Scott Ellison Says Now Is His Time to Shine
Interview with Barry Kerzner
Currently, people around the world are enjoying their music at home because for the last few weeks, a great portion of the world has been homebound trying to avoid being infected with the Coronavirus. No live festivals, concerts, or shows. In fact, artists and performers of every persuasion have seen their ability to earn a living shrivel up to a mere pittance. If they’re lucky, they are able to earn some money by performing live shows on Facebook or other social media venues.
It is in this climate that Scott Ellison delivers his best album ever. In fact, he believes Skyline Drive will be the best received music of his career in spite of the dire times we are living through. And why shouldn’t he feel that way? He’s played with everyone from Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown to The Drifters, The Coasters, and Gary “US” Bonds. He’s been putting out winning solo albums for years and playing his music for fans in every corner of our blue planet.
I was privileged to speak with Ellison as he shared moments from his amazing career including being praised onstage by none other than BB King himself. He also provided his perspectives on writing, recording, and performing.
Barry Kerzner – Oklahoma has such a rich musical heritage. Leon Russell, J.J. Cale, Chet Baker, Garth Brooks, Roy Clark, Wanda Jackson, Reba McEntire, and the legendary Woody Guthrie are just some of the great artists the state has produced. How does it feel to be a part of that?
Scott Ellison — It’s the greatest thing in the world. For a guitar player, this is the greatest place in the world to grow up. I’m a baby-boomer so the guys that were my heroes were J.J. Cale, Leon Russell, Barney Kessel from Muskogee, and on and on and on! So, growing up with that is your model and there was great local talent growing up in Tulsa. The musicianship of the guitar players was so great with everybody.
BK – Early on you played with Jesseca James (Conway Twitty’s daughter) …
SE — That was my first road gig back in ’77. Good experience. Did a US tour and a Canadian tour. Good way to jump into the road thing and learn early.
BK — … and later with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown in 1981. He was insanely good! How did you land that?
SE — My friend that used to play with him, David Tanner in Tulsa, fantastic piano player, singer played bass, played everything; wiz kid! The two of them got a nightclub together called Cardo’s Cadillac and they were having Gatemouth Brown booked. So, I asked David, “Hey I got to meet him.” I got there and we just hit it off immediately. We talked about music and… just one of those things. We talked about 30 minutes before they got a sound check. He said “Why don’t you go open for me? Do a song and then the band will bring me on.” So long story short, I did it and he loved it. He said, “I want you to leave with us in the morning.” That was like [going from] playing beer joints with 20 people in ‘em to playing bigger places, festivals, theatres here and there. It was an awakening like, “Whoa; There’s a whole other world out there.”
BK — So what did you learn from playing for / with them, from those experiences that you were able to use later on in your own career?
SE — With Gatemouth Brown I learned so much… Roy Clark was a big influence. Really? How they handled a crowd. You learned so much from Gatemouth Brown, how he handled the audience. Everybody does it different. I didn’t go solo for years after that, but you always carry those things with you.
BK — You relocated to LA in the mid- ‘80s…
SE — Yeah, I moved out there in March of ’83.
BK — Where you played with the Shirelles, Marvalettes, JJ Jackson, The Drifters, The Coasters, Gary “US” Bonds and Peaches & Herb. A good chance to learn a different, more soul infused perspective. How did you feel about that?
SE — It helped me. Growing up I loved all kinds of music. Living in Tulsa, JJ Cale, the Leon [Russell] thing. We grew up with the GAP Band. There was always a mixture of blues, Gospel and country, soul, and Rhythm and Blues. I mean I love everything from George Jones to Muscle Shoals… Everything coming out of LA and New York was good. So really, all those influences, and being a sideman for all these acts. You’d get to go out with The Coasters, The Shirelles, The Marvalettes, Gary “US” Bonds and Peaches & Herb, and you just get that soul. I played nothing but rhythm guitar so that was good. I had that period I was one of the first calls to play rhythm guitar with one of those acts on the road, so that was cool. There’s deeper knowledge; I loved every minute of it.
