Cover Story: Historic howl: Miss Blues shouts her roots from the cotton fields to the history books

(Cover photo by Garett Fisbeck / Oklahoma Gazette)

(Cover photo by Garett Fisbeck / Oklahoma Gazette)

Dorothy Ellis’ house has been mostly scrubbed of its historic treasures, or so she says. Around the northeast Oklahoma City home, there are hardly any photographs of her from more than 15 years ago, an odd omission considering the 81-year-old will celebrate 75 years as a professional musician in 2018.

Ellis recently lent Oklahoma Historical Society many of the photos and memorabilia one might consider museum pieces for use in its collection.

Still, less obvious relics remain scattered throughout the various corners of the house. Near the front door is an autographed poster from Blinddog Smokin’, the Grammy-nominated funk band that scored Ellis her first record deal. Her 2011 Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame induction plaque is prominently propped up on a chair in the living room. Near her computer is a photo of her smiling and holding up a setlist autographed by B.B. King after she opened for the global blues icon.

A lot of people are not lucky enough to live 75 years in general, let alone enjoy a career in music that spans three-quarters of a century. However, not many, if any, people are quite like Dorothy Ellis. The state legend still performs regularly under the moniker Miss Blues, a name she has carried with her since the beginning of her professional music career in 1942.

Music is still very much in the foreground of Ellis’ life. Miss Blues  occasionally performs on Saturday nights at Jazmo’z Bourbon St. Cafe, 100 E. California Ave., and at festivals like the Mayor’s Blues Ball at Medicine Park and Dusk Til Dawn Music Festival in Rentiesville.

She achieved some of her greatest prominence as a singer in the Rockin’ Aces, a 1950s and ’60s blues band that included her husband Johnny B on piano, future state Blues Hall of Famer Little Eddie Taylor on guitar and D.C. Minner, who was a bassist in Rockin’ Aces before he became a cherished blues guitarist playing with acts like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

“I knew D.C. when he couldn’t play crap,” Ellis said during a recent interview with Oklahoma Gazette.

Even late in her career, Ellis is still known as a fireball of energy. She greets all guests with her same trademark cheekiness and frank wit.

Dorothy Ellis as a young child in Direct, Texas. (Provided)

Dorothy Ellis as a young child in Direct, Texas. (Provided)

Cotton fields

Those standing on the Red River’s north bank about 13 miles straight south of Boswell can peer over into Direct, Texas, Ellis’ tiny hometown. Just a few dozen people currently reside in the rural agricultural outpost. The nearest town of note is Paris, Texas, about a 30-minute drive down Texas State Highway 79.

One of the most distinct things about Direct is the legend of its namesake. As Ellis tells the tale, a fire-and-brimstone preacher from the 1800s arrived in the town and, in sanctimonious condemnation, declared everyone born there was headed directly to hell.

“Now what do you think about that?” Ellis asked with a smirk. “You think I’m on my way?”

In Ellis’ childhood, hell just seemed a few degrees removed from chopping cotton in the miserable summer sun or picking it in the stinging cold of fall and winter. She was born on the Texas sharecropping cotton plantation where her mother worked. As soon as Ellis was old enough — about 5 or 6 — she was outside working the fields, too.

This was the type of environment from which blues music — an originally African-American style often characterized by woebegone lyrics with gospel and field chant influences — first emerged. Similarly, these conditions are what emboldened the music in Ellis’ young mind.

Her mother was always singing around the house. One of the first songs Ellis remembers hearing her sing was “Good Morning Blues,” a song made famous by early 20th-century country blues performer Lead Belly. She earned the moniker Little Miss Blues out in the cotton fields from the other workers, who  always heard Ellis mimic her mother’s soulful shouts.

Ellis’ first paid performance was as a 6-year-old on Easter Sunday at a juke joint on nearby Goss Farm, another cotton plantation. Though it was a club for adults, Ellis said they did not care if children came in to hang out or perform. Ellis sang her trademark “Good Morning Blues” and earned $2.50, the collective change of those in the juke joint that night. The thrill of getting paid to perform was unlike anything she’d felt before.

“Let me tell you, I was hooked,” she said.

Many good blues singers have a melancholy bank of memories to draw from as inspiration, and for Ellis, the cotton fields yielded their fair share of tragedy. When Ellis was about 11 years old, her mother collapsed in the hot sun from a heat stroke. She was taken to a doctor, but there was nothing anyone could do for her.

