Bassman Tod Ellsworth talks about Marion James, Johnny Jones, Willie Weeks, & EllerSoul records

"It really mirrors the struggles and joys of the people and directly or indirectly comments on the human condition."

Tod Ellsworth: I'm simply a blues guy

Bass player, producer (Marion James “Essence” and “Northside Soul”), while living in Nashville, TN, played and/or shared the stage with Archie Bell, Rufus Thomas, Mitch Ryder, Chick Willis, Marion James, Earl Gaines, Roscoe Shelton, Johnny Jones, Nick  Nixon, Mike Henderson, Bobby Bradford, Reese Wynans, Jack Pearson, John Fogerty, Richard Marx, Trace Adkins, plus a number of bands (jazz, blues, rock, soul, country, and worldbeat)

Tod worked with Green Hill Music (Nashville, TN); record label that produces and distributes product to non-traditional retail i.e. gift and flower shops, antique stores, plus a few regional and national chains.  Worked in sales, marketing, and product development. Now living in Richmond, VA; raising a family; playing professionally with the Diggity Dudes (kids rock/pop band), Big Ray & The Kool Kats (variety band), Phil Thacker Trio (acoustic jazz trio), plus freelancing in the region. Tod is  a partner in EllerSoul Records (Richmond, VA), a new independent record label established to produce and market exciting blues and soul music by some of today's most vital and compelling artists like Marion James, Andy Poxon, Li'l Ronnie & Terry Garland, Julius Pittman & The Revival, and Li'l Ronnie & The Grand Dukes.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Tod, when was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?
I've been involved in music since the 4th grade.  Violin and trumpet in elementary school. Tuba in middle school. Bass since high school.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
The first "real" concert I attended was seeing Van Halen at the old Capital Centre in Landover, MD. The year was 1982.  It was loud and there were a lot of pretty girls.  That's why I joined a band. LOL!
Some of the first songs I learned – Smoke Over Water, Should I Stay (or Should I Go),  Moby Dick, Sunshine Of Your Love, You Really Got Me, House Of The Rising Sun, I Can't Quit You Babe (Zeppelin version)

What made you fall in love with the blues music?
The story. The sound.  Most of all, the feeling.  Anybody can relate to the blues. If you don't have regrets, then I believe you haven't lived a life worth living.
I was exposed to blues through several avenues.
1) My dad's record collection.  He had records by Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters and more.
2) When I was 16, I took bass lessons at local music store and the first thing the teacher taught me was a 12-bar blues progression.
3) CREEM and CIRCUS music magazines. I would read interviews about my favorite rock stars like Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, etc.  When these guys would discuss their influences, I would see the same names come up over and over again.  These guys were influenced by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, BB King, Albert King, Freddie King, etc. That got me curious, so I would find these records and play along to them. That started my journey back in time to better understand the history of blues music.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Hard to remember one "best" moment.  I would have to say one of the best moments was playing a gig with Rufus Thomas back in the late 90s.  The man is a legend.   The worst? Where do I begin? Seriously, I have treated every bad moment as a learning experience, so it's all good.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
Playing blues music has really been a great, social opportunity for me.  Through jams and gigs, it's where  I have met some of my best friends. In fact, it was a blues gig I was doing with Bobby Bradfod where I got to jam with the legendary John Fogerty of CCR. It was surreal!

What do you learn about yourself from music? What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
I've learned that through hard work my goals and dreams would come true.  It's a blessing that I can make a living at doing something I love. I don't take for that granted. My parents divorced when I was young and my mother raised my brother and I on her own.  She worked very hard to provide for our family. It was that experience that influences me to this day.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams (and productions) you've had?
One of my favorite gigs was playing with Rufus Thomas in Nashville. It was for the Marion James Musicians Benefit concert held each Sunday before Labor Day. Marion has been putting on this event for 30 years and that's a story in itself. It benefits an entertainer and/or musician who have fallen on hard times. All of the proceeds go directly to the beneficiary. Anyway, I was in the house band, which backed up all of the artists that night.  I think I played for 8 hours that night! The show ended with Rufus and the house was packed. The room was hot and the crowd was ready to party! All I can say is Rufus put on one heck of a show. I mean it was rockin'!

Are there any memories from Johnny Jones, which you’d like to share with us?
It's been said Johnny Jones taught Jimi Hendrix how to play the blues. During the 1960s, Johnny was the first call blues/soul guitarist in Nashville. He played with everybody and was the bandleader for the Night Train house band. Night Train was a music variety show that featured artists like Otis Redding and Etta James. It was the inspiration for Soul Train out of Chicago. He later played behind Bobby Bland and BB King. Back in 2001, I played on the road with Johnny for a tour throughout the Midwest. We played Buddy Guy's Legends nightclub in Chicago and brought the house down! It was amazing! Johnny was the consumate performer and he could squeeze more soul out of a few notes than most.  What I really treasured were the late hour conversations we had about life, music and religion. Unfortunately, Johnny passed away a few years ago.

