Miss Blues Brings 78th Birthday Bash to Jazz Depot Saturday
After making it through exactly 78 years on this planet, some people would choose to celebrate that fact quietly.
One of them is definitely not Dorothy Ellis, the Oklahoma City-based vocalist known to music fans around the globe as Miss Blues. In honor of the occasion, she’s headlining the Miss Blues 78th Birthday Bash Saturday night at the Jazz Depot, following a similar show in her hometown.
“But that’s all I’m doing, those two,” she says with a laugh. “I ain’t going on no birthday tour.”
In addition to Miss Blues and her band, the show will feature an appearance by the Direct Connect Band, another busy Oklahoma City act.
“They’ve got a jazz singer named Cara Black, who sings like an angel, and Erick [Brown], Big E – and guess who he sounds like? Bobby Blue Bland,” she says.
In addition to Black, an Oklahoma City native with extensive radio, television, and performing experience, and Brown, the band includes bassist-drummer and bandleader Darryl Ross, saxophonist Rhyan “Spunky” Adams, and conga player Blue, along with brothers Brian “B Mac” McKinney (keyboard and lead bass) and Michael McKinney (bass). Michael’s credits include touring internationally and recording with Michael Jackson, and appearing on two early ’80s albums with the Jacksons.
Ellis says those latter two musicians come by their talent naturally.
“Their daddy was [jazz trumpeter] Thad Jones’s drummer, and we just voted their mama [pianist June McKinney] into the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame,” she explains. “She was with Count Basie, and I played with her, too. So I’ve been knowing these kids ever since they were little diaper kids.” She laughs again. “I call ’em June’s babies, and I’m really excited that June’s babies are going to be there.”
Ellis’s own band includes lead guitarist Eric Walker, a Tulsa native who’s played in the local groups Heat Circle and Something Warm, among others. She’s also been working with the noted western-swing and jazz guitarist Joe Settlemires.
“We’ve got a new album coming out,” says Ellis. “We just finished it last Friday, and oh, my God, it is so good. We did do some blues, but we’re doing the blues kind of different, because – ” she laughs again — “I’m doing it like Settlemires wanted to do it.”
She plans to do a couple of songs from the new disc Saturdaynight, including the standard “Dust My Broom,” first recorded by Robert Johnson in 1936. Just the year before, Dorothy Choncie Ellis had been born on a Texas cotton plantation to a mother who also sang. In fact, her recording for a group of traveling musicologists inspired a very young Dorothy.
“I remember they made a red record of her singing and gave it to her,” Ellis recalls. “I was three or four, and I heard her and copied off of her, as children will do.”
In the cotton fields, Dorothy listened to her mother sing as the pickers worked the rows, and in a couple of years the youngster got her first paying gig as a performer, working what she calls “a juke joint for the black people.” The listeners, she says, “put their pennies and nickels and dimes together, and I got $2.50.”
Not long afterward, her mother died, and after a few months of staying with “a mean old, nasty grandmother,” Dorothy ran away, boarding a bus.
“I didn’t have a suitcase; I didn’t have nothing,” she recalls. “But I got out all the money I had, and I asked the man how far it would take me. It was enough to get me to Oklahoma City.”
She ended up in the Brockaway Home for Girls, where she lived while continuing to sing, performing regularly in Oklahoma City’s famed Deep Deuce area. And after several more years and many more adventures, she began performing with the Rockin’ Aces, whose members included future recording artist Little Eddie Taylor and famed Oklahoma bluesman D.C. Minner, who became Ellis’s regular bassist.
Sixty years, thousands of performances, and several albums later, Dorothy Ellis is at the top of her game, maintaining a performing schedule that would be impressive for any artist – never mind one who’s 78 years old. And it’s obvious to anyone that she’s still having a wonderful time with all of it, including her upcoming Jazz Depot show.
“Miss Blues always gives a great performance,” said Jason McIntosh,Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame CEO. “She is an Oklahoma musical treasure, and one of our most dynamic inductees.”
“Let me tell you, I’m getting excited about this one,” she says. “I very seldom get excited, but I’m getting excited. I love playing Tulsa.”
The Direct Connect Band is set to open the show at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28 at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets can be purchased at the depot, or by calling Bettie Downing at918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame
is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.