|Willie John Ellison, born 1941, Landgraff (McDowell County)
In 1959, John Ellison quit his job at the Carter Hotel in Welch, McDowell County, and bought a one-way ticket to Rochester, NY, to pursue his dream of becoming a singer and recording artist. With all his belongings in a grocery bag, he arrived in Rochester with $3.25 to his name. Eight years later, after playing in several bands without much success, he formed The Soul Brothers Six and was the group’s lead singer and songwriter. The group’s first recording, “Some Kind of Wonderful,” was released in 1967 on Atlantic Records and peaked at No. 91 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. After the group disbanded in 1969, Ellison played guitar for former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier before forming another group of his own. In 1975, Grand Funk Railroad released a version of “Some Kind of Wonderful” that reached the No. 3 spot in the nation. To date, the song has been recorded by more than 62 different artists and sold more than 42 million copies. Notable versions were recorded by British blue-eyed soul band Q-Tips (featuring lead singer/guitarist Paul Young), Buddy Guy, Huey Lewis and the News, and English soul singer Joss Stone. As a result, Ellison has received five Lifetime Achievement awards for writing one of the most played songs in the world. The Soul Brothers Six were called a “major influence on modern music” in Peter Guralnick’s 1987 book Sweet Soul Music. He has collaborated, toured, performed and recorded with artists such as Patti Labelle, Diana Ross, James Brown, Pam Greer, Smokey Robinson and Little Richard. Ellison continues to record and tour nationally and internationally. His childhood home in Welch is being restored as a landmark.
|Russ Hicks, born 1942, Beckley (Raleigh County)
Pedal steel and dobro player Russ Hicks has established himself as one of the best studio musicians in Nashville. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hicks was one of the “A Team” musicians who played on hundreds of albums. Growing up in Beckley, Hicks learned guitar and his high school rock band The Teen Tones was signed to Decca Records and relocated to Las Vegas. After a year, Hicks rejoined his parents in South Carolina, graduated high school and moved to Chicago where he played clubs for three years. Back in WV in the early 1960s, he taught music and played locally including spots on The Buddy Starcher Show. Inspired by pedal steel great Buddy Emmons, Hicks took up the instrument. In 1965, he found a gig on the Slim Mims TV Show in Florence, SC, playing lead and steel guitar. When Hicks learned that steel guitarist Weldon Myrick was leaving country star Connie Smith’s band, he went to Nashville to audition. He was hired in 1967. After touring with Smith, Hicks landed a gig with Ray Price (when Price’s band featured five fiddlers). When Hicks returned to Nashville to concentrate on session work, he met fellow West Virginian and studio veteran Charlie McCoy. Hicks found himself working with Nashville legends such as Grady Martin, Hargus Pig Robbins, Pete Wade, Buddy Harmon, Bob Moore, Jr. Huskey and Harold Bradley. He played on records by Marty Robbins, Ronnie Milsap, Mickey Gilley, Larry Gatlin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom T. Hall, Don Gibson, Wanda Jackson, Townes Van Zandt, the Charlie Daniels Band and many more. He also was featured on various movie soundtracks including Clint Eastwood’s movie Every Which Way But Loose. For 13 years, Hicks was a member of the house band (led by Charlie McCoy) on the TV show Hee Haw. In the 1970s, Hicks joined the Nashville based band Barefoot Jerry, led by fellow West Virginian Wayne Moss. Hicks’ performances include various workshops and a yearly appearance at the world famous “Scotty’s International Steel Guitar Convention” in St. Louis. Hicks was inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 2011.
|Bob Thompson, born 1942, Jamaica, Queens, NY
Moving to West Virginia in the mid-’60s to attend then West Virginia State College, pianist Bob Thompson is West Virginia’s ambassador of jazz and perhaps the state’s best-loved musician. He has touched many people’s lives as an entertainer and, as a teacher, has inspired dozens of young people to pursue careers in music. Growing up in NY, he sang in street corner doowop bands and came to West Virginia to attend WVSC on a scholarship to study trumpet and music education. After being introduced to jazz, and switching to piano, he quickly became a staple on the local scene with bands like the Modern Jazz Interpreters and Joi. After some independent releases, he signed to Capitol Records subsidiary Intima and later to the Ichiban label. With guests including guitarists Larry Coryell and Kevin Eubanks, violinist John Blake, drummer Omar Hakim, and bassist Gerald Veasley, Thompson further developed a contemporary sound that combines old school bebop, blues and ballads with an undercurrent of funk. Two of his albums climbed into the top 25 in Billboard's contemporary jazz chart while four of his releases made their way into the Top 10 on the Radio and Records jazz chart. Over the course of his career, Thompson has performed in Algiers, Brazil, Algeria, Nigeria, Europe and Scandinavia, and made apperances on BET. In 1991, Thompson signed on as the the house pianist for NPR show Mountain Stage, which earned him a considerable reputation outside the world of jazz. In addition, for the past decade, Thompson’s annual holiday jazz show Joy To The World has become a regular feature of Public Radio International’s holiday programming.
