“When people ask me about my blindness, I tell them, ‘I didn’t pay the electric bill on time… So they cut the lights out on me!'” – Ellis Hall
Through the ages, there have been a number of famous blind African American male entertainers in Gospel, Blues, Soul and Pop but few as unilaterally gifted as Ellis Hall. What other man can claim to have written 3,800 songs, sung at the funeral of Helen Keller at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and before Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Africa, been a member of Oakland Soul band Tower of Power and a lead voice for the animated California Raisins, been nominated for a Ovation Theater Award for his very first stage role in “The Gospel At Colonus” (in which he sang, acted, and walked the stage and stair props mostly unattended), and penned the official song of the city where he grew up: Claxton, Georgia. Welcome to the unprecedented greatness of Ellis Hall.
When it comes to music, Ellis Hall does it all. He is a seasoned and accomplished vocalist in possession of a powerful 5-octave range. He is a songwriter, arranger, producer and educator that teaches clinics in which he records all the parts of a song in 45 minutes. Ellis’ first instrument was drums before he went on to master piano, keyboards, guitar and – his favorites – upright and electric bass. Across a career of 40-plus years and counting, Ellis Hall has proven himself as an all-around performer that has entertained audiences on five continents, sharing stages with giants ranging from James Taylor, Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle and Toby Keith to Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Bobby Womack, George Duke and Sheila E. His reputation of excellence earned Ellis the moniker, “The Ambassador of Soul.”
Young Ellis was diagnosed with Congenital Glaucoma at an early age and lived knowing one day he would be blind. Ever mindful of that fate, Ellis practiced all of his instruments in the dark so he would always be able to play them. He played football and competed in wrestling, maintaining good sight in his left eye until an injury from the latter at age 18 prematurely robbed him of his sight once and for all. His most cherished memories: sunsets and pretty ladies. Though the side effects of glaucoma are physically painful, psychologically, Ellis prepared himself for blindness beautifully, seeing himself as ‘differently-abled,’ not disabled.
“My mission in music was divinely designed for me to be uplifting for myself as well as for others,” he states.
Ellis Hall, Jr. was born May 10, 1951 in Savannah, Georgia and lived in nearby Claxton where he and his brothers and sisters were raised Southern Baptist by Papa Ellis and Mama Vanna. Because Ellis was legally blind, the family moved to Massachusetts where Ellis attended The Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. The state paid $10,000 a year for Ellis’ entire kindergarten through 12th grade education on the campus, initially as one of only three Black students.
He later met there his first wife, Sue – White and blind – siring four children.
As a child, Ellis’ greatest friend was the radio, introducing him to music across the spectrum from Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to Patti Page and Peggy Lee. By third grade, he took his first piano classes but was not fond of the rigorous classical training. At 8, Ellis caught the performing bug singing Doo Wop on the corner where folks appreciatively tossed him nickels and dimes that he traded for soda and chips. But it was at 14 that Ellis really got serious about a life in music after sneaking a peek at the B3 organ quartet Quint Harris & The Preachers whip patrons into a frenzy down at Jim Nance’s Lounge in Boston. Ellis ran home, cobbled a drum kit from scratch with an old pair of bongos and makeshift hi-hat cymbals. He soon after studied bass with violin master Paul Beauguss. Even his piano teacher Henry Santos would take a break in his lessons to allow Ellis to grab his bass and jam some jazz with him. Ellis got so good that vibraphone legend Milt Jackson snatched him up for local gigs. When Milt asked to take Ellis on the road, his mother said no, insisting he complete his schooling. Most days Ellis’ schedule was school 6am-6pm, eat, play lounges like Estelle’s from 8pm-3am, sleep, repeat – teaching himself guitar in between.
Ellis’ first professional recording was for rocker Paul Pena on Capitol Records in 1971 playing bass and singing background on his single “The River.” Then in 1973, he formed The Ellis Hall Group. Their first gig was opening for an early incarnation of Earth Wind & Fire whose leader, Maurice White, was so impressed he said their performance inspired him to make his group step up its presentation. On another stop opening for the Temptations, Ellis’ group performed Side 1 of Stevie Wonder’s new Innervisions LP and received a standing ovation. On another show opening for the Spinners, when that group’s bass player went M.I.A., Ellis saved the day by playing all of their hits from memory, shocking everyone.
When The Ellis Hall Group opened for Tower of Power he astounded every member. Leader Emilio Castillo begged Ellis on four separate occasions to join T.O.P., each time for a different axe. After relocating to California in the early `80s, Ellis finally joined, documented on the LP Power which included the funky single/video “Credit” and the bittersweet ballad “Some Days Were Meant For Rain.” Ellis sang and composed the latter dedicated to a former manager that was having marriage problems. The couple heard it and stayed together for 35 years.
Ellis became super busy in Los Angeles as a session musician and featured artist on records with artists such as John Klemmer, Carl Anderson, Larry Dunn and Kenny G, the latter with whom he scored a Top 15 R&B hit singing a Preston Glass-produced remake of Jr. Walker & The All-Stars’ “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” from the multi-platinum Duotones LP (Arista – 1986). Ellis also got busy in Hollywood, singing songs for live action and animated films such as “The Lion King 2,” “Shrek 2,” “Chicken Run,” “Invincible” and “Bruce Almighty,” and acting in the comedy “Big Momma’s House” (Martin Lawrence) and the crime drama “Catch Me If You Can” (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Ellis finally met his greatest inspiration, Ray Charles, in 2001 at a Christmas party. “Ironically, I was playing ‘I Can See Clearly Now,'” Ellis quips! Ray sent for Ellis to come to his table where he animatedly stammered, “Who are you and why have I not heard of you until now?!” “Papa Ray” signed Ellis to his CrossOver Records label in 2002, mentoring him at his famous RPM Studios. Sadly, when Ellis’ record was set for release in 2004, Ray died… But not before hipping him that he needed to get on the Symphony Show circuit. Ellis did his first one in 2005 at the Hollywood Bowl and has since been playing with prestigious 81-piece orchestras internationally, including the Pittsburgh Symphony with Marvin Hamlisch conducting. Ellis’ first concept show was “Ray, Motown and Beyond.” In Sept. 2016, he debuts “Soul Unlimited” (conducted by Jeff Tyzik) where he “Ellis-izes” songs from David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” to “Something” by George Harrison (which Ellis recorded on his CD Straight Ahead featuring Billy Preston on organ).
For all of his fine work in music, film and entertainment, Ellis has been showered with awards, proclamations and civic honors that fill the lovely home he shares with his wife and manager, Leighala J. With the long-awaited release of several new and shelved albums from across his storied career; Ellis Hall has satchels more soul to showcase his greatness for decades to come.
Agency Leighala J Management & Entertainment
Phone (770) 885-3511