After her mother died, Ellis went to live with her grandmother in Wellington, Texas. Even as a child, it was apparent to Ellis that her grandmother was not fit for the responsibility.

“She didn’t need any children,” she said. “She was too dang old.”

Soon after, on New Year’s Day, Ellis ran away from her caretaker’s house to a shelter for homeless families in nearby Paris. It was a decent existence, but Ellis sought a life outside the shelter walls. One day, she decided to grab the little money she had and walk to the bus station, asking the bus driver how far her savings could take her.

“He said, ‘That’ll take you to Oklahoma.’ So that’s how I ended up here,” she said.

Miss Blues performs with her band the Rockin’ Aces in the 1950s (Oklahoma Historical Society / provided)

Miss Blues performs with her band the Rockin’ Aces in the 1950s (Oklahoma Historical Society / provided)

Oklahoma sleek

Ellis settled in an OKC home for girls and, when she was old enough, went to work in its serving quarters. She dropped the “Little” part of her Miss Blues moniker, but she never gave up performing and gradually carved a musical niche for herself.

Ellis sings Texas shout blues, a style she said was inspired by the whoops and hollers of emphatic Southern preachers.

In the early ’50s, she formed Rockin’ Aces with her husband John. Not long after, John invited in Minner, a Korean War Army veteran he met while working at the city’s Veterans Administration center.

At the time, Minner was a young and aspiring musician, but inexperienced. John and Taylor trained him on the bass. Ellis said he was an excellent student and his talent quickly shined through.

“[Ellis and the band] were very good to him,” said Minner’s widow Selby. “They loaned him a car for four months. She’d feed him when he showed up.”

Selby Minner owns and operates the D.C. Minner Museum and Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame in Rentiesville, about 20 miles southwest of Muskogee. (Ellis was a Blues Hall of Fame inductee in 2004.) D.C. Minner eventually left the Rockin’ Aces, picked up the guitar and began touring across the West Coast with Selby, a bassist.

Ellis took her Miss Blues brand through several band lineups over the decades. Jazz and blues music enjoyed OKC heydays between the ’50s and ’70s. The two scenes were tightly associated, Minner said. In other markets, jazz performers mostly stuck with college crowds while blues players dominated bar scenes. In Oklahoma, musicians often played together and floated freely between styles.

But, as was the case elsewhere in the country, those genres eventually fell out of rotation. Many of the city’s popular clubs began to disappear.

“Every generation has to change the music,” Minner said, “otherwise, your mom might come to the party.”

While the blues has long been absent from popular radio, Minner said the genre is still alive and well in live performance formats. Blues players are everywhere, she said, because the music is so universal.

“The genius of the blues is that it’s user-friendly music,” Minner said. “You can do a song for 30 minutes with one chord or maybe two chords. The most standard format is three chords, and always the same three chords in the same order.”

Oklahoma has a strong musical heritage, but Minner points out that many performers had to leave in order to make a name for themselves. Players from the region were known for smooth and polished styles, perhaps because of the level of dedication and craftsmanship it took for them to get noticed.

Miles Davis, in his autobiography, reflected on the impression Oklahoma players like trumpeter Alonzo Pettiford left on him.

“Man, could that motherfucker play fast — his fingers were a blur,” Davis wrote. “He played that real fast, hip, slick Oklahoma style.”

Ellis, in all her success, never left Oklahoma. She didn’t even record her first album until 2008 because she thought it was too expensive. It wasn’t until members of Blinddog Smokin’ caught one of her live shows and offered to pay for her studio time that she produced her first CD.

She has since recorded nearly a dozen studio albums.

Many in the state’s jazz and blues scenes came up during the music’s golden era and are around Ellis’ age.

“They’re about gone,” she said. “All these musicians have died. [From the original Rockin’ Aces,] I’m the last one standing.”

Dorothy Ellis will celebrate 75 years as professional blues singer Miss Blues in April 2018. (Garett Fisbeck)

Dorothy Ellis will celebrate 75 years as professional blues singer Miss Blues in April 2018. (Garett Fisbeck)

‘Self-made woman’

Nine years ago, Ellis discovered her husband John dead in his bed, seemingly resting in bliss.

“He enjoyed himself, and when he died, I went in there and he was just peaceful,” she said. “He just went in there and died. He was not sick and didn’t have to suffer through anything. That’s the way to go, just go in there and go to sleep.”

Ellis now lives alone in the same house she shared with John since 1955, though she has many visitors.

