The renowned singer-songwriter discusses his remarkable career and performs in studio.
Singer-songwriter Ellis Hall
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight we’re joined by Ellis Hall, the former lead vocalist and keyboardist for Tower of Power, who sits down for a conversation about his new Symphony show and performs for us tonight here in studio.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Ellis Hall is coming up right now.
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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ellis Hall aka the Ambassador, to this program tonight. He kicks things off with a performance of “I Really Want to See You Tonight” from his new Symphony show called “Soul Unlimited”. Then he’ll return for a conversation. Here now, though, Ellis Hall.
Tavis: Woo! Ellis Hall, you a bad man.
Ellis Hall: Bro…
Tavis: You are a bad man [laugh].
Hall: Trying to hold it down, brother, trying to hold it.
Tavis: You know, I think there’s so many people who have heard your voice on soundtracks, on TV commercials, but are really seeing you for the first time on television do what you do.
Hall: Yes, sir.
Tavis: Where have you been all these years, for those who’ve never heard the name Ellis Hall?
Hall: Well, you know I had a bit of visibility with a group called the Tower of Power.
Hall: After that, I started doing television and movies behind the scenes, but always there. Now I made an appearance in the movie, “Big Mama’s House” and folks saw me as the organist pop up and act a fool [laugh]. And now the word is “foo'”, foo [laugh].
So after saying that, I’ve just been around doing what I do through the grace of God recording, performing, writing, singing. I’m so honored to be this vessel, and thank you for recognizing this vessel and letting me come on here.
Tavis: We been friends a long time and I’m glad to make this happen. Speaking of friends for a long time, tell me about your friendships with two other great artists who happen to have been sightless. Stevie Wonder and your friend, Ray Charles. Tell me about your friendship with Stevie and Ray.
Hall: Well, one thing’s for sure is, yes, we do talk about driving cars [laugh]. No, no. Stevie? Oh, what a spirit. I mean, and Ray. Ray, if he didn’t think you were bringing it, he would lay you out. But if he felt you were coming to the highest highs with our A-game, he would exalt you.
You know, that’s the thing of working with Ray, especially for the last few years of his life. He called me his protégé, but as I lovingly say, George Benson got hold of him and said, “I had him first.” [laugh]. But working with Ray and Stevie, bottom line…
Tavis: And being on Ray’s label.
Hall: Oh, yeah, absolutely signed. I was the last one to sign Ray actually on his label of Crossover Records. And Ray would say to me, “Boy, you got so much music in you, it’s scary.” And I called him Papa Ray, so “Look who’s talking, Papa Ray.”
But we happened to have a couple of things in common, Ray and I. One was having had vision and lost it and seeing the red clay of Georgia and the great commonness of how we loved our mothers. You know, we had that.
And then he said to me, “Ellis, you need to be doing symphonies.” And I said, “Now, Papa Ray, it would be great. How do I do it?” He made a couple of phone calls and the rest is history. The Symphonies, my brother, one show running called “Ellis Hall Presents Ray, Motown and Beyond”. So I take all these songs and Ellisize them. The second one…
Tavis: I like that. Ellisize them [laugh].
Hall: That’s right [laugh]. And the second one is “Ellis Hall: Soul Unlimited” which kicks off in Utah. We’re doing Salt Lake and Ogden and then we go to Rochester and then we’re coming to Florida, Tampa, St. Pete and Clearwater, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Reading, Pennsylvania. So look out, man. The train’s coming through. Y’all better get on.
Tavis: What is an Ellis Hall Symphony like? What’s the evening like?
Hall: Well, it’s 81-piece orchestras and I get them–you know, they read what’s on the ink. But I get them to jam with me. I get them to say, okay, we’re taking a song like “Higher and Higher”, Jackie Wilson, and take it to another level. And I get so excited I start jumping up and down because the Holy Ghost gets inside. Hey! [laugh]
Tavis: And I’ve seen you jump up and down.
Hall: Come on now!
Tavis: There was a beautiful play, “The Gospel According to Colonus”…
Hall: Yes, sir.
Tavis: And I saw you perform here in L.A. at the theater company run by our friend, Wren Brown–shout out to Wren–great company. But I saw you in this play and Wren had told me about how amazing you were in rehearsals.
But I had no idea that you were actually going to be walking around the stage. Like how did you work that out? I mean, I was praying for you the whole night, right? I was like “Ellis, don’t jump that way!” [laugh]
Hall: And that’s so funny because Andi Chapman, the great, great director, she kept telling me. She said, “You may know where you’re going, but please use the certain things that give you the landmark because we don’t want folks having a heart attack up in there. You know, the insurance might be paid, but please take it easy on us.”
No, it was amazing and you know something, brother? I had not done a play since high school, and that was barely one play. I was not into the drama stuff. I was into the music stuff. So when they asked me to do it, my wife Leighala, she twisted my arm.
