Born in McKinney, Texas, Herb Ellis came under the influence of Charlie Christian as a teenager, and, by his early ’20s, was a member of the Glen Gray Orchestra and would go on to record several hit songs with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. He subsequently joined Oscar Peterson’s trio, and from 1953 to 1958, Peterson, Ellis, and bassist Ray Brown were one of jazz’s most acclaimed groups. Following a year on the road with Ella Fitzgerald, Ellis turned to session work in Los Angles, which led to his appearing regularly on the Merv Griffin Show as guitarist for the Mort Lindsey Orchestra.
Ellis eventually returned to live performing, and he toured extensively with either Barney Kessel or Joe Pass as part of the Great Guitars, and also with his own group. In the late ’70s he became a resident guitarist for the annual Concord Summer Festival in California, and he and Joe Pass were chosen to launch the Concord Jazz record label that sprang from the event.
Ellis wasn’t a chops-meister like Kessel or Pass, but his great melodic sense, deep groove, and rock-solid swing made him a highly respected player—one whose obvious enjoyment of his craft undoubtedly influenced many guitarists to get into jazz. As he told GP in his April 1978 cover story, “The main thing I try to do is keep a constant healthy attitude and a genuine love for playing the guitar and music. I have an enthusiasm for playing. It’s a thrill for me to play, and that’s the main thing—keeping your attitude fresh.”
To read outtakes from the April 1978 cover story, click here.
To witness the Ellis magic in a live setting, check out this video of the Oscar Peterson Trio burning through "A Gal in Calico" in 1958...