Herb Ellis, master guitarist, passed away last Sunday 28th March.
He wasn’t my all time favourite player, but he was one of the greats. Along with Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and Johnny Smith he developed jazz guitar from where Charlie Christian, innovator and star of early Benny Goodman ensembles, had left off. From the late forties but mainly in the fifties, those leaders, later followed by Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery, influenced the next generation of guitarists including my friend George Golla, Lennie Hutchinson and most of our contemporaries all around the world including George Benson. Herb Ellis developed a unique rhythm technique I tried to emulate. That gave me a skill that had its reward in scores of studio engagements.
In 1961, as I remember, my friend Barry Stewart, drummer and legend in his own right, put my name forward for a six month stint as guitarist in the house band at Griff House, Castlereigh St Sydney. For those who remember, that was the home of the Professional Musicians Club and although I wasn’t really ready to be exposed to the best musicians in town, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. So I took the job and worked my bum off practicing, transcribing solos and studying arranging. I had bought two of Herb’s albums including Ellis in Wonderland, at that time his most recent and had studied every note.
Our bandleader, Nat O’Toole, threw me a lot of solos. I guess he thought I needed the practice. But so it was that I was battling with the changes of an Elmer Bernstein theme, trying to emulate Barney Kessel, when I looked up and almost dropped my pick.
We all knew Ella Fitzgerald was in town on tour with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis as her backing group, but nobody could have expected to see what I saw. There, not two metres away, sitting alone at a table right in front of me, watching and listening, was Herb Ellis.
Luckily it was the last tune of the set, so I was spared more scrutiny, not that I had any idea how long he had been there. Of course I hurried off to introduce myself and he graciously invited me to join him. I expected a consolation compliment only, and did get that, but he started talking guitar. Given a nod of approval from Nat, I stayed put and listened to the great man as he offered a respectful lecture on all things guitar as they related to what he had seen of my playing. He must have recognized some talent to bother, or maybe he was just a nice bloke. He certainly was that. RIP Herb.