This story, by Kim Kalunian, was originally published on 630wpro.com on August 13, 2015.
“Sail away on the Block Island Ferry!”
You just sung that in your head, didn’t you?
Chances are, if you’re from Rhode Island, hearing the jingle’s Caribbean rhythm instantly conjures up images of summer in the Ocean State.
“Leave today, Block Island awaits you…just leave your troubles behind!”
The laid-back vocals and sound of steel drums make Block Island seem like a tropical oasis, when really it’s just an hour-long ferry ride away. But who’s responsible for the iconic jingle that’s been coaxing folks to hop aboard the ferry to “sail away” for a quarter century?
The answer was not easy to come by.
When I first set out to track down the people behind the jingle, a spokeswoman for the Block Island Ferry said she would look into it. That was in 2013. Two years later I still didn’t have an answer so I took matters into my own hands.
Tireless Google searches finally led me to Pamela Akins, who lists on her Akins Marketing and Design website that she was an Ad Club of Greater Boston Hatch Award Finalist for the ferry jingle. Bingo!
After a few calls and emails, Akins told me that she indeed used to work for the Block Island Ferry and wanted to brand both the ship and the island with a signature song. (A Block Island Ferry spokeswoman later confirmed that Akins did commission the song back in the 1980s.) At the time, Akins said she had her heart set on a particular sound: not quite reggae, not quite calypso, but an “island sound.”
Akins told me she had the perfect people in mind to write and perform the song: a popular Connecticut-based band named RazMaTaz that played area gigs covering jazz standards. Two of the members, a husband-and-wife team named Rob and Cindy Kelly, were the voices on the Block Island Ferry song, Akins said.
Victory! I could finally put names with the dulcet tones imploring me to set sail to Rhode Island’s own island escape. But where were Rob and Cindy now? Akins didn’t know. I was crestfallen, but not deterred in my mission to track them down.
So I went back to the drawing board (a.k.a. Google). RazMaTaz had clearly played gigs in and around Rhode Island, but not in at least 16 years. The band had gone dark and left only a handful of PDF newspaper clippings in its wake.
So I turned my focus to Rob and Cindy Kelly, who, as it turns out, have very generic names. Did you know a Google search for Cindy Kelly yields more than 97 million results? Well now you do.
Then one day, after trolling the internet for Rob Kelly’s who played piano, it happened. I found a page for Robert Kelly & Friends at the Gateways Inn on Facebook. My heart skipped a beat. I heard the steel drums in my mind. Could this be the same man who tells people to “just lie in the sun all day”?
I sent a message. I waited. And then, an answer: Robert Kelly & Friends confirmed that he was indeed the Robert Kelly I was looking for.
“I can’t believe it,” Kelly said when reached by telephone a few days later. Kelly, who now lives in Massachusetts, said he wasn’t aware the jingle was still running here in Rhode Island.
He said when Akins and the owners of the Block Island Ferry approached him – he thinks it was sometime between 1989 and 1991 – he seized the opportunity to sell one of his original jingles.
“Well, Block Island is an island so we said we wanted to give [the song] that island flair,” said Kelly. “I always loved music that had some of that Latin feel to it.”
Kelly said he wrote the song quickly and presented it to Akins and the people at the Block Island Ferry. They loved his first draft so much they barely made any changes. The duo played the instruments and laid down the vocal tracks for the song, and the rest is history. He said he still has the master tapes somewhere.
Rob and Cindy Kelly have since divorced, and the members of RazMaTaz have gone their separate ways, but the music they made together certainly has staying power.
“After all these years the Sail Away on the Block Island Ferry jingle still works,” said Megan Moran, spokeswoman and sales manager for the Block Island Ferry. “Our customers arrive at the ferry terminals singing it. In the beginning of the season when Rhode Islanders start to hear the jingle they know summer is around the corner.”
So I was curious: Is Kelly still collecting royalties for a song that’s been attracting thousands of people to Block Island for the past 25 years? Not quite.
Kelly got a single payment for writing and performing the jingle: “I’d love to say it was $50,000 but no, it was more like $500,” he said.
Still, he’s a fan of Block Island, and has taken the ferry to visit several times.
“Is it as magical of an experience as the song makes it seem?” I asked.
“Even more so,” he said.