Wife and manager, she twisted and Wren Brown was twisting the other one. “You gotta do this.” So finally I said okay, and, boy, the rest is history. What a brilliant show.
Tavis: It was a brilliant play and you killed in it.
Hall: Thank you.
Tavis: Let me go back to your point you made earlier, Ellis…
Hall: Please, please.
Tavis: When you talked about some of the things that you and Ray had in common.
Hall: Yes, sir.
Tavis: Both of you were born with sight and went blind. Tell me the Ellis Hall story of going blind.
Hall: Well, it was at 18–okay, first of all, a year into my birth, my mom and pops noticed that my eyes were developing differently. First of all, from brown, they turned to blue. What had happened, congenital glaucoma, which I tell everybody, get checked. Glaucoma has no symptoms. Please get checked to keep the pressure down.
So they noticed, and I was born in Savannah, Georgia, raised partway in Claxton, and they said, “What are we gonna do?” My mom used to cry at night. “What are we gonna do to get my baby to make his own way?”
They had the brilliant thought to move me up to Boston, Massachusetts, but going to a school called Perkins. Please let me give a special shout-out to the amazing programs at Perkins School for the Blind where Miss Helen Keller and others have developed their great skills of interdependence.
And also a shout to my dear friend, Mr. Kevin Bright. He’s a co-creator of “Friends”. We’ve known each other a while. He has made some amazing programs over there, again, to show that nothing stops us but us.
But having said that, I used to wrestle and play football. They didn’t tell me I shouldn’t be caught doing contact sports. So at 18, a gentleman hit my good eye, my left eye, by accident and I always tell friends lovingly, “Oh, come on. The real deal is I didn’t pay my electric bill on time, so light’s out.” [laugh]. Come on, come on.
Tavis: How do you process, though, how do you process being able to see…
Hall: And then not?
Tavis: For 18 years and then not?
Hall: Because I remember what I call the important things, looking at pretty ladies and sunsets [laugh].
Tavis: In that order, huh?
Hall: Yeah [laugh]! And I used to–because they told me that my sight could go away at any time, I used to practice my instruments in the dark. Once I learned I was going to be in this music madness, I learned how to play drums, basses, guitars, keyboards, whatever it took.
In fact, I was doing the beat box way before they thought it was the beat box because I don’t mess up the mic like that kind of vibe [laugh]. Come on now.
Tavis: I love this. I mean, I am fascinated. As long as I’ve known you, I never knew this story. So when you knew you were going to go blind, you literally started practicing all your instruments in the dark?
Hall: Yes. I would literally–for instance, my days, I’d turn the lights off or I’d stand in a closet so I wouldn’t disturb anyone. So I’d play it over and over literally until my fingers bled so I could get to know the instrument by feeling.
For instance, when I go to someone’s drum set, I’ll feel it for about two seconds or three seconds and try and play it like it’s my own. That’s what it does. I call myself the poster boy of PPD, perseverance, persistence and determination. Hallelujah.
Tavis: What role–I’ve known you for so long, so I know you to be a person of faith. What role has your faith played in helping you navigate this peculiar journey?
Hall: Well, it’s knowing, first of all, and learning that I become the vessel. I know that that power that is behind this vessel never fails. So all I have to do through any peaks and valleys in my life, keep walking, keep laughing, keep loving, keep letting people know without a doubt I have the choice to wake up smiling. We all have that choice to wake up smiling or, as I say, wake up and be on the other side of the bed as a snarkasaurus [laugh].
We do. We have that choice, so I’d rather get up and smile. It doesn’t mean that my day won’t be bad. I can recognize sad, but thank God, the attitude of gratitude thanking God that I’m here standing, walking, and can celebrate my day, and maybe somebody else might want to celebrate with me.
Tavis: See, that’s amazing that somebody else might want to celebrate with you because I have never–and I mean this sincerely.
As many times as I have seen you or talked to you or hung out with you or you’ve gotten voicemail message which I get from you routinely, and I love hearing them, I’ve never known you to be in a bad mood. I mean, every time I see you, you always lift my spirits and everybody’s around you. But you got to have some bad days, though, man.
Hall: Well, you know, the cheapest therapy, brother, this little thing right here.
Tavis: Okay, all right.
Hall: You know, if you [strumming guitar] I mean, you can’t feel bad! If you’re ringing the fire alarm, come on [laugh]! You can’t help yourself, you know [laugh]. The train’s coming through. You have a choice to get on the train or get out the way ’cause it’s gonna come!
And that’s what I say. Take folks on a journey, be it symphonies or festival gigs with the band. We’re gonna make you shout. And if we’re singing a slow song, you know, if you’re with someone special, you want to hold them close enough, leave enough room for the Holy Ghost [laugh].
