We are sad to report yet another passing of a Jamaican music great. Bobby Ellis, the foundation trumpet and flugelhorn master, passed away last Tuesday, October 18th, 2016 at the age of 84 after being hospitalized for nearly a month for pneumonia.
Born in Kingston in 1932, Bobby Ellis started his musical journey at the Alpha Boys School, like many of the foundation instrumentalists such as Johnny Dizzy Moore, Deadly Headley, and Rico Rodriguez. Ellis entered the school because his father worked with a doctor at the public hospital who had great influence at the school, and his father made a request for the doctor to grant admission for Bobby Ellis and his brother. During his seven years at the Alpha Boys School, Bobby Ellis studied multiple forms of classical music, studying trumpet specifically from Raymond Harper. He did not play in the orchestra, which had not existed at that time, but Ellis’s music education did also include Big Band style, making him perfect for the dance hall circuit in Jamaica, where bands would be required to perform multiple genres of music. Ellis left the Alpha Boys School at fifteen to work in the bus building industry in order to raise funding for his own trumpet. And after six years away from his music studies at the Alpha Boys School, he was able to buy his first trumpet and began to practice on the instrument again.
On returning to music, Ellis, in the late 50s, joined a big band, believed to be led by Tony Brown, and after Jamaican Independence in 1962, he was a member of the Mighty Vikings. In 1964, Deadly Headley recommended the Mighty Vikings record for Coxsone Dodd, and that would mark the beginning of Ellis’s recording career. In the first session recorded for Coxsone Dodd, the Mighty Vikings recorded 4 hits that included the vocals of Joe Higgs and Bob Marley & the Wailers. In this first session, “Cyrus” was a track written by Ellis and recorded on that monumental day, and as thus, it is the track that begins this memorial show on Bobby Ellis. After the Mighty Vikings, Bobby Ellis joined the Soul Brothers on the invitation of Roland Alphonso, whom Ellis had already recorded an album with. Though Bobby Ellis generally was a member of Coxsone’s music stable, but he also went to other labels, including Treasure Isle and Matador. Ellis in turn would also join Tommy McCook’s band and Lynn Taitt and the Jets.
There are many many Bobby Ellis recordings throughout the early and mid 1960s, but due to Mixcloud restrictions, we cannot play more than 4 tracks that bear Bobby Ellis’s name as the artist on the record. Also, during rocksteady, horn arrangements were not as popular as in ska, and consequently, Ellis would tour the hotel circuit on the North Shore, joining bands led by Hooter Williams and Llans Thelwell. During his time with Coxsone, Ellis had proven himself as a highly accomplished arranger, so much so that he had his own office in 13 Brentford Road where producers and band leaders would visit him to write horn arrangements for their tracks. And by the time reggae arrived, Ellis would be arranging again, this time with his longtime friend and collaborator, Deadly Headley.
Deadly Headley started Ellis’s recording career, and the two seemed to operate on the same wavelength, and the closeness of the two seminal musicians is further proven by the fact that the two men passed away only months apart from each other. In fact, Ellis entered the hospital only 6 days after Deadly Headley’s passing.
For his contributions to Jamaican music, Bobby Ellis received the Order of Distinction in 2014. Rest in peace Bobby. We extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends.