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Germany's most famous family band returns to the stage

Philipp Jedicke db
March 24, 2017

They were Germany's American-Irish Trapp family. Two parents and a slew of children traveled Europe in a VW bus, singing and performing, and eventually became famous. Now the Kelly Family is making a sold-out comeback.

Kelly Family
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Sobiralski

Rarely has a band been loved and despised as fiercely as the Kelly Family. 

Adored by (mainly female) teenagers and ridiculed by the German national press as the "singing used clothes collection," the American-Irish family group in flowing hippie garb was at the pinnacle of its success in the mid-1990s with hits like "An Angel" and "I Can't Help Myself."

Restless patriarch

In the mid-1960s, Dan Kelly, whose ancestors emigrated to the US from Ireland during the Great Famine in 1850, returned to Europe with his first wife and four children. The family first lived in a town in central Spain, where Dan fell in love with Barbara Ann, a dancer and the family's nanny. He eventually left his first wife and married Barbara Ann. The couple had eight children.

The children were homeschooled in reading, writing, arithmetic - and taught how to sing and dance, occasionally by renowned musicians and music teachers in the area. In 1974, the family embarked on what was to be 20 adventurous years of singing in streets all over Europe. Initially, the family traveled in a VW Bully T1, only moving on to a London double-decker bus after the VW was stolen.

Life on the road

The family toured Germany, Austria, Italy, Ireland, France and the Basque region, played concerts for free, surviving - just barely - by selling cassettes with their music. They lived on the premises of an old chocolate factory in Cologne, a camping site in Hamburg, and on a farm in the Black Forest.

Kelly Family in 197
The Kelly Family in a German TV show in the late 1970sImage: picture-alliance/Keystone/Röhnert

Barbara Ann died of breast cancer in 1982. Dan and the children lived in Paris in a dilapidated inner city hotel and even returned to the US for a while. Between 1983 and 1994, the family performed three times a day, rain or shine, and sold hundreds of thousands of self-produced albums.

Breakthrough in Germany

The Kelly Family catapulted to fame after the popular German "Bravo" youth magazine published a two-page article about the buskers. The family played a major "Bravo" music show in January 1994 - and in May, they had their first sold-out concert in a large venue in Dortmund.

"Over the Hump" was their commercial breakthrough, selling more than 2.5 million albums in Germany alone. All of a sudden, they were famous, in particular Paddy and Angelo. Their busking days were over, and occasionally, the family was forced to employ bodyguards because fans besieged their home on a houseboat in Cologne by night and day.

Kelly Family houseboat
The famous houseboat was moved to a technology musuem in Speyer Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Wittek

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the oldest Kelly children tentatively started solo projects of their own. Dan Kelly's death in 2002 was a major upheaval for the family. Heartthrob Paddy Kelly disappeared in a monastery for the next six years, Barby vanished completely from the public eye and Joe Kelly morphed into an extreme athlete while Kathy and Maite Kelly continued to work as musicians and performers in various German TV entertainment shows.

The comeback

Last year, Angelo Kelly, once a child star and now a father of five, announced that he, Patricia, Kathy, Jimmy, Joey, John and Paul Kelly had agreed to give a concert on May 19, 2017 in Dortmund - in the same venue they first sold out more than two decades ago. Paddy and Maite were to continue with their solo careers.

The May concert was sold out within 18 minutes. Two more concert dates were added. They, too, were quickly sold out.

Despite the 20-year break, the typical Kelly Family chorus works "like a charm," Angelo said. But they all have to work twice as hard because they don't look as "young and fresh anymore," the 35-year-old musician added. "We have to sing better so people won't notice."