BK — You’ve said that your biggest thrill as a performer was when you opened for BB King at the Performing Arts Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma and he called you out to play with him and the band not once, but twice. Tell us about that.
SE — We were doing stuff off of Cold Hard Cash, and we did about a 50-minute set. Back stage, BB was getting around and the band really loved it and got to hang with the guys back there. So, BB goes out and gave me a real nice stroke onstage; beautiful things he’s saying. Then about 3 songs into his first set, he started “Rock Me Baby” and he called me out onstage and the horn players’ got a seat for me right next to him.
He talks to me and tells me he loves my show; “I love your tunes. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.” He remembered me in Las Vegas when we met in in ’88 or whenever. So, his memory is impeccable — it blew me away. He called me out again to take a bow and all that toward the end of his show. It was really cool. It was a great experience. He wanted me to play but it wasn’t set up for that; it was so off the fly that there wasn’t another rig out there.
Anyway, that was the biggest thrill of my life though to this day because, my late father was there, my late wife was there, so yeah, it was a cool thing!
BK — And since he’s passed it probably means even more now.
SE — Oh yeah; yeah! And the cool thing about that was that there was a guy that had a digital recorder and he got the whole show. Three or four days after that show, I put a thing on the internet, “If anybody has a recording of that show, I would be indebted for life.”
Then about three months later, I got a Facebook message from a guy in LA that was there at that show and recorded the whole thing. He made CD for me and sent it to me and years later he came to see us. To have the audio your favorite moment of your musical life and hear BB and relive it… If I get down, I just put that on, and it picks me right back up.
BK — In the mid- ‘90s you began recording solo albums, including Chains of Love on Quicksilver Records in 1993 and Live At Joey’s on Red Hot Records came in 1995. How does those experiences compare to recording your new album, Skyline Drive?
SE — That’s a great question! I was 35 when I went solo, because I was a sideman up until then. I decided I wanted to be a full-time solo guy, and I was already working on songs two or three years before I was out doing gigs in LA trying get my band oiled up, trying to get my sound. Chains of Love kind of started that, and I was still developing my live show when I made that record. Then I met my wife, who’s deceased; I met her on that Chains of Love tour when I played Tulsa.
Anyway, Chains of Love was my platform, my jump-start as a solo artist. Really, it was more R & B pop in there and then I got more into the straight-ahead blues and that morphed into my kind of soul, my kind of R & B. If you do it a lot, you’ll find yourself. That’s the whole thing. You just have to keep doing it and rehearsing it and playing it, and finally you’ll find your own stamp.
BK — Steve Crane joined you on Skyline Drive. He’s been on several of your albums.
SE — Yeah. Steve was my best friend in LA. I met him in ’88, and we became instant friends. He played bass with Glenn Fry on his solo tours. Great singer, great bass player, great song writer. We were on a gig together in the valley somewhere – I was subbing for some guy and he was subbing for some guy and we just hit it off. We wrote “Chains of Love” for my first CD and on this one we wrote “Coming Down from Loving You” together.
As I remember, both of our ladies left us around the same time in LA. We wrote a lot of great tunes together. He’s my touring bass player. I snatched him up as soon as I could get my hands on him! And then Robbie Armstrong, he’s been with me for 15 years. That’s the band right there.
BK — Also joining you on Skyline Drive is Chris Campbell. You said you’d been meaning to get together and write something, and when you did “the songs just started coming together.”
SE — They did, yeah. Chris was a hero of mine. He sang in a great regional band called The Mystery Band and my drummer Robbie Armstrong was the drummer in that band. Chris is always one of my favorite singers I’ve ever heard in my life. I ranked him up there with David Ruffin or any of those guys; I mean he was that good.
He’s a great writer; one of the best I’ve ever worked with. The magic with him is the best I’ve ever seen, and also being such a great singer, I wanted to bring him aboard and make him a part of this new album. It worked out great. It’s a great experience and I’m more excited about this record than any one I’ve ever done. For whatever reason, it just feels… even with everything going on with the planet – you just never know when the right time is and for some reason, it’s the right time for this record.
