Ernie Elly: A Definitive Biography By Holly Hobbs
Ernest Anthony “Fat Daddy” Elly, Sr. is a rhythm & blues, soul, and modern and traditional jazz drummer from New Orleans. With a musical sound heavily influenced by the street parade culture of New Orleans, Elly has performed at Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater, toured with Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Doc Cheatham, and continues to feature as one of Preservation Hall’s countless musical stars.
Ernest Elly was born on June 16, 1942 in New Orleans’s Sixth Ward, a neighborhood located in the city’s famed “backatown” area. Ernie’s mother, Hilda Morris Elly, was a homemaker who played violin. His father, Frank Elly, Sr., was a day laborer who had a talent for dancing. As a child, Elly inherited a love for country & western music from his mother, who particularly admired Hank Williams, Sr. Other musicians in Ernie’s family include cousins Rudolph Peters (guitar), Leonard Morris (trumpet) and Melvin Morris (vocalist).
As he grew older, Ernie began to be deeply influenced by the burgeoning rhythm & blues scene in New Orleans and beyond, listening closely to the work of Fats Domino, Little Richard and James Brown. On Saturdays, Ernie remembers his eldest brother, Frank Jr., turning on the radio program This Is Jazz, hosted by Al Gourier. It would be here that Elly would first hear Art Blakey, Max Roach, Art Taylor and an early Miles Davis. Frank Jr. would take up a comb and brush and play in time to the music, a family tradition Ernie now considers to be his first drum lessons. Around age 12 or 13, while living in the 8th Ward, Ernie’s father gifted a drum to his older brother, Charles, who in turn gave it to Ernie. “I knew I never wanted to play anything else,” Elly recalls. By 9th grade, he had begun to receive formal training from instructor Yvonne Busch, who taught the young musician how to read music.
While attending George Washington Carver High School, Ernie and friends started a seven-piece rhythm & blues band that played for local dances and picnics. “We charged seven dollars per man,” Ernie remembers, “and we’d rent a PA system for seven dollars from American Rental. We were mostly all 18 except for the guitar player who was 16, we had to draw a little mustache on him and put him in the back to get him in clubs sometimes.” Ernie recalls that they played a wide range of repertoire, including rhythm & blues hits and pop standards.
After high school, though Elly had earned a scholarship to attend Southern University, there was still not enough money to cover expenses. So at 19, Elly auditioned for the Air Force band, and soon afterwards enlisted in the Air Force and joined the Air Force band. Elly had always been largely left-handed, setting up the drum set from the left side. But much of the formal training he’d received was focused on right-handed playing, including his Air Force sergeant’s instruction. After that, Ernie says, he was uncomfortable playing either way, so he developed a style that worked for both. “I’m right-handed and left-footed,” he says with a laugh.
After the Air Force, Elly returned to Louisiana and was encouraged by his high school friend and drummer, Calvin Howard, to attend Grambling University. Elly would spend from 1966 to 1968 at Grambling, where he studied under Mr. Conrad Hutchinson, played with the famed Grambling marching band, and met his wife, Portia Haney, with whom he would have three children: Julie, Angela and Ernest, Jr.
New Orleans drummers were among Elly’s greatest musical influences. He recalls seeing legendary drummer Vernel Fournier perform at a high school dance. The left-handed drummer Mickey Conway was also influential. Elly praises James Black and Joseph “Smokey” Johnson as New Orleans treasures. “From Johnson, I learned the New Orleans rhythmic drive, the happiness in his fingers.” David Lee was another friend, influence and neighbor: while living in the 9th Ward in the Desire projects, Elly recalls hearing David Lee and Mickey Conway practice from their homes nearby.
By the 1960s, Ernie’s friend from the Air Force, the saxophonist John Cloyd Miller, had joined Ray Charles’ band and requested an audition for Elly. “And that’s how I ended up playing with [Charles],” Ernie recalls. “I was a youngster, and he got on my butt from time to time, but he liked New Orleans musicians. Sometimes he’d say his band was the best band on earth. That made us all feel good.” Elly would tour with Ray Charles and his big swing band for three seasons, performing nightly showstoppers like “What I Say?” and other Elly favorites, including “Hit The Road, Jack” and “Bear Cat.” Other musicians in the band took the young Elly under their wing to help teach him Charles’s particular big band style, especially the trumpeter Bill King. “Most of those people are deceased now,” Elly recalls. “It’s a sad part of life. I wish everyone could just keep on living.”
When Elly returned to New Orleans, he began subbing for Bob French in the Storyville Jazz Band, a famed ensemble that included Ellis Marsalis on piano, George French on bass, Bob French on drums, and Teddy Riley on trumpet. When Bob left the band, Ernie joined full-time. “We’d be playing at Crazy Shirley’s [on Bourbon Street] and we used to walk over by the Preservation Hall and take a little peek. That’s when they used to keep the shutters open. I heard Louis Barbarin, Cie Frazier, all the old-timers.” Elly noted that the biggest influence on his playing at the time was from Bob French and Freddie Coleman. “I listened to them more than anybody else.”
Among Elly’s favorite work to date are the songs he recorded with trumpeter and bandleader Doc Cheatham on Cheatham’s Grammy-winning 1997 collaborative album with Nicholas Payton. “Doc was a 88 or 89 years old when I met him, a gentleman, a top-notch musician,” Elly recalls. “Even at that age, he was still playing better than most.”
From swing to modern jazz to rhythm & blues to gospel, Elly’s dragging of downbeats and bending of time carries a heavy blues aesthetic into all that he does. While careful to protect and continue traditional repertoire, Elly has a progressive attitude toward change, seeing little conflict between the traditional and the modern. “I don’t believe New Orleans drumming has changed over time. The brass bands have changed some, it’s evolved, but it’s still New Orleans. It’s not the older type brass band, but it’s New Orleans. I don’t see anything wrong with it. Everything must change. Louis Armstrong changed. It’s 2016. The older style brass band is still good, the younger style is still good. Why not?”
Photo courtesy of Melissa Cacciola.