She knew John and his twin brother Archie from her Texas days, when their mothers were friends. When Ellis moved to Oklahoma City, she wrote John and Archie and told them to join her.

John is the inspiration behind many of Ellis’ original songs, but as is appropriate for the blues, rarely in a glowing or romantic way. Ellis even admits their relationship was more brother-sister than that of destined lovers.

Ellis said she had to be revived from death three times in 2014 while hospital-bound with pneumonia. Her stay lasted months, and when she returned home, she discovered her house had been burglarized. Thieves stole jewelry, a drawer full of coins and even historic photos from Ellis’ performing career.

She didn’t let the setback break her. Music, as always, helped push her forward. She played her first gig back just one week after her release from the hospital. She sang with an oxygen tube running into her nose.

“Dorothy’s tough, and she’s a self-made woman,” Minner said. “She’s a great inspiration, I would say, to a lot of people.”

Dorothy Ellis, aka Miss Blues, looks through boxes of memorabilia in her northeast Oklahoma City home. (Garett Fisbeck)

Dorothy Ellis, aka Miss Blues, looks through boxes of memorabilia in her northeast Oklahoma City home. (Garett Fisbeck)

Dorothy Ellis, aka Miss Blues, looks through boxes of memorabilia in her northeast Oklahoma City home. (Garett Fisbeck)

Dorothy Ellis, aka Miss Blues, looks through boxes of memorabilia in her northeast Oklahoma City home. (Garett Fisbeck)

Dorothy Ellis, aka Miss Blues, looks through boxes of memorabilia in her northeast Oklahoma City home. (Garett Fisbeck)

Dorothy Ellis, aka Miss Blues, looks through boxes of memorabilia in her northeast Oklahoma City home. (Garett Fisbeck)

Her way

Carlton Dorsey is what a lot of people call a musician’s musician. Dorsey can play nearly any instrument one might need in the studio, including the violin, drums, flute, trumpet and more. A natural musical curiosity has fueled his prolific musicianship.

Dorsey, a millennial who earned his doctorate in music at Oklahoma City University, wore a headwrap and twirled a pair of Chinese Baoding medicine balls in his hand as he spoke with the Gazette. He recently sold all his possessions and embarked on an eight-month trek across the Appalachian Trail — a 2,200-mile course that stretches from Georgia to Maine.

One might assume Dorsey would be an unlikely friend to Ellis, and there might be some differences between them in generational values.

“I told [Dorsey] before he left that I never heard of a black man walking 2,000 miles or doing anything like that,” she said.

Yet the two are more kindred spirits than many would realize. Dorsey met Ellis working as a fiddler in several of her live performances. Her presence left an immediate impression on him.

“She was cold-blooded,” he said. “If you talk to her once, she doesn’t hold her tongue for anything. She’s extremely smart and quick and witty and will let you know if you’re out of line or anything.”

Like Dorsey, Ellis has the mind of a scholar. She has a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has authored two books, For Blacks Only and Hoecakes and Collared Greens: Sage Concoctions and Doin’s. Together, the texts are packed with recipes, memories, wisdom and black history pulled from firsthand accounts.

When Dorsey talks to Ellis, he said she gives off an energy that can transcend generations.

“We sit down, and we can speak heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul,” he said. “She’s really in-tune and very observant. She’s more observant than she will let you know, which can be a little startling.”

Ellis, known for cooking for friends and fellow musicians, promised to throw Dorsey a party when he returned home from his Appalachian journey. Dorsey is a vegan, and Ellis didn’t quite understand the term before committing. She’s now perplexed about what food she can fix without using butter, milk, cheese or animal stock. Dorsey is still confident she’ll come up with something.

“If she says she’s going to throw a party, she’s going to throw a party,” he said. “She will find me somewhere and drag me out of sleep to party; I have no doubt in my mind.”

A passion to give back to the local community through music in a way that is true to one’s self also bonds the two souls. Ellis said that on more than one occasion, she was approached by major labels that came out to her shows on referral and offered large recording contracts.

She never took any of their offers. They wanted her to leave the state, be sexier, sing more soulfully. None of it felt natural to her.

If there are any underlying themes in Ellis’ great career, a keen awareness of self and a steadfast loyalty to the music that made her are among them.

“I was like Frank Sinatra,” she said. “You know, he did it his way. I may never be famous famous, but at least I did it my way. And I don’t give a shit.”

 

Print Headline: ‘Morning’ glory: Miss Blues, aka Dorothy Ellis, shouts her roots from rural Texas cotton fields into Oklahoma history.

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