"I put the whole track down myself: guitar, bass, and drums," Ellison says from his Tulsa home. He's been blasting a tape of a song called "Just Got to Know," which, over the phone at least, doesn't sound like the work of a one-man band. "Dennis is a real good lyricist. I'm more a composer. I come up with the chords, the hook, the vocal melody, and the title. Then I FedEx it to Dennis and he fills in the blanks."
"When I finished One Step, I felt real good about it, so I called up Lee Spath and asked him to put me in touch with Dennis," Ellison explains. Two years ago, Spath filled in for Ellison's longtime drummer, Rich Shlosser, who went to work for Van Morrison. "Lee just came in and nailed it. He'd worked with Robert Cray, and I knew Dennis' work from those albums, so I filed that away."
Ellison, 45, has waited a long time for the opportunity to connect with a name producer, particularly the Grammy-winning Walker, an architect of the sound that made Cray famous. "It's so funny that I couldn't get to (Walker) during the 10 years I lived in Los Angeles. Dennis was making those Robert Cray albums during that time, from 1983 to 1993, and I couldn't get arrested. I just finally realized recently that every level jump is about who you know. Now I'm back in Tulsa and I've got 90 more things going here."
Among the benefits of moving home for Ellison was the opportunity to showcase the musicians he grew up with. "For One Step, I wanted to use all my homeboys, all my favorite Tulsa musicians. It was a grassroots project, and this city definitely has its own sound. It's that Leon Russell mix of R&B and gospel and rock." Russell is the ultimate Tulsa blues son, Ellison says reverently. And like Russell, Ellison has his eye on future projects that will allow his guitar to roam into rock territory and beyond. He says that's the kind of album that could be made in his home studio using drum machines (his mother was a drum-and-keyboard player who taught her son a keen appreciation for powerful rhythm). "We're toying with rock, but the blues is my number-one thing. For that album, I'd aim for that mixture of Stax and Motown. But for the blues, you have to have real humans to lay it all in," he says.
Blues might be Ellison's number-one thing musically speaking, but his thoughts remain in Tulsa with his 3-and-a-half-year-old son, Taylor James. Taylor already owns a mini-Strat. "He's got great rhythm," Ellison says. "It gets hard to be on the road 250 days a year, especially since I started late with the fatherhood thing. I think of him 24 hours a day, and I'm a happier person since he came along. Food tastes better. Life tastes better. And I miss my wife a lot when I'm gone, but it's a sacrifice you have to make to be a full-blown artist."
All that familial bliss shouldn't suggest that Ellison makes a Billy Joel-ified blues. He says the travails of an itinerant musician's lifestyle and the demands of turning his music into a business are plenty to fuel the steam engine of his vigorous style. Already a casualty of a shut-down label (he doesn't have the masters back but was able to refashion the material for release), Ellison complains good-naturedly that one of his songs just missed inclusion on Kenny Wayne Shepherd's recent platinum disc. "That's the fish that got away. It broke my heart," he says. The song ended up gracing the new Jimmy Dawkins album, with Francine Reed singing, which more than appeased Ellison.
"The most flattering thing besides getting a record deal is when someone you respect cuts your tune. There's so many great songs out there. You really know that it's a numbers thing, so when it makes the cut, it's an amazing honor," Ellison explains.
It might be less flattering, but the WB television network also has taken a shine to Ellison. One of his songs has turned up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("I haven't watched the show, but I saw that girl on the cover of Rolling Stone. She looks great," Ellison says), a fish out of water rather than one that got away. Another Ellison recording has been played on Sister, Sister. Considering that even a show in the Nielsen cellar gains exposure beyond what most conventional pop gets on mainstream radio, Ellison isn't about to hold out for Touched by an Angel.
However, he's not prepared to chuck the performing life to write songs for other people. "It's a balance of the writing and the playing. The playing is still fun," Ellison says. After almost two decades of journeyman gigs with draws like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown ("The most fun I've ever had," Ellison says), first as sideman and then as supporting act, Ellison has seemingly lost none of his desire to play as often as possible, especially now that he has more of his own songs at the ready.
"My voice has gotten better. Until 1988, I used to be a sideman, so I'd maybe sing two songs a night. When I started singing more, I saturated myself with Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Otis Redding. Otis changed everything. You listen to Otis or Al Green and it comes to you by osmosis. I always get something from Al."
Ellison says he could talk endlessly of the Memphis R&B sound and his Tulsa music roots, but he sums it up with the succinctness of a true bluesman, admitting "I'm pretty ate up with music."
Scott Ellison May 19 and 20
at The Grand Emporium and Stu's Midtown Tavern