Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Seger Ellis - A Forgotten Pianist And Vocalist

Retrieval, RTR 79074
While listening to one of the CDs in Retrieval's excellent series of 'Unissued on 78s' (RTR 79074 - more info available here) I was amazed to find out that Seger Ellis, a male vocalist star of the 1920s, actually started his career as a piano player, moreover a decent one. The Retrieval CD has four (unissued) piano solos by Ellis, three of them recorded in August 1925 and one untitled in 1928, and he is further featured as a piano player with Lloyd Finlay and his Orchestra in seven recordings from March 1925, his debut as a recording artist. - A YouTube video has the audio of one of the 1925 unissued piano solos as featured on the mentioned CD - 'Freight Yard Blues', recorded August 10, 1925

Seger Ellis (1904-1995)
Seger Ellis (1904-1995)  was a pianist and vocalist from Houston, Texas. He began his career in 1921 when a radio station in Houston hired him to broadcast a weekly show of solo piano music. In 1925, Victor Records came to Houston to record the Lloyd Finlay Orchestra. They wanted to record eight sides, however, Finlay had only four original songs. The Victor representative had brought two new songs with him and to fill in the remaining sides, Finlay suggested Seger Ellis to be brought in to record with the band. His two songs so impressed the Victor management that they brought him to their Camden recording studios in August 1925 to record fourteen piano solos, which were among the first Victor recordings made using an electric microphone. Although only four sides were released, two became hit records, 'Prairie Blues' and 'Sentimental Blues'.

Prairie Blues, piano solo by Seger Ellis
Shortly after returning to Texas, Columbia asked Ellis to make his first vocal recording for the company's OKeh label. He moved to New York and eventually became OKeh records most popular male vocalist in second half of the 1920s, in fact so much so that OKeh gave him his own silver and black picture label, a rare honor.

The special label used by OKeh  for Seger Ellis records
Many of his OKeh recordings feature jazz arrangements with studio groups that included Eddie Lang, Mugsy Spanier, Tommy Dorsey, Mannie Klein, Joe Venuti and even Louis Armstrong a.o.. - Below I'll insert some examples of Ellis' popular vocal recordings from the OKeh/Columbia period.

From May 1928, here's Seger Ellis' version of 'Sweet Sue, Just You'
Next a 1929 recording of 'Ain't Misbehavin' featuring Louis Armstrong on trumpet

From December 1930, here's Seeger Ellis' version of 'Cheerful Little Earful'

In 1928, Ellis toured England as a soloist and following a meeting with the popular vocal group the Mills Brothers in Cincinatti in 1930, he became the manager of this group for a few years while continuing to perform as a soloist through the '30s. His vocal contributions were in high demand and he had guest appearance with the Paul Whiteman orchestra, recorded with Frankie Trumbauer and further participated in a 1934 Hollywood film, 'One Rainy Afternoon'. Beginning in 1935, Seger spent nearly a year creating music with a group he called the Brass Choir, then assembled something of a more normal instrumental big-band line-up for another group under his leadership in 1939. - Here's an example of Ellis' big band from this period

Ellis disbanded in 1941 and enlisted in the Army-Air Force in 1942 for some time. After moving back to Texas he began to be less active as a performer and more involved in songwriting. Among his many compositions are "My Beloved Is Rugged" and "11:60PM" (both recorded by Harry James), "Gene's Boogie" (recorded by Gene Krupa), and "Little Jack Frost, Get Lost" and "You're All I Want For Christmas" (both recorded by Bing Crosby). "December" was recorded by Count Basie with a Mills Brothers vocal. The Seger Ellis songwriting catalog also includes "No Baby, Nobody But You" and "You Be You but Let Me Be Me". - Seger Ellis gradually retired and took up residence in Houston where he died in a retirement home on September 29, 1995.

CD front: Jazz in a Sentimental Mood (The Old Masters)
The above info is excerpted from a couple of articles collected here,  a more detailed career profile is available here and an extensive collection of Ellis' recordings made between 1925-1935 is free available in streaming audio and mp3 format here. The shown CD from the Old Masters with extensive notes by Allan Dodge released 2001 is still available and contains 26 tracks recorded late 1920s and early 1930s, for purchase here .

Seger Ellis is an almost forgotten vocalist, who started his career as a solo pianist and was later hired by Columbia records as a vocalist. He was featured on Columbia's OKeh label and had success with his small band recordings featuring the cream of New York's musicians of the time. Later he formed his own big band and then concentrated on songwriting before retiring to his home town, Houston, where he died in September 1995. The above entry gives a short review of his career.

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