Of all the people you’ve meeting and work with, whom do you admire the most?
I'd have to say Marion James. She has taught me so much about life and music. She's the real deal who hasn't gotten her due. I sure hope her new recordings reach and touch more people.

Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet? From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
I would have love to spent time with Willie Dixon. His songwriting and playing was the foundation for the success of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor and many more! Before the Chess Record years, Willie was a key member in the Big Three Trio.  The group featured 3 part harmonies and top notch playing. Willie is a true American music legend.  Although not was well known, his contribution is just as important as Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, etc.

Why do you play BASS & what were your favorite bass back then?
It's what makes your booty shakes and who doesn't love booty shakin'! Some of my influences include Willie Dixon, Big Crawford, Jimmy Blanton, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Oscar Pettiford, Bob Moore, James Jamerson, Duck Dunn, Tommy Cogbill, Jerry Jermott, Willie Weeks, Nathan Watts,  John Paul Jones, John Entwistle, Geddy Lee and a whole lot more!

Some music styles can be fads but the blues and jazz is always with us.  Why do think that is?
Simple. It's music that's not concocted in a record label boardroom.  Jazz and blues is steeped in American history of the 19th and 20th century. It really mirrors the struggles and joys of the people and directly or indirectly comments on the human condition. That's why we connect with the music on such a deep level. On lighter level, it just sounds great!  

How do you see the future of blues music? Give one wish for the BLUES
Blues music will always be with us. I just wish more young musicians would really learn not only how to play, but understand the long history of the blues. The music is the root of American music.  I'm simply a blues guy who has played everything from rock, pop, country, folk, reggae, caribbean, jazz, funk, soul, latin, swing, r&b, gospel and more.

Tell me a few things about your meet & work with Marion James?
I first met Marion in 1994. I was playing with a great blues band called the Hypnotics. Prior to me joining , Marion recorded an album, Marion James & The Hypnotics. The album was produced by Fred James and was released on the Italian label, Appaloosa Records. I played the record release party in Nashville and that's what started our relationship which is still going strong today. Marion owns the stage when she performs.  I can't tell you how many times when we'd go into a new town and would end up owning that club for the night! People really respond to her and her music.  It's a laid back, we'll get there when we get there" southern style which is so fun to groove too. I just finished producing her new CD, Northside Soul, which is being at the end of June. The record features some very fine musicians contributed to the project. Marion has really written some great songs for this one.  

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory of Willie Weeks?
While living in Nashville, I met Willie at a club one night back in the mid-90s. I vividly remember the band playing the blues standard, "I Got My Mojo Workin" and Willies bass playing lifted the entire band to a higher level. Nothing fancy from a note perspective, but the groove was happening! We talked afterwards and he was so gracious. I told him I was studying the music of James Jamerson (#1 Motown session bassist) and he was very encouraging, stating I was on the right path.  Willie Weeks is the man!

Tell me about your beginning in EllerSoul Records. How and where did it start & what characterize the sound of EllerSoul?

I got called to do a gig backing up my business partner, Li'l Ronnie Owens. He's an amazing harmonica player and songwriter.  The gig was 3 hours away, so we had a long drive and a lot of time to talk.  Ronnie had just finished a live acoustic blues duo record with Terry Garland and he needed a vehicle to get this record out to the public. He and his business partner, Wat Ellerson, were looking at starting up a record label. Well, I lived in Nashville for 17 years I had worked for an independent record label, Green Hill Productions. It was there where I honed my skills in sales, marketing, distribution, and product development. This brings us back to my conversation with Ronnie. Basically, I was sharing ideas on what needs to be done to operate a record label on a daily basis.  He later hired me as a consultant so I could help them guide their efforts.  
I'm not sure EllerSoul Records has a "particular" sound, but we just want to focus on finding great blues and soul artists with original sounds.  Something that is honest and not contrived. It has to speak to your heart.

You had pretty interesting project Ellersoul Blues & Soul Revue. Where did you get that idea?
The inspiration came from the great Motown and Stax Revues of the 1960s.  The roster of artists performed together at places like the Apollo Theatre in NYC and Howard Theater in DC. It's a great idea that really promotes the music and the EllerSoul Records brand. I think more record labels should get back to this kind of grassroots effort.  We really feel like a family around here.

Alive or dead, who is the one person that you’d like to meet face to face, and talk to over a drink?
Jesus Christ. Of course, we would be drinking wine!

Do you have any hobbies, which do not have anything to do with music?

I'm a family man, so I spend a lot of my "free" time taking my daughters to their sporting events, school activities and more.

EllerSoul Records Official website

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