Guitarist from Farmersville, Texas, who studied bass at North Texas State University, as they had no guitar program. He never finished however, opting to tour as a guitarist instead of studying bass. In 1941, he went on the road with a band that originated at the University of Kansas. The tour lasted about a half a year.
Ellis’s first big break came in 1943, when Glen Gray hired him to play in his Casa Loma Orchestra. He then joined The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, and got to record some guitar solos during this time. In 1947, during a six-week hiatus, Ellis, along with fellow Dorsey musicians Lou Carter and John Frigo, defected to form The Soft Winds, who enjoyed a successful five-year run, although recordings are spare.
In 1953, Ellis replaced Barney Kessel in The Oscar Peterson Trio . It is this incarnation of the trio, with Ray Brown, that is most closely identified with The Oscar Peterson Trio , although personnel changes abounded. This group stayed together until 1958. During this time, Ellis started releasing albums under his own name, including Ellis in Wonderland and Ellis Meets Giuffre. Thank You, Charlie Christian is a tribute album to his childhood idol, a guitarist whom he tried to emulate. His favourite recording from this period, however was 1957’s Nothing but the Blues. In 1958, Ed Thigpen supplanted Ellis in The Oscar Peterson Trio and Ellis went on tour with Ella Fitzgerald in 1959 and 1960.
In the 1970s, he and Joe Pass released a pair of LPs on the Concord Jazz label. They were also members of The Great Guitars, which featured Charlie Byrd and Barney Kessel, and they performed live throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
Later on in the ’80s, Ellis moved to Arkansas and went into semi-retirement, concentrating his time and talent on music education, giving a series of concerts at Arkansas schools and music festivals. The state of Arkansas bestowed its Arkansas Travel Certificate on him 1993, an ambassadorship, essentially, for the state. In 1994 he was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame and in 1997 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of North Texas College of Music.
He continued recording albums on the Justice label, including his 1998 CD, Burnin’. If you’d like to hear some more of his guitar licks, check out Dizzy Gillespie’s Latino: Anthology 1947-1957.
He lived for a while in Fairfield Bay, Arkansas, where he ran his own music publishing business, Herb Ellis Music.
In March 2010 he passed away in Los Angeles, California, having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88 years old.
Here he is performing the blues…