Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis (1914-1977)
Big Chief Ellis was a barrelhouse pianist from Alabama who recorded behind many great Piedmont blues artists in the '40s and '50s in addition to making his own fine, if lesser-selling, records.
Chief was born Wilbert Ellis in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914. He got his nickname from a childhood friend because his mother was a Black Creek Indian. His early life was apparently a bit unsettled, as he was brought up in Birmingham, Mason City, Eylton, and Titusville, Alabama. He started to teach himself the piano at the age of eleven, practicing on the piano at school or, in exchange for work, playing at his aunt's house. Chiefs's father was a minister and didn't allow blues in their house; they didn't even own a radio. There were a lot of piano players in Birmingham back then, and Ellis absorbed their songs and sounds; he particularly liked Price Lanier, a jazz pianist who could play the blues. Lanier always played the blues in major and minor keys, giving him a sound a bit different than the others. Ellis loved it and always played the same way. Soon he was good enough that, when his parents found out he could play, they let him play at parties near his home. In 1936, Ellis left Alabama with a friend, hoboing north. It wasn't a matter of economics, though; according to Chief, "I just liked the adventure." He spoke fondly of those days, saying he enjoyed the exploring and new experiences.
Ellis served three years in the army during World War II; during that time he either wrote or picked up a song (the accounts vary) that went Drinkin' Wine, Motherf*cker, Drinkin' Wine. After the war, Chief wound up in New York, but didn't work as a piano player. New York has never been much of a blues town, and there wasn't much/any call for a barrelhouse piano player. At one point he was running a bar that was a hangout for local bluesmen; the regulars got to talking blues and wanted to hear blues piano in B flat and D flat. No one knew Chief could play until he sat down at the bar's piano and played. One of the musicians, Brownie McGhee, was impressed enough to call Bob Shad at Continental, who recorded Chief for the label and for the Sittin' In With label he later started. Ellis backed McGhee (and his brother Sticks) several times, including Sticks' one hit, Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee. Brownie backed Ellis on the latter's signature tune Dices Oh Dices, a song about his lifelong profession as a gambler. Ellis became a fixture of New York's small blues scene, playing every weekend with Brownie and occaisionally with Sonny Terry. He also recorded with/behind a large number of the city's R&B-flavored bluesmen, including Tarheel Slim, Leroy Dallas, Mickey Baker, and Ralph Willis.
Eventually, Ellis became disillusioned with the music business when he realized he was getting no royalties and quit playing. In 1972 he bought a liquor store in DC on Good Hope Road. Brownie, about to depart with Sonny for Australia, stopped by the day he was moving and got Chief's new phone number. An Australian who interviewed McGhee on that tour found out that Chief was alive and living in southeast DC. He wrote to several people in the city, including Dick Spottswood. Spottswood kept trying to record him, but Chief was reluctant. Then one day, he was called to be a replacement for Big Boy Crudup at a concert after Crudup had fallen ill. Ellis was reluctant, having played only at parties, but a $75 check for 15 minutes of playing finally convinced him. He was well-received and decided to get back in music. He began playing at festivals with an unknown local guitarist named John Cephas. Having played with so many great Piedmont players, Ellis' piano fit in well with Cephas' clean fingerpicking. Ellis recorded a single for Rounder and an album for Pete Lowry's Trix label. This album had Chief solo and backed up on various songs by Cephas, Tarheel Slim, and Brownie McGhee. In 1975 he and Cephas added bass player James Bellamy and harmonica player Phil Wiggins to the lineup, calling themselves The Barrelhouse Rockers. They played at festivals all over the east, though mainly in and near DC. In 1977, Ellis moved back to Birmingham, having grown tired of the crime in Washington. Right before he was to leave on his first European tour outside of the military, Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis, the last of the great Alabama barrelouse piano men, passed away.
Big Chief Ellis, on the Trix label (3316), has been re-released on compact disc. It is fine effort, with Chief solo and backed by three great Piedmont guitarists; I highly recommend it. An album of his early sides on Continental (Folk Blues, CLP 16003) was at one time available on vynil, but I haven't seen it on compact disc.