In memoriam Chris Ellis (1928-2019)
18-01-2019 - Sad to announce that pioneer record producer, co-founder of Challenge Records, jazz classicist and singer Chris Ellis passed away in Hilversum (NL) near Amsterdam at the age of 90 this week. He was a big inspiration to us and he shall be missed!
ELLIS, CHRISTOPHER REGINALD (CHRIS) was the son of Myrtle Roberts (formerly Ellis nee Orchard) and stepson of Trevor Victor Roberts.
Chris Ellis was educated at Shrewsbury’s Larcastrian School and Technical College and after army service worked in various local clerical posts. He also began his singing career at Shrewsbury venues including the Morris and Ward ballrooms (with bands led by Kath Connon, Nesta and Denys Bennet) and formed his own Magnolia Jazz Band, co-led with Shrewsbury Chronicle reporter Mike Farren. Ellis also founded Shrewsbury Jazz Club.
In 1958 he moved to London to work for EMI Records as Assistant Marketing Manager for their ‘British Pop’ department and when this merged with ‘USA Pop’ assumed artistic control for EMI’s new ‘Music for Pleasure’ label (Britain’s first ‘rack job’ budget label which produced reissues covering a huge range of artists and composers). For the company he also created World Records’ ‘Golden Age of Dance Bands’ series which prompted Britain’s ‘nostalgia boom’ of the 1960s and later the award-winning TV series ‘The Singing Detective’ (Dennis Potter, 1986/Peabody Award 1989). At EMI Ellis was also a pioneer producer of classic jazz reissues including the first comprehensive chronologies for Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and many others. He also produced new recordings for stars including Ginger Rogers, Elaine Stritch and Jessie Matthews as well as new British and American jazz arrivals including Dick Sudhalter, Keith Ingham, Susannah McCorkle and Keith Nichols. Later he became the company’s Standards Catalogue Manager.
As a broadcaster at various times Ellis presented nostalgia-based series for BBC Radio 2 including ‘Before the Rock set In’ and ‘Star Quality’ as well as ‘specials’ for stars including Matthews, Evelyn Laye, Adelaide Hall and Joe Loss. He also worked with Noel Gay Music, contributing to the 1984 revival of Gay’s show ‘Me and My Girl’ which ran for eight years in Britain winning two Laurence Olivier awards before moving to Broadway where it garnered a further three ‘Tony’ accolades.
Simultaneously – as one of Britain’s most highly-regarded classic jazz singers – Ellis performed at all of London’s principal venues for the music, also appearing on record and in concert with Keith Nichols ‘New Paul Whiteman Orchestra’. He also sang in London clubs, on radio and on record with bands led (amongst others) by Alan Elsdon, Harry Gold, Digby Fairweather and Tiny Winters as well as Dick Sudhalter’s well-remembered ‘Anglo-American Alliance’. His one solo album, ‘Vocal with hot accomp’ was issued in 1987 on Dormouse Records.
In 1991 Ellis moved from London to Amsterdam where he co-founded Challenge Records with Anne de Jong, producing more new recordings by Barbara Lea, Sudhalter, Fairweather, Denise Jannah, Soesja Citroen and others. He also transferred his ‘Retrieval’ label to the company for reissue of outstanding classic jazz recordings at the specific request of its former producer John R.T. Davies. Ellis never retired from record production and his last CD: ‘Johnny Mercer 1932-42; Singin’ Swinging Songwriter’ will be issued later in 2019. One of Britain’s most retiring – yet supremely gifted and well loved – musical authorities, record producers and singers, Ellis will be sadly missed by the international jazz community.