S.C. pays tribute to gospel great Tommy Ellison

From The State, Thursday, January 8, 2009:

Viewing, funeral to celebrate life of Tommy Ellison

By OTIS R. TAYLOR JR. – otaylor@thestate.com

Like James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, Tommy Ellison got his start as a singer in church. But unlike them, he stayed there.

The Salley native was lead vocalist of the gospel quartet Tommy Ellison & The Singing Stars for decades. He died Saturday in Baltimore at age 75.

Part singer, part preacher and a full-time evangelist, the spiritual word would come out of Ellison’s mouth in pleading tones, harmonic vocal runs and, when the spirit really hit him, screeches.

“All of his performances were energetic and stimulating,” said I.S. Leevy Johnson, Ellison’s local attorney and close friend. “He had a distinct style that blended good music and a good message.”

A public viewing and musical tribute will be held Saturday at Brookland Baptist Church, 1066 Sunset Blvd. in West Columbia, and there will be plenty of gospel music, sung with soul.

The Canton Spirituals, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Swanee Quintet, Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson and The Original Drifters are scheduled to perform.

The public viewing is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with the tribute following from 2 to 5 p.m. at the church.

Ellison’s funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday in Springfield at Smyrna Baptist Church, 541 Smyrna Church Road.

Ellison, who started singing in the 1950s, also performed in groups such as The Sensational Nightingales, The Chosen Gospel Singers and the Harmonizing Four. He was the kind of singer that made fans feel appreciated, said Loretta Coleman, a radio announcer for local gospel stations WFMV-FM 95.3 and WGCV-AM 620.

“It wasn’t just his music. It’s the way he was,” she said. “He never met a stranger. When he got to shows, he didn’t sit on the bus. He would sit with the audience.”

For Coleman, it’s simple why Ellison didn’t follow Brown, Franklin and Cooke into pop music.

“He realized (gospel) was the ministry that God has given him to do,” she said.

Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.

About Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.

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