BK — The album has a very laid-back, sparse feel to it. You’ve described the recording process this way: “I’ve have known most of the musicians and engineers we worked with for quite a while, so the result is really a bunch of old friends getting together and having a good time doing what we love to do.”
SE — That sums it up right there. That’s it! With Chris and I writing all these tunes, we had a lot to pick from and we got the best 10 out of probably 100 demos, ‘cause Steve wrote one and I wrote one.
BK — It’s a really well-rounded album. The songs are well written and chock-full of great playing. The performances are good; very understated actually. It reminds me of the great early albums of Tinsley Ellis.
SE — Thank you, I really appreciate that compliment. Tinsley’s great and I love his older stuff — my favorite stuff is his early and middle period. Guys like that make you better. There’s great talent out there and we all got to dig in and keep this blues world alive man. He’s one of them that does it very well.
I’m glad to be having a shot with this Skyline Drive and working with Frank [Roszak]. It’s a great time. It’s gonna be exciting to see what happens.
BK — The album drops May 8th. With the Coronavirus preventing and /or restricting live shows, there’s a lot of folks online now, especially on Facebook, because I have friends that can’t work — they’re in the same boat you are. I mean, nobody has been able to work because you can’t play live. So, what they are doing is hour-long live performances on Facebook. A lot of artists are doing this. Do you have any plans for doing something like that if we are still under lockdown as time goes on? Maybe doing a virtual, online release party?
SE— Yeah. You know, it’s funny you say that. If we’re still on lockdown, I’m thinking of somehow getting my trio, and I’ll probably add Hank on keyboards — he played all over the record, and maybe do a CD release party on-air.
It’s funny you said it because I’ve been thinking like “What’s my B-Plan Scott?” I mean, if we can’t get out and play it.
BK— So what folks are doing is playing these live shows and they put their PayPal links up as a Tip Jar and they’re not making what they would on the road but they’re making something.
SE — Yeah, that’s it. I’m such a workaholic: I’ve just always got to be moving and playing music. My agent said, “You’re probably like a caged animal in a puppy cage right now.” I’ve turned into my home-studio hound. Keep the energy going. I’ve got a lot of new tunes, so that’s one good thing that came out of all this downtime.
BK — Are you considering putting out a video single?
SE — I thought about doing “Breathe Underwater.”
BK — “Lonely In Love” is another great one for a single.
SE — Yeah, that’s a good one. It’s funny; I’m glad you mentioned that because I’m getting more compliments on “Lonely In Love.” I’m so excited because even though it’s track 12, it’s still one of the best tunes on there and you have to end with a bang.
BK — You might also consider releasing “Woman’s Got A Hold On Me” for all the acoustic guitar lovers out there. I’m sure they’ll enjoy it.
SE — That’s an excellent idea. I do an acoustic show anyway, but I’ve been so close to the thing, moving’ and groovin’ that I didn’t even think about that. That would get the acoustic world more involved with my music, and maybe even reach a new audience.
BK — And right now, every pair of ears is another pair of ears! We talked about virtual shows and I saw that you have some dates for shows in Texas in mid-May. Are you still leaving those in place and hoping for the best?
SE — I’ve got ‘em on the books and I try not to look at my calendar anymore because I lost some good money in April man. I had casinos [booked] that were gonna generate some money. Those were gone; three of those in April, so I was like “Oh! Ouch!” I’m fine; financially I’ve got it under control.
I’m trying to be realistic and counting on, by then, it’ll be cool; it will be contained, and I can go back to work.
BK — Was there anything else you would like to add that I didn’t cover?
SE — I just want to thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
BK — Thanks. I’ve enjoyed it as well. Take care and be well.
SE — Take care my man.
Website: Scott Ellison Band
About Barry Kerzner
Music has been an integral part of Barry’s life since discovering Buddy Guy, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles as a small child. As time marched on, music influenced his art, his writing, and his life. While serving in the military, he experienced live music around the world.
Barry served as Editor-in-Chief for the now defunct ChicagoBlues.com and also served in various positions at AmericanBluesScene.com, including a stint as Editor-in-Chief. In addition to writing about music, he also writes about addiction and recovery issues.