Kitt, Barbara Cook, Johnny Ray and Lauren Bacall as fans, and they often made a special effort to see him when they were in town.

Kelsey independently released two albums, a solo titled Flights of Fantasy, and Top O' The Heap with Pure Trash.

You may wonder why such a talented musician didn't go to Broadway or Vegas. The answer was provided by Friday, who told me that people in the bar often offered him jobs in both places.

"He was in love with San Francisco," said Friday.

And San Francisco loved him back. He was mentioned by Herb Caen, played to tourists at Pier 39 and was listed in Fodor's San Francisco as a "must see" for several years.

Kelsey died in 1998 at age 58. He was remembered both as a talented musician and as an "only in San Francisco" phenomenon.

As a self-supporting musician, he also unfortunately represents a bygone era here. He deserves to be remembered.

Fortunately there is a great half hour long performance of his work with Pure Trash on YouTube at

And he is well represented on the Queer Music Heritage site

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