Ken Kelly, a wildly successful and celebrated fantasy artist, who is responsible for many album covers for rock bands such as KISS, Rainbow, and Manowar, has died at the age of 76.
Kelly’s passing was confirmed yesterday by his friend Danny Stanton, president and founder of Coallier Entertainment. Stanton wrote: “RIP KEN KELLY. You will always be a legend in the KISS world. Such a great guy, artist, friend.”
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, as reported by Ultimate Classic Rock. “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.
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 an opportunity to take another crack at the design. 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.