Sydney EllisWhen and where were you born?
I was born on October 5, 1947, in Red Jacket, West Virginia. My father was a coal miner.Yeah, I know, I'm a coal miner's daughter. When I was 8 years old my family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. I grew up there in Cleveland.
Did you come from a musical family?
No, none of them are musical. Though my mother is an alto and sings in the church choir.
Are your children musically inclined?
Not at all.
I have 5 kids, ages 24 to 30. Four girls and a boy. I also have 2 granddaughters.
How did your children and family react to your decision to pursue music as a career?
They are totally uninterested in my career, and feel that I am making a big mistake and that it won't last very long.
At what point did you realize that you could carry one serious tune?
When I was a young teenager I loved the youth choir in church. There were two other girls and I who used to get together and try to sing as a trio, but nothing ever happened with it.
When did I realize I could sing? I still haven't realized it yet.
At 44 years old, what made you get up at that session in California and say “yeah, I can sing. I can do this...” ? That first step is always the hardest...
Since the time as a young girl trying to sing with the other two girls I wanted to be a singer. My first husband would not let me. My second husband said, "No one has the right to tell you what you can or cannot do." So when I discovered the freedom existed for me to do whatever, I started thinking about singing but had no idea on how to go about getting started. So I went to sessions and watched to see how things worked and eventually I decided that, "I can do that." So one session, the day after my 44th birthday I got up on the stage and called off an Ernestine Allen tune "Mean and Evil" I had taped off the radio. The guitar player asked me what key? I said, "Key, key, what's a key?" Well, they figured it out for me and I sang the song. I loved it, absolutely loved it, and I have been after as many gigs I can get ever since just so I can get up on that stage and sing. The stage fright was the hardest part of getting up on that session stage. I was going to the bathroom every three minutes waiting for them to call my name to go up there.
Why did you move from Los Angeles to Germany?
Well, there are a lot of reasons. I love traveling and going to Europe to travel was something I had never done before. Also, we had heard that the market for American Music was very good over there. Then we came out with the first CD. We took it around to the radio stations and the stations refused to even listen to it. The bigger clubs refused to even talk to us. So we saw no reason to stay in the LA area. We discovered that there was a very big disadvantage to being local. So we decided that if anything was going to come of this we'd better go someplace where we were not local. LA is the kind of music town that if you do not fit the preferred profile you could be Dinah Washington and never get booked. I did not fit the "Preferred Profile." The actual conversation my husband and I had was: "Hey, Evil (a nickname he gave me after that first session), do you want to buy a house and we'll keep working at our jobs and the music or do you want to go to Europe and see what we can do there ?" 5 seconds later. I said, "Europe." That was in May 94. We started making plans, finding out what we needed to have as far as paperwork and documents, and got rid of all our stuff, and on August 21 we did the last gig and after the gig we paid the band and continued right on out of town.
What made you decide to go to Germany?
We got the name of someone that would rent us some rooms until we got a handle on things, and found our own place. Also, Germany is in the middle of Europe.
Did you speak the language?
No, not at all.
Do you speak German now?
A little. I can ask where the bathroom is. There is nothing more important that.
Leaving the states must have been a very hard decision. Was your family supportive?
No, they were not. We drove across the country and stopped in Cleveland to see my family and tell them what we were doing and to leave our car with my sister. They thought I was stupid and that we would be back in about six months broke.
Do you miss the US?
No, I don't. I have seen many many places in the states and it was time to broaden our horizons and Europe is a very beautiful and diverse place. As a black woman, and I know only your black readers will understand this, there is a constant feeling that you have when you are in the states. It is so subtle that you don't notice it's there until you go somewhere else and discover that, "That feeling," is gone.
I know "that feeling" well....
You still don't notice this extra subtle feeling even after it's gone until you go back to the states. Then you notice it because as soon as you step off the plane you feel it return like a ton of bricks hitting you. The sad part is that I don't think that will ever change in the US. The differences are just too focused on, either consciously or subconsciously. Nearly all of us are aware of the differences, and the attitudes are so deeply rooted that they may appear to change on the surface but will never actually change. Not having that "Feeling" is what keeps so many of us from going back because we know it's there waiting for us. Here, that "Feeling" belongs to some other ethnic group. When I first noticed the absence of this "Feeling" I thought it was just me, but then we brought over a dear friend of mine who is also black and he was staying with us doing the Fall 96 tour. After a couple of weeks he commented that, "That feeling is gone," and that's when I knew it wasn't just me. Then we talked about it and he told me that it had been so long since he'd been here he had forgotten what it was like not to have, "That feeling." He said all the other Black Americans he had talked with who had been out of the states felt this change as well.
