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Ellis Hall helps bring out symphony pops' 'Marvin and Motown'

| Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Singer and instrumentalist Ellis Hall, who is blind, was playing a party in 2001 when he met Ray Charles for the first time.

"It was really funny," Hall says. "He came in when I was playing 'I Can See Clearly Now,' literally during my solo. I had the band groove on while I went down to say hello. He stayed for the whole show and called me the next day."

Their close association began that next day and lasted until Charles' death in 2004. Hall, 58, is called a protege of Charles, but the younger musician already was a mature artist when their friendship began.

Hall and his vocal trio join principal pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch for "Marvin and Motown" concerts today through Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Hall's first recording was a version of the Motown hit "Every Little Bit Hurts."

Hall was born in Savannah, Ga. "No one in the family got the music bug but me," he says, "but when I got it, I really got it."

Hall has congenital glaucoma and wasn't completely blind at birth, but did go to a school for the blind, where a teacher started him on piano in third grade. When he was 14, he went to a concert and was able to watch the faces of musicians as they were whipping the audience into a frenzy.

"That's what I'm going to do," he thought to himself. He put together a homemade drum set and also "started playing bass guitar, electric and acoustical guitar and keyboard. Most people know me as a keyboard player, but my real main instrument is bass," Hall says.

He knows he drove his parents crazy by practicing all the time, often in the dark to be sure about getting around on the instrument at hand. His vision deteriorated further in high school as the result of a sporting accident.

But the hard work paid off. Hall has enjoyed success as a solo performer, with his own groups and as a lead performer with groups such as Tower of Power and The California Raisins, and in commercial music and films.

Hall says his repertoire for the Heinz Hall performance will include "some songs of the master," such as "Georgia" and "Hit the Road Jack," as well as numbers made famous by the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and a medley of Stevie Wonder tunes he calls "Ellis in Wonderland."

He'll also do some of his own songs, such as "Girl, You're Not in Kansas Anymore," and an arrangement of "Something" by George Harrison. Hall was touched when, after performing it with Billy Price, sometimes called the fifth Beatle, Price said Harrison would love it.

While Motown isn't the thing that first comes to mind about Hamlisch, or the second or third, either, he's been enjoying it since his childhood.

"When I was growing up, we didn't have a car radio. Everything I got to know through the radio was at home," he says. "We had an FM in the living room where I listened to show music and an AM in the bathroom where I listened to rock 'n' roll and everything else."

Hamlisch still enjoys hearing those old songs today. "They were very truthful and right on," he says. By contrast, he feels "most of the music I hear today" seems very well planned to be hit records.

He quotes lyricist Carole Bayer Sager as saying there are two types of hits -- songs that are hits and records that are hits. Hamlisch says songs today are so heavily produced that "most parties have to hire DJs because it's almost impossible to re-create the sounds" with live musicians.

Additional Information:

'Marvin and Motown'

With: Ellis Hall, piano and vocals; Pittsburgh Symphony Pops; Marvin Hamlisch, conductor

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $20-$79

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown

Details: 412-392-4900

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