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David Shelley, Fort Lauderdale blues guitarist, dies

Fellow musicians remember Fort Lauderdale blues guitarist David Shelley.

David Shelley, an uncommonly skilled guitarist and bandleader whose reliable presence on the South Florida blues scene belied a wildly eclectic journey to near stardom and back, reached the end of that road on Monday morning.

Shelley died in hospice care at the Fort Lauderdale home of his daughter Daylin after a long battle with cancer. He was 57.

Per David Shelley's wishes, there will be no funeral service, his daughter said on Monday, but a memorial service is being planned for Aug. 23 on Fort Lauderdale beach near the B Ocean Hotel Fort Lauderdale, once known as the Yankee Clipper Hotel. Another appreciation of his life and music is being arranged at the Funky Biscuit in September, she said.

Shelley, a California native who made his debut on the South Florida music scene more than three decades ago, lately could be found with his band Bluestone, with whom he released two albums, "That's My Train" (2012) and "Trick Bag" (2013).

Under a trademark cowboy hat, usually slung low over his face, embraced by a halo of rock-star blond hair, Shelley and band were a fixture at some of the area's top blues venues from Miami to Lake Worth, as well as a popular act at signature outdoor events, including the Riverwalk Blues & Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale and SunFest in West Palm Beach.

Such was the respect for Shelley that when the revered O'Hara's Jazz & Blues Café closed on Las Olas Boulevard in 2008, it was his band that played the last edition of its popular Sunday-night shows. Five years later, when the Riverside Hotel introduced the inaugural Las Olas Blues Festival, it asked Shelley to be among the first performers on the grassy void left by O'Hara's demolition.

"He was a major talent, one that people were just starting to get what he was about," says Fort Lauderdale jazz guitarist Randy Bernsen, a friend of Shelley since the 1970s. "He's also one of the funniest people I've ever met, with a heart of gold."

In November, when organizers of the Jazz and Blues Festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, asked Bernsen to help find a blues guitarist, it did not take long.

"I told them, 'I've got the man,'" Bernsen recalls. "Dave was a super blues guitarist, also versed in some jazz. He just had a love for all music. He could play guitar, then switch to the bongos, and then kick ass on a song vocally. He was finally coming into his own, right about the time he got sick."

A multitalented singer-songwriter and guitarist, Shelley was born with music in his blood: His mother, performing as Martha Stewart, sang with Glenn Miller's band and acted in films and television. His grandfather Buddy DeSylva founded Capitol Records with Johnny Mercer and Glenn Wallichs.

DeSylva was the lyricist for such standards as "Button Up Your Overcoat," "Sonny Boy," "California Here I Come" and "The Best Things in Life Are Free." Shelley covered his grandfather's "The Birth of the Blues" on his album "Trick Bag."

Guitarist Albert Castiglia, a friend since they played together in the Alligator Alley Allstars more than a dozen years ago, says that Shelley never brought up his glamorous background. But it did find its way into Shelley's well-known sense of humor.

"He was really good at impersonations," Castiglia recalls. "He did a great Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion from 'The Wizard of Oz,' and a great Oprah Winfrey. He was really funny that way."

Shelley moved from California to Fort Lauderdale in 1979, opened a small recording studio and found quick success with a popular rock-reggae band, Ti'shan. Later, with the David Shelley Band, he released a handful of songs that hit South Florida radio stations, including "She's Only Rock 'n' Roll" and "Battle of the Sexes."

In 1984, MCA Records decided they could turn the soft-spoken Shelley's songs and rock-god looks into stardom, and beckoned him to Los Angeles. The album he recorded for MCA was never released, but the trip wasn't a total loss: Shelley caught the eye of talent scouts, and he scored a role in the remake of "And God Created Woman" with Rebecca De Mornay (his songs also were on the soundtrack) and dabbled in network soap operas, including "The Guiding Light" and "General Hospital."

In 1990, Shelley was the lead guitarist on Cher's Heart of Stone world tour, and is seen in one of her best-known music videos, "If I Could Turn Back Time."

The following year, he was named music director of Fox TV's "The Ron Reagan Show," hosted by the son of the former president. The show did not last long, but Reagan's memories of Shelley endure.

"I have often thought about the mistakes I made and what I might have done better to ensure the success of our show," Reagan wrote in an email to Shelley last week. "I have never, however, regretted for an instant my association with you and your bandmates. You were the one undeniably wonderful aspect of our endeavor. … Over the years, through your music, you have brought tremendous joy to many. You have shared your great gift and made a positive difference in the lives of others. This is a form of loving, and love is the most valuable thing in life."

Castiglia says he was touring Europe a couple of years ago when he heard Shelley's music come over the PA in the concert hall. The promoter told him he was a big fan of Shelley and had been trying to get the guitarist over to tour.

Last year, Shelley got an offer from a European record label, but an hour later received his cancer diagnosis, and the record deal didn't happen.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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