You have become a regular and quite popular in Germany and the rest of Europe. How did you develop your "act" once you arrived?
We already knew what we wanted as far as a sound. So we went to sessions all over Germany looking for musicians and gigs. We still do that. Then we had to teach them how to play the music and how to play the songs. That was hard. They don't have a word for "the in-betweens" in German. So it hard to explain concepts when the word for the concept does not exist in the native language. Unless you grow up with the music all around you, you don't know when it doesn't sound right. In Europe mainstream Jazz is the thing and there are no wrong notes in that kind of jazz. It's all wrong notes. That's why you can't tell one song from the other because nobody's playing the melody line. We've gone through about 100 musicians in four years looking for ones who could tell a right note from a wrong note. You know what it's like trying to tell a piano player to voice the chord darker when he has no idea what darker sounds like because he doesn't view a chord voicing that way. It is just another mathematical equation to him. I never had to give a piano player a chart for a 12 bar back home. Oh well, Sydney's blues school has been in full swing for four years now. But I tell you something. I would never trade the "Ups" because of the "Downs," never.
Your husband seems to be so supportive of career and you two share the same personal goals. When and where did you meet?
After I left my first husband I went to the Bahamas to get away for a few days and I met him there. He was doing some marketing for a company there. It will be 13 years in January 99. [Kevin] was born in Berkeley, CA.
Is your husband a musician also?
No, not in the sense that he plays an instrument, but he has this wonderful ear for the music. The arrangements on the CDs are his. He produces the live performances from the sound desk and listens to me and the band as a whole unit. During soundchecks he will often walk up and say, "I want you to do this song in this way or that way because it sounds better." He's great at finding the "Thing" in the song that makes the song. I run the show from the stage and he and I communicate very well throughout the shows. He also mixes the sound for the live gigs. He is the most qualified to do the sound because he has been at every gig we have had since I started (about 800) and knows what my voice sounds like and what the band is supposed to sound like. Especially volume. Neither one of us likes loud music. That's why there are no guitars in the band. To damn loud.
What made the two of you start your own label, Black Wallet Records?
We got turned down by Bruce at Alligator and we did not like it. We didn't want to spend years looking for a label to record with so we decided to do it ourselves. Remember, I was 45 and at 45 time is ticking fast.
When you were turned down by Alligator, did that invigorate you and your drive to 'succeed.'?
Yes, it did.
What did it take to get that first CD completed?
It was not knowing that we should not be able to. After we recorded the CD we told people what we had done and their responses were, "You can't do that." If we had thought we couldn't then we probably would never have tried. After we rehearsed the band we went into the studio and recorded all 11 songs in 6 1/2 hours, including lunch. It was really a lot of fun.
Your most current CD “Ask A Woman Who Knows” is a torch song lovers dream. How did you come up with those titles?
Thank you. I like this CD very much. I love Dinah, she is my favorite singer.
We_definitely_have that in common!
I would listen to her CDs over and over and love her voice and the feeling that would come out of [her], but so many of the recordings would have what was very popular at the time for backing music. I am talking about violins, choirs and absolutely no groove. I mean none. Sometimes what music was there had such outside voicing in the chords that I don't know how Dinah even maintained the melody line. But she did with the most amazing impact and feeling.
When she sings "I Got A Bad Case of the Blues" I can feel my heart wrenching....
Our CD really came from wanting to "Fix" those songs so that there was a groove and the music actually sounded like it belonged to the song, rather than some overeducated arranger exploring the technical possibilities and forgetting that the original objective was and still is the singer and the feeling and meaning in the words. The other songs are from Lou Rawls, Billie, Nina Simone and Ann Rabson. We tried to record a group of songs that all fit together well with a similar theme and feeling. We try to do this with all our CDs and will continue to do so, because it gives the recording project more continuity. This way we aren't bouncing from one approach on one song to a radically different approach on another. We can focus and explore the possibilities of each song in the same direction. Also, this helps insure that we don't need different musicians for each song.
Your "Amazing Grace" CD is all spirituals and gospel. What made you do this recording?
