Multiple sources confirmed Kelly’s passing, including his friend Danny Stanton, president and founder of Coallier Entertainment. Meanwhile, Kiss’ former manager Bill Aucoin paid tribute to the artist with a Facebook post displaying two of his famous pieces, accompanied by the caption: “When a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Born in Connecticut in 1946, Kelly initially began his career in the early ‘70s, working on comic books and horror magazines for Warren Publishing. It was Kiss drummer Peter Criss who put the artist on the band’s radar.
“I had always thought it was Gene Simmons, but Criss’s wife said it was he who was reading Eerie and Creepy while Gene and Paul Stanley were reading Marvel comics,” Kelly noted to Print magazine in 2018. “So I would say Peter Criss was fundamentally responsible for me ending up being the cover guy.”
Kiss enlisted Kelly to create the artwork for their 1976 album Destroyer. He was given a basic concept and asked to produce an image in 30 days. Thankfully, his experience in the magazine industry had prepared him for tight deadlines.
“Warren was publishing magazines every couple of weeks, so the turnaround [for covers] had to be very fast,” he explained. “You had to come up with a concept, paint it, deliver it, and then you were on to the next one. So when Kiss came along, I was ready.”
Despite his readiness, Kelly’s initial painting was rejected by the band’s label. “They thought it was too violent,” he recalled. “It was 1975, and they didn’t want to launch such a large project with such a negative cover. I thought my career was over. That was one of the heaviest blows I’ve ever received.”
Instead of ending his career, Kelly was given the chance to rework his painting. The result would become Destroyer’s now-legendary artwork.
The popularity of that album cover led many more rockers to enlist Kelly’s services. Rainbow had Kelly create the artwork for 1976’s Rising; Kiss brought the artist back to paint the cover for 1977’s Love Gun; Manowar used Kelly for six albums between 1987 and 2007; Coheed and Cambria featured an original Kelly piece on their 2007 LP No World for Tomorrow; and Kelly reteamed with former Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley for his 2014 solo album Space Invader.
Outside of rock, Kelly remained steadily employed for decades, crafting his distinctive, fantasy-inspired images for everything from book covers to toy packaging.
“What I want to do is paint stuff that people like to look at,” the artist explained to The Knoxville Mercury in 2017. “Any subject—fantasy, not-fantasy, toys, business products, whatever the hell it is, I’m going to try to make it look real good.”
In Memoriam: 2022 Deaths
A look at those we’ve lost.