She was known as "The Lady of 6,000 Songs."
She was featured in a major motion picture based on a New York Times bestseller.
She performed for thousands over the span of her career, including presidents, governors, politicians, movie stars, family and friends.
Folks like Clint Eastwood and Johnny Mercer and Lewis Grizzard sat next to her at the piano.
She was famous across the nation and, dare we say, around the world.
Yet Statesboro locals called her their own. She was "Mrs. Emma." And, according to a book authored by her son, Emma Kelly remained Statesboro's, despite her fame and notoriety.
His mother and their large family are what prompted G. Ross Kelly to author the book "What's Your Favorite Song?" to share the legacy of his parents and the family they produced.
Emma Kelly performed regularly for the famous, the important and the wealthy, but her very favorite audience was a small, intimate gathering in Statesboro or nearby Savannah, where she could ask someone, "What's your favorite song?" and then immediately begin playing, completely from memory, the notes of any song requested.
Longtime residents of Statesboro probably remember what made Emma and George Kelly famous initially was their family — the size of their family, that is.
George Kelly, from Statesboro, met and fell in love with Emma Kelly of Leefield and the two were married in 1936. George was a hardworking, successful sign painter and Emma worked a variety of jobs helping make ends meet during the height of the Depression.
It took a lot to make ends meet, because very soon, their family started growing. And grow indeed: Their marriage eventually produced 10 children, who grew up, married and had kids of their own, taking the number of Kellys to the 96 now in the family.
During a book talk earlier this week at the Statesboro Regional Public Library, Ross Kelly encouraged others to preserve the legacy of their own families.
"Everyone has a story and every story needs to be told. Have you told your story?" Kelly asked. "These family memories are invaluable to you and your kids and your grandkids."
In his book, Kelly tells how his mother's musical talents began at the tender age of 3, when she plunked out the notes to "Jesus Loves Me" without any assistance. He shared that she began playing the piano for others at a very early age and continued playing for church events, civic groups, birthday parties, proms and for anyone who asked her to play.
During World War II, Emma Kelly began playing for USO events at Fort Stewart, which eventually led to other gigs in and around the area, including Savannah. Emma often drove to Savannah every night of the week to play.
"But one thing was for sure," Ross Kelly added at his book talk. "We were going to be in church on Sunday mornings."
Ross shared that his mother and one or two or more of the children she'd incorporated into her performances might get in at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning. But the entire family would rise, dress and attend services at First Baptist Church, where Emma played the piano for Sunday school and sang in the choir.
In fact, Ross shared Emma and George's 10 unwritten rules at his book talk — the rules are included in his book — and one of those rules was: "You will go to church." You'll have to read the book to find out what happened to Ross when he decided to skip church one Sunday and walk across the street to the Howard Johnson's Restaurant. A hint: He said God's punishment wouldn't have been as harsh as his mom's.
Another rule — "You will learn music" — was definitely a given, and all of the Kelly children learned to tap dance, sing and/or play a musical instrument. Emma and George incorporated their children's talents in many of Emma's performances.
Emma Kelly was famous in Statesboro's eyes long before others took notice, but her national fame started when she met and became good friends with Savannah-native songwriter, Johnny Mercer. Mercer had heard that Emma Kelly could play every song he'd ever written. With a little initial skepticism, Mercer found out that she could not only play his songs, but practically every song anyone had written. Thus, he dubbed her "The Lady of 6,000 Songs."
The moniker stuck and years later John Berendt, editor of New York magazine who fell in love with Savannah, met and equally fell in love with Emma Kelly's talent. He included her in his book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
The book became a bestseller, and, when turned into a movie, Clint Eastwood rewrote the script to include Emma Kelly as herself in the movie. He, too, was enthralled with her musical talents and abilities. At the age of 80, Emma Kelly had a role in her first and only movie.
But Emma Kelly's life wasn't defined by being nationally known or as an inductee in the Georgia Hall of Fame or the honorary doctorate degree from Georgia Southern.
Her legacy remains her loving marriage to George and her love and care for her 10 children. The fact that she could play any song ever written from memory was just a bonus.
And the fact that once someone told her their favorite song she would remember it forever, well, that's just what made her our Mrs. Emma.
Join the family of George and Emma Kelly for a book launch celebration on Saturday, Nov. 7, at the Forest Heights Country Club at 7:30 p.m.
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