Joseph Ellison, subway troubadour, dies at 63

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Joe Ellison

The raspy singing of Joe Ellison could almost out-rumble an L train.

A subway troubadour, he performed alone and in a trio, belting out Motown classics with a dollop of hot-buttered soul. He made people stop and kids clap. Sometimes, they even danced.

Mr. Ellison, 63, died of cancer March 17 at his home in Gary.

“He was a light down there in a very dark tunnel,” said Crystal Bowersox, a Chicago busker who was runner-up behind winner Lee DeWyze in the 2010 season of “American Idol.” She credits Mr. Ellison with encouraging her to try out for the show. “He said, ‘Go for it.’ ’’

“I went to Harold Washington College downtown. Every day before class, I would stop, and we would sing ‘Stand By Me,’ ’’ she recalled. “People would stop. Crowds would gather.”

A year after the show, Bowersox was in Chicago to perform. She went looking for Mr. Ellison and found him singing on the street. “He gave me the biggest hug,” she said. “He told me how proud he was.”

A self-taught musician born in Youngstown, Ohio, young Joe Ellison learned drums, guitar and keyboard, and he taught his younger brothers, Keith and Andre, to play. They formed a band.

“We were darned good,” Keith Ellison said.

After one memorable performance, a group of musicians promised the Ellison brothers they would have their boss come by to check them out.

In walked Mr. Dynamite, James Brown.

Brown liked what he heard, but the Ellisons’ parents said they were too young to hit the road. Joe Ellison was only 17. Keith was about 14 and Andre, about 12.

Keith Ellison still recalls the advice Brown gave them. “He told us to reach for our dreams, believe in ourselves and believe we could be anything,” he said.

Joe Ellison struck out on his own, his brother said, eventually recording or touring with groups including the Delfonics, who performed the 1968 hit, “La La Means I Love You”; The Moments, who had a 1970 smash with “Love on a Two-Way Street,” and Sister Sledge, who sang the perennially popular “We Are Family.’’

“He spoke very fondly of his time touring and his life” in those days, Bowersox said.

But Keith Ellison said, “Joe had a lot of money and he got off into the drug scene. He started using drugs. He became a drug dealer.” He landed in a Florida prison for selling cocaine.

“He said that God put him in prison to rescue him from himself,” his brother said. After his release, “He decided to come to Chicago” for its music and began performing with Norman Smith and Ron Christian, usually at Red Line stops.

“We just kind of ran into each other on the subway,” Mr. Ellison told the Sun-Times in 2007. “We just started singing together and we felt that it was a click there.” They did crowd pleasers like “My Girl,” “What a Wonderful World” and “A Change is Gonna Come.”

“Joe was happy with being a Chicago street musician,” Keith Ellison said. “He enjoyed seeing the little children jumping around and clapping their hands. That meant a whole lot to him.”

“He had an unusual singing voice, very raspy, like a blues singer,” said another busker, George Banks. “The three of them had a good hook up — a nice sound.”

Their talent sometimes transported them off subway platforms. After hearing the trio’s underground harmonizing, a commuter and bride-to-be hired them to perform at her 2001 wedding. Under the name “The Real Connection,” they sang at The Hideout on a 2011 “Street Home Chicago” bill featuring street musicians.

Mr. Ellison is survived by his partner of a decade, Terry Cookes; a daughter, Makeeba Sifford; two sons, Jamal and Taj; and several grandchildren. His family plans to divide up his ashes, and his brother said he will honor his wish to scatter some in the Atlantic Ocean.

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