|James Edward Haley, 1885-1951, Hart’s Creek (Logan County)
Blind from the age of three, fiddler Ed Haley influenced many great artists both before and after his death – including the great Clark Kessinger. Haley traveled widely throughout West Virginia and Kentucky. He performed his repertoire of old-time music including breakdowns, jigs, waltzes and show tunes at square dances and fiddle contests, and played in courthouse squares. During the ’20s and ’30s, Haley also made and sold his own records, and played on the radio in Cincinnati. His wife Martha Ella Trumbo, also blind, accompanied Haley on mandolin and played on many of his recordings. Martha’s son Ralph Payne recorded Ed and his mother’s playing on a home disc-cutting machine and many of those recordings were eventually released by Rounder Records. One of those influenced by Haley’s playing was the late John Hartford. Hartford studied and sang about Haley's life, performed his music and recorded it on his albums. Among those songs is “Hell Up Coal Holler,” in which Hartford sings about Haley’s travels in WV and eastern KY, playing on trains and in smokehouses. He played one of Haley’s fiddle tunes, “Shove That Hog’s Foot Further in the Bed” as well as Hale’'s arrangement of “Man of Constant Sorrow” on the “Down from the Mountain concert.” At the time of his death, Hartford was researching and writing a book on Ed Haley’s life.
|Oby Edgar “Buddy” Starcher, 1906-2001, Ripley (Jackson County)
Within West Virginia, Buddy Starcher attained as much if not more popularity than any other single country artist. Starcher grew up in Nicholas County and first played on radio at WFBR Baltimore, MD, in 1928. He worked at WCHS Radio in Charleston three different times, for two or three years at each stint, and also at WMMN Fairmont, at WPDX Clarksburg, and at WSVA in Harrisonburg, VA. His radio work also included notable stays at KMA Shenandoah, IA; WCAU Philadelphia; and Miami, FL. Compared with other artists, he recorded rather sparingly but still had more than 100 songs on disc beginning with 14 sides on 4 Star in 1946 which yielded his first national hit and best known composition, “I’ll Still Write Your Name in the Sand.” In 1949, he moved on to Columbia where he did 10 numbers over a three-year period. He recorded for DeLuxe in 1954, and many numbers for Starday including the 1962 LP Buddy Starcher and His Mountain Guitar. From 1960 until 1966, Starcher had a popular morning TV show at WCHS-TV Charleston which had higher ratings than the Today show on NBC and is fondly remembered throughout much of the Mountain State and adjacent portions of Ohio. Some of his songs were thoughtful or comedic recitations including “History Repeats Itself” – which was covered by Cab Calloway – and “A Taxpayer’s Letter.”
|Harry Van “Piano Man” Walls, 1918-1999, born in Middlesboro, KY
As the house pianist for Atlantic Records from 1949 through 1955, Harry Van “Piano Man” Walls was the architect of R&B blues piano. He grew up in Charleston where his mother was a piano teacher. He left home as a teenager and toured the South with carnivals, circuses, and variety caravans. In the 1920s, he returned to Charleston and played as a solo pianist in local clubs and on WCHS (AM) radio. In the early-’40s he played in Cal Greer’s band, then formed his own band based in Columbus, OH. In 1949, Walls signed on as the house pianist with Atlantic Records in New York where he played on virtually all of the label’s R&B tracks during the 1950s, notably with Joe Turner (he was featured on the hit single "Shake, Rattle and Roll") and Ruth Brown. He also played behind The Clovers, Lavern Baker and Laurie Tate, and released sides under his own name. In 1959, he moved to Montreal with The Nite Riders and later formed his own band. In the 1970s, he was back to touring small towns in Quebec, and playing taverns, motel lounges and small-time gigs in Montreal. Walls began to re-emerge in the 1990s, beginning with a concert on May 18, 1990, in Brooklyn Heights, New York, where he appeared with his former piano student, Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John). Walls and Rebennack would perform together again a few months later, at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. He would go on to play at numerous other jazz and blues festivals over the rest of the decade. Walls’ final CD, In the Evening, was released in 1997. In 1997, Walls was recognized with a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, along with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Four Tops, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Gary U.S. Bonds. Walls died of cancer in Montreal, on February 24, 1999. He played piano in the cancer ward almost until the day of his death. A documentary titled Van “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R&B was released in October 2013, premiering at the Festival du nouveau cinéma.