Tavis: Tell me about this unique gift you have–and there are a lot of artists who have it who can take a song and cover it, but you don’t just take a song and cover it. To use your words, you Ellisize it.
Hall: That’s right.
Tavis: Tell me how when you hear a song, you know whether or not it is a potential to be Ellisized.
Hall: Well, you know, that goes back to Ray. Ray was not afraid of doing country music. And back then, Black folks and country music, that was unheard of. Modern sounds of country turned the music industry on its ear.
Now having said that, if I hear a song like the song I’ve just performed, “I Really Want to See You Tonight”, it used to be called “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”. England Dan and John Ford Coley?
Tavis: Oh, great song, yeah.
Hall: And Parker McGee, a dear friend. I called them up and I played it over the phone and he was crying like a baby because I said, “If you slow that down and make it a love, soul ballad, you can make anything a soul situation, thereby the title “Ellis Hall: Soul Unlimited”.
Take songs that you really think are soul and make them your own. That moment that song came from had already been created, so why create the same moment? Why not create a new one?
Tavis: A different moment, yeah.
Tavis: Because you play so many instruments, Ellis, which one did you play first?
Hall: [Laugh] Okay, in school, they taught me piano, right?
Tavis: Okay, okay.
Hall: But I didn’t really concentrate on it. They’d play me some, you know, or Bach or Tchaikovsky or whatever and I’d have to learn my Braille music, but I would start playing the rock and roll stuff. But when I had my epiphany at 14, I went home like a house afire and made myself my own drum set. So I taught myself drums and learned to play standup bass by a violinist named Mr. Paul Vargas.
Learned how to play bass guitar, regular guitar, and I drove my parents crazy because I learned how to play the bar chords [strumming guitar]. And mom would say, “Son, I know you got to practice, but do you have to make all that for us?” Then she came to see me and said, “Lord knows, it was sure worth it.” Amen.
Tavis: I suspect that every person who is blind has this challenge. Clearly, Stevie has mastered it. Clearly, Ray mastered it. You have mastered it. What’s the trick for how you direct the band while you’re onstage? How do you pull this off, man?
Hall: You know what? They see that left hand. It goes up and a lot of times, they’ll know what I want with that left hand.
Tavis: What’s the left hand mean when it goes up?
Hall: When it goes up, it means either we’re going to a bridge or we’re gonna stop or sometimes…
Tavis: Wait, hold up, hold up. What’s the difference between stop and bridge when it goes up?
Hall: Well, it depends.
Tavis: You turn it a certain way?
Hall: I may turn it a certain way and I may turn it to “Here we go!” Or I may put it up there. It’s like, “My turn, teach!” [laugh]. You know, I hold this long note and they’ll know to stop and let me hold that note until I turn blue [laugh].
Tavis: And your background singers are so cool. Those sisters, man.
Hall: We got some folks and we got some other ladies who travel with us sometimes. Believe me when I tell you, who’s ever up on that stage, just let them bring their A-game. They’ll study their homework because they know I have some harmonies that will mess with your mind. They call me sometimes the D Ranger [laugh].
Tavis: I love you, man. What brings you the most joy?
Hall: The most joy for me is when I’m in the zone, whether it’s recording or whether it’s performing. And, of course, celebrating my family which includes my lovely wifeager, Miss Leighala. You know, just being able to have peace. When I’m on the road, it’s hectic.
But at home in our Pasadena home, having peace where I can celebrate from within and then let it all hang out. Be that light that’s shining at someone. I always feel singing and playing and otherwise, the gates of heaven open up and I walk through. Somebody else might want to walk through with me.
Tavis: Good Lord. For those who didn’t catch that term that you used–you want to describe that one more time, wifeager?
Hall: Oh, wifeager? Wife and manager, yes. Absolutely [laugh].
Tavis: There you go, okay.
Hall: Absolutely, come on now.
Tavis: She’s the wife and the manager.
Hall: Amen, the boss. Amen.
Tavis: In case you have never heard–well, you’ve heard him before whether you know it or not. In case you never knew his name, Ellis Hall, you should do what some of my staff have already done earlier today. Just go online and Google Ellis Hall and you can get a good feel of all kind of stuff that he’s done that you can find online. But if you stay…
Hall: At www.ellishall.com.
Tavis: There you go, I was about to hit it.
Hall: Come on! I knew you were.
Tavis: Hit it again.
Hall: I saw your cue card there [laugh].
Tavis: ellishall.com online. But if you stay still for one second, he’s gonna close us out tonight with an original song. Here comes Ellis Hall performing, “Girl, You’re Not in Kansas Anymore.” That’s our show for tonight. Goodnight from L.A. As always, keep the faith, and here comes Ellis Hall.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.