Kelley Hunt, an R&B singer, found the love of her life at the age of 3. It was then that Hunt first pounded the black and ivory keys of her family’s piano, which set off a career that took her all way to the Kansas Music Hall of Fame in 2006. She will perform at the Manhattan Arts Center on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Hunt, who was born in Leavenworth but grew up in Emporia, was surrounded by music her entire life.
“My mom was a singer and she still is a really wonderful singer, and my dad played upright bass in the Navy band,” she said. “My older brother and sisters played acoustic guitar.”
Her house was also filled with the sounds of Jimmi Hendrix, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin.
Oftentimes while she was growing up, her parents would host jam sessions at their house with other area musicians.
She still carries memories of these jam sessions while she is on stage.
“I take it seriously, and my players take it seriously,” she said. “When we’re on stage we have a combination of real concentration and wild abandon. There isn’t a time that I can think of where I was in performance setting and I wasn’t thinking, ‘Man this is so much fun.’”
Being in the spotlight was not always easy for Hunt.
While she was growing up, Hunt would perform in local clubs around Emporia.
“I really wasn’t center stage,” the musician said. “I just played keyboards. I was too scared.”
An unusual situation put Hunt center stage and a place from which she has never looked back.
“I was in the first year of joining this band,” the R&B songstress said. “They had a girl who was the singer ,and she just didn’t show up, and they looked at me.”
While Hunt sang in school she was still uncomfortable with the idea of performing.
“I’m more of a musician than an entertainer,” she said.
At the time, mind you, Hunt was not even old enough to be in the club. Many of the clubs at which she played needed her parent’s permission to let her in.
But Hunt got on stage in the pressure-packed situation, and since that dire circumstance Hunt has shed her shyness now with more than 1,500 performances under her belt.
She also just released her fifth album, Gravity, in 2011.
Although Hunt’s career is on solid footing now, there were times when Hunt wondered whether she should continue to follow her passion.
“When I was first starting out, I played in some real challenging places,” Hunt said.
She also struggled with an aching voice that left her unable to speak occasionally, and all of her income was poured in to her instruments.
Hunt said she carried a hot plate around with her to every performance because “God knows I couldn’t afford dinner.”
The Kansas native felt as if her hard work was not leading anywhere.
“There have been times when I thought, ‘Gosh, can I keep going?’
Then, in 2007, Hunt won a Governor’s Arts Award, which encouraged her to continue her career.
“It gave me another shot of energy to keep going,” she said.
Now Hunt is co-owner of a record label, 88 Records, which gives Hunt ownership of her masters and songs. She said those tracks are the best representation of Hunt, who writes all of her own songs.
Many of Hunt’s songs are written from daily observations.
“Since I’m in airports a lot, I’ll overhear conversations or a line that someone says,” she said. “I’m most interested in the human experience.”
One of her songs, called “Heartland,” is featured at the Flint Hills Discovery Center during their multi-media presentation and hits on a deeply personal level for Hunt.
“The song was about a real experience,” she said. “I was on the road, and I was homesick. That really is something that happened to me.”
While Hunt knows that every song she writes won’t hit everyone on the same emotional level, she hopes at least one song out of 10 provides that service.
“Maybe it lifts them up and comforts them and gives them joy,” she said about her tunes. “If there is a moment of relief from a person, then I know I’ve done my job.”
It’s a job that Hunt hopes to be doing as long as she lives.
“I just do everything I can to preserve my voice,” she said.
Hunt’s voice will be well rested for her Manhattan performance. Although it’s been a few years since her last trip here, she is looking forward to her return.
“It’s really nice to get back there,” Hunt said. “It’s a fun place for me to play.”
Hunt will perform Friday evening at 7:30 p.m. at Manhattan Arts Center. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for military personnel and students.