If you spent time in the cover band club scene of the 1980s and early ’90s, you’ve heard Jellyroll.
If you were invited to a tony wedding or bar/bat mitzvah at the Crystal Tea Room, the Union League, or other such private event spaces, you’ve heard Jellyroll.
If you attended Black Tie Tailgate previews for the Philadelphia Auto Show, the annual Evening at Franklin Square, galas preceding the Army-Navy game, the Philadelphia Flyers Wives’ Fight for Lives Carnival and the National Museum for American Jewish History’s annual soiree, you’ve heard Jellyroll.
Philly’s horn-based party dance band is very possibly this city’s most “heard” group whose membership you couldn’t identify. “We are the backdrop to the most important events in people’s lives,” says Southwest Philadelphia native Kurt Titchenell, Jellyroll’s founder-trombonist and the owner of its booking agency, BVT Live.
On Friday, Aug. 23, Jellyroll goes back to its roots as a party-fueled horn-blasting ensemble with its 40th anniversary show at Ardmore Music Hall. Fellow Southwest Philly denizen Kenn Kweder, who used to rehearse with Jellyroll in their nascent years when the band was still called Prime Time, will open.
“Kurt’s eyes lit up when we talked about music and the business in that basement,” says Kweder about those early years. “I could tell he was gonna serve a life sentence in music, one way or another.”
Titchenell didn’t start off thinking about the biz, or even brass. “I was a Who fanatic who broke more than my share of guitars,” says Titchenell. “That is, until my sister Connie got behind-the-stage tickets to Chicago. [Chicago cofounder and trombonist] Jimmy Pankow instantly became my hero. Brass became my thing.”
When the teen Titchenell discussed playing the trombone to his family, his father held up a freshly broken guitar neck and called his son “nuts,” right before relenting.
Prime Time morphed into Jellyroll in 1979, and Titchenell began playing horn-based original numbers (such as 1985′s “Part of the Party”), mixing their set list with unusual covers.
“We knew not everybody ‘got’ Tower of Power, Steely Dan, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, and Little Feat, but we didn’t care,” says Titchenell. “We only covered songs we loved.” They started to gain a regional fandom “Some of the covers were so obscure, crowds thought they were Jellyroll songs, no matter what we told them otherwise.”
By 1984, Jellyroll became a crowd-pleasing part of the same 23 East/Chestnut Cabaret circuit as the Hooters, Beru Revue, and Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers. By 1985, its focus moved more toward covers and the party band scene that would come to define the strip of outdoor clubs along Delaware Avenue such as KatManDu and Rock Lobster.
But Titchenell wanted more for himself and his musicians. “It was 1992, I was selling insurance, just got married and realized how much wedding bands were getting paid for their services,” he says. Cover bands were booked regularly for weddings, doing much the same thing — without the bold brass and reed sound — as Jellyroll.
So he put an ad in Philadelphia Magazine’s 1992 wedding issue, and before the month was up, Jellyroll had booked 20 weddings. “Because we had played every club, in the ’80s and ’90s, couples knew Jellyroll was fun. At first, it was weird being a wedding band — there’s that stigma, right, that no musician wanted to admit? — but once we figured we would do the same high-energy material, only now just in tuxes, we went for it,” he said.
Jellyroll never looked back. “Jellyroll got so busy. I’m still out selling insurance, talking about death and disability," he said. Titchenell formed additional bands, and founded BVT Live, taking on the management and booking of other top event ensembles in the area.
“Currently, we employ many local musicians who now can say they make a living doing what they love — that’s crucial for me,” says Titchenell. “BVT’s motto is, ‘We make dreams come true through the gift of live music.’ That’s true for the public, but also for our 100-plus musicians working every weekend, even daily, who might not be doing so otherwise.”
“I trust them,” says Jennifer Roberts, vice president of membership and special events at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Kurt can consult on exactly what we need for any themed event. And, Jellyroll is so fun and well known, people outside the city are often familiar with them. They have a far reach.”
That reach has even extended to the nation’s highest office, with the band having played twice for President George W. Bush. The first opportunity came early in 2007 after a wedding at Greenville Country Club that Bush’s daughter, Barbara, attended. “She was sweet as could be, danced all night, then she asked for a bunch of cards so to get Jellyroll work in Washington,” said Titchenell. “I figured, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Until a week later I got a call from Amy Zantzinger, the president’s assistant, to play the Congressional Ball — the one time during the year everybody gets along.”
Jellyroll got asked back in March 2008 for a private White House reception. “The president came up to me and said, ‘Don’t get any better than this, does it?' Jellyroll, jamming at the White House,” says Titchenell, laughing. “I’ll never forget that. Bush spent 20 minutes with us, hanging.”