Beauty in the Dark
‘Lose Your Senses’ with MUSE/IQUE and Tower of Power’s Ellis Hall
By Carl Kozlowski 08/15/2013
As a child, Ellis Hall knew he was going blind. The Georgia native suffered from childhood glaucoma, which was inexorably leading him toward total blindness. But Hall also had a natural gift for music, and he would often sit in darkened rooms and play instruments, practicing for the day he could no longer see.
Following a wrestling accident at age 18, Hall lost his sight completely, but he never stopped playing music, using his well-honed skills and five-octave voice over the past four decades to perform on more than 40 albums with superstars like Stevie Wonder and James Taylor and sign with the record label run by his idol, Ray Charles.
Now Hall is bringing his amazing talents to Pasadena Saturday night for a concert with the innovative MUSE/IQUE orchestra, teaming up for “Lose Your Senses,” an evening of classic soul and classical music featuring works by Wonder, Charles, Marvin Gaye, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.
“I had an epiphany at age 14 that I’d love music, so I practiced in the dark so I could play without sight,” says Hall, speaking by phone from his home in Eagle Rock. “It was physically, not emotionally, painful to lose sight. But I knew nothing would stop me, and that’s why I call myself the poster boy for perseverance, persistence and determination.”
As usual, it’s been a busy year for Hall, who performed on July 4 with the Boston POPS as part of its annual fireworks extravaganza. He will be performing with the Detroit Symphony next and already has his plans for New Year’s Eve, since he’ll be jamming at the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
In Saturday’s show, he’ll be playing a classic Hammond SK2 organ, accompanied by a trio of female backup singers he likes singing with at every show. But his real musical weapon is his voice, which has been the main source of his success over the years in performing with such legendary acts as Tower of Power, The Temptations, Earth Wind and Fire, The Spinners, Natalie Cole and Herbie Hancock.
“My vocal abilities came about through my vocal coach in high school, who was dear friends with Nat King Cole,” Hall recalls. “He said he could teach me how to sing, but it was up to me to unlock the soul. I also heard Donny Hathaway and learned to do all his high notes and low notes.”
Hall started his recording career by leading the Ellis Hall Group in the 1970s, and received his big break when Tower of Power reached out to him to sing with them on their “Power” album in 1984. He wrote nine songs for the album and was such a success on that collaboration that he is prominently featured on the band’s 40th anniversary DVD and CD. He still does occasional guest spots at their concerts.
Despite the focus on his unusually supple voice, Hall also plays drums, acoustic and electric bass and guitars, and various forms of percussion. He plays both his own original tunes and seeks to “Ellis-ize” the songs of others. A “proud 62,” he has two sons and two daughters with his wife Leighala, who also is his manager. But his favorite professional memory is likely the day he finally met his idol, Ray Charles.
“A friend of mine who had a local store asked me in 2001 if I wanted to play a party,” says Hall. “He said he’d get Ray there, but a lot of people say they’ll bring Ray or Stevie. Ray did come and I was playing ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ when I was grabbed to meet Mr. Charles as the band was cooking. Next morning, he called and asked who in the heck I was and why he didn’t hear of me. He was known for using expletives and so that’s the family-friendly version of the story.”
Hall’s show Saturday will also be family-friendly. But don’t assume that that means it won’t be a groovin’ night of fun as well.
“I’m so excited to play with Rachael because they do such innovative things in MUSE/IQUE,” says Hall of MUSE/IQUE conductor Rachael Worby. “This show comes with a warning: Don’t hold it inside, ’cause you can hurt yourself!”
Ellis Hall and MUSE/IQUE present “Lose Your Senses” at the Beckman Auditorium lawn of Caltech, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $35 to $96. Call (626) 530-7085 or visit muse-ique.org.