For me blues and gospel are very nearly the same.
I understand. I always think of the "My Babe" song by Willie Dixon. It is the exact same song as "This Train (is Bound For Glory" that I grew up singing in this little old Baptist church....
[Exactly!] I sing them both on stage with the same intensity and fever. So for this project the objective was to show how closely they are related and how a blues band can play a gospel or spiritual and have it sound like a blues tune with the exception of the meaning behind the words. Remember, the band I put together and have been working with for the past four years, since coming to Europe consists of piano, bass, drums and tenor sax (Hollis Gilmore). I remember once when Hollis was over here we were sitting in our living room talking and we had Rosetta Tharpe on the CD player and she went into a guitar solo and Hollis suddenly stopped talking, tilted his head and said something like, "So Albert Collins stole that lick from Rosetta, he should be ashamed of himself stealing from a sister like that." It may not have been Albert but it was one of those guitar guys.
What are your touring plans?
We are committed to Europe through January of 99 where we finish up at a wonderful little club in a ski resort called Zermatt in the Swiss Alps under the Matterhorn. Then in the later part of January we are headed to the states where we are going to do a radio station promotion tour. We will hook up with DJs we have never met but communicate with weekly. Go to sessions and hang and listen and have a good time. We will be working our way east to west ending in LA where Hollis has promised to cook for us. Then in mid March we are going back to Europe to take care of any final details before we start the Euro 99 tour. Which is in April and May. June and July we are scheduling a festival tour in North America. This will be the first time we have played there in nearly five years. The fourth CD is scheduled for recording in August. The rest of August and September we are on holiday in Europe, then from October through December we have the second part of the Euro 99 tour. In the beginning of 2000 I would like to go to Sydney, Australia. I've never been there before.
Why the blues, Sydney?
Because I love it. It's where I come from, it is always going home for me. Whether you call it Classic Jazz, Blues, R & B, Gospel\Spirituals it is all the same. It is about the words and the feeling. It's my heritage and my obsession. It's my identity.
How do you feel when you look out at your audience, adoring eyes are on you and things just “click”? Describe that feeling....
Oh wow, that is one of those feelings that go beyond words. I always have the lighting man turn the house lights up a little so I can see the audience. I need to see their faces and their eyes. I sing to them and I can see it in their eyes and their faces if they can feel it. It's a shared thing between them and me. It makes me feel so good when I open my eyes and see the audience, eyes closed swaying back and forth on a slow song. That's when I know I've touched them, and that's when they've touched me.
What are your inspirations?
I have so many inspirations. The love of the music, the love of singing the music. How it makes me feel to share it with the audience. How it feels when it is right, there is a magic to it when it's right. There is something more about this music though. There is a connection for me to this music that comes from my soul. I also have a very strong sense of pride in this music that relates to where it comes from and who it comes from. Not just people like Ethel Waters or Ma Rainey and what they had to go through just to do this music because the color of their skin, but the people who came before them and this is the where and the why I am really referring to. How something now called an "Art Form," that has it's origins it in such a hideous act of man against man, was really and could actually have been one of the few avenues for psychological and emotional escape for a people who could have absolutely no hope in the future. That's where this music comes from and that is the strength in this music. These are my people and my history. This is also why I think so many black people shy away from the blues. Because it's a reminder of how it was. How it still is in a lot of ways, but overall it is the pride I have in my music and the love of it. That's the inspiration.
The music business can be "thankless." It always amazes me how people seem to often search for the flaws instead of searching for the beauty. Often our artistic peers are the most critical. Criticism is very important. The key being that it is constructive and not malicious. What keeps you going when there seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel?
Living the life, and life itself. I work at this seven days a week, and never get fatigued from thinking about it. There is no burn out from this because for me this is living life. The music and me are the same thing. There is no separation of the two.
You are a mother, wife, grandmother and performer. So much of life you have captured. How do you want to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to take chances, not afraid to live life the way I wanted. Without being restricted or confined or nailed down to a bunch of preconceived ideas by a bunch of people who have never been outside their own borders long enough to know what it feels like. I would like to be an example, especially to the sisters back home, that anything is possible but first you've got to get off your ass and go do it. Because nobody's going to do it for you, and that anything is possible. Don't let anyone tell you, "You can't do that," especially those around you.
Visit Sydney Ellis' English language webpage. Visit Sydney Ellis' German language webpage.