Parents recount singing teen’s rise

Published 11:00 pm Thursday, April 17, 2014

Jan and Bob Kelly, pictured inside their Smithfield home, are obviously immensely proud of their daughter, Bria Kelly, a contestant on NBC’s “The Voice,” framed photographs of whom rest on the coffee table.

Jan and Bob Kelly, pictured inside their Smithfield home, are obviously immensely proud of their daughter, Bria Kelly, a contestant on NBC’s “The Voice,” framed photographs of whom rest on the coffee table.

“O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light.” Those cherished words for every American have been a springboard for Smithfield’s Bria Kelly, according to her parents.

After their daughter this week moved into the top-12 on NBC’s “The Voice,” Bob and Jan Kelly say they are glad they encouraged their daughter, about seven years ago, to apply her pipes to the national anthem.

“When she first started singing, it was in the bathroom,” said Jan Kelly, framed photographs of Bria under stage lights wielding guitars and microphones surrounding her and her husband in their living room.


Email newsletter signup

The first time her daughter sang alone onstage, it was “Walking on Sunshine,” in the fourth grade, Jan Kelly said, adding that Bria also began entering talent shows about that time.

According to Bob Kelly, “As parents, there is not a whole lot (of opportunity), outside school and church activities, for kids to perform.”

That’s when “The Star-Spangled Banner” set Bria on the trajectory that has launched her powerful voice into millions of homes across the nation.

She was 11 when her parents got her to try the national song, according to Bob Kelly. Her rendition was so good, he said, that they got it on tape and sent it to the Norfolk Admirals, hoping to book their daughter a slot opening an ice-hockey game at Scope Arena. It worked.

Bria has now sung the national anthem more than 40 times to a combined live audience of more than 200,000, including at a Philadelphia Eagles pre-season home game with 45,000 fans, still when she was only 11, Bob Kelly said.

“I would say some of her better ones came later, singing (the national anthem) for Taylor Swift and Rascal Flats,” Jan Kelly reflected.

The 18-year-old’s musical talents are also grounded in the example set by her parents even earlier.

He and Jan Kelly both sang “when we were younger — in ancient times,” including at weddings, Bob Kelly said.

Jan Kelly has fond memories of singing in a talent show at Kecoughtan High School in Hampton, where they both grew up.

“We would have times when we would both jam with friends,” she said. “We played out a couple of times, (but) nothing like Bria has accomplished.”

When Bria was starting out, Bob and Jan Kelly were her guitar teacher and singing coach, respectively. “Until she blew the doors off both of us,” Bob Kelly added.

So Bria Kelly went to Grafton’s Mark Bzdick for vocal coaching and to Chesapeake’s Lewis McGehee for guitar lessons.

Soon, moving beyond singing America’s national song, requests began to roll in for her to perform contemporary music at country music benefits, Jan Kelly said, and at 13 she opened for Miranda Lambert the first time, and for the second time about three years later. She also opened for Sara Evans, another popular singer-songwriter in the country genre.

“That’s why everybody thinks she’s more country,” Jan Kelly said. “But Bria likes so many different kinds of music and uses her voice in so many different ways.”

At the start of “The Voice” — her second TV talent show, after “America’s Got Talent” — every one of the show’s celebrity “coaches” fought to have Bria on their team, following her raspy, rollicking rendition of “Steamroller Blues.”

Jan Kelly let on that she had coached her daughter to go with Usher if the opportunity arose — it did, and she did — perceiving that being a businessman as well as a performer, “he’s in a situation where he could help her.”

The Kellys say their daughter is having a ball in Los Angeles, where she will now participate in the three final, live playoff rounds.

Bob Kelly mentioned that Bria and the rest of the program’s final dozen performed at Universal CityWalk, an entertainment, dining and shopping promenade at Universal Studios Hollywood, where they also trod a red carpet.

Someone filmed it and posted it on YouTube, giving Bria’s parents a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of her kicking up her heels away from home. “She was having fun with that,” Jan Kelly said.

Unlike “America’s Got Talent,” contestants on “The Voice” grow very close, Jan Kelly said, which is hard on them as the field is whittled down.

“When somebody has to leave and the others stay, they are crying their eyes out,” she said. “I wish the media would focus on that. It’s kind of sweet to see, in a lot of ways.”

Having made the top 12, Bria may be asked to join a “Voice” tour, from June through August, Bob and Jan Kelly said, and she has already begun meeting with record producers.

“Whatever happens to her, she will be crying her eyes out to have to come home; I know she will,” Jan Kelly said.

After her mother had a serious health scare last year with septic shock, Bria Kelly has been asked to perform at the third annual Sepsis Heroes Awards Celebration, in New York this September.

Wanting to make her proud, she says her mother’s experience is a major source of inspiration.