Andy Landers, left, Ellis Kell, right
Ellis Kell died at age 61 on December 16. He was diagnosed with cancer in October. Ellis played a major role at the River Music Experience in the Quad Cities. As a guitarist and singer, he appeared in concert with many major acts and played with countless musicians in the eastern Iowa area.
I didn’t know Ellis well, and only performed with him once, at the wedding reception of my stellar Crusin’ guitarist, Jim Van Winkle. But Ellis’ presence was warm and kind. He was a good friend of Jim’s, and of Andy Landers, the gifted singer/songwriter currently working major venues in the Seattle area. Andy played rhythm guitar and sang with Crusin’ from 2000 to 2008, and – like Jim – is among the best musicians it’s been my honor to perform with. They would be the first to tell me I should add Ellis to that list as well, though he and I only played a few songs together.
I’ve been performing rock ‘n’ roll since 1966, and much earlier than that appeared in choral concerts and musical comedies as a junior high and high school student. At my age, inevitably, I’ve lost a lot of collaborators. Kathe Bender was my Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Jim Hoffman was her “get me to the church on time” father. Both are gone. Jim was in Crusin’ at the very beginning, briefly, and since then we’ve lost Bruce Peters, Chuck Bunn, Tom Hetzler, Larry Barrett, Terry Beckey, and Paul Thomas.
My filmmaking collaborators who’ve gone on ahead of me include actors Majel Barrett, Jason Miller, Del Close and my frequent cohort, Michael Cornelison. Steve Henke, the indispensable madman who was my first A.D. and much more, worked on both Mommys, Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market and co-produced Caveman (Mike Cornelison was involved with all of those). And there are others whose names will jump into my mind as soon as I post this.
When someone dies around Christmas, it’s sometimes viewed as particularly sad (as if it weren’t sad enough). I’m not sure I agree. With families gathered at that time of year, it’s a perfect moment to remember and celebrate a loved one who’s gone. And TV, magazines and web sites use that time for “in memoriam” pieces about the celebrities we’ve lost throughout the year.
Crusin’ marked the loss of David Bowie and Prince by learning songs of theirs — a band can salute and celebrate in that unique fashion. Because of my own minor celebrity, I’ve come in contact with some real celebrities, whose passings this year have a special resonance for me.
Peter Brown (of Lawman) I met over the phone after he’d read and enjoyed Black Hats. Patty Duke and I had a brief, friendly conversation in a restaurant in Studio City. Mohammed Ali I met in an airport and shook his massive hand, basking in his charisma. Noel Neill signed her book to me at a Chicago comics con and shared stories about George Reeves. The warm, friendly Bobby Vee I spoke with backstage on two occasions. Comedian Kevin Meaney (“We’re big pants people!”) spent time with Barb and me twice after stand-up appearances – a sweeter guy never lived.
Apologies if this sounds like grisly name-dropping. But these moments have become precious in my memory, and are a continuing reminder of the mortality that faces us all.
Last year about this time, I was very sick. I was facing heart surgery early in the coming year, and I was weak as a kitten but not near as frisky. In my office I wrapped my wife’s presents – I do a miserable but sincere job of it – and it occurred to me I might not be around to do so again. That this might well be my last Christmas. When I came downstairs and put the awkwardly wrapped presents under the tree, Barbie got teary-eyed, which she doesn’t do very often (she’s on Prozac – you would be, too, if you lived with me).
Now I’m preparing to wrap her presents this year. And I’ll tell you – it feels like a privilege. No – it feels like a gift. Every minute we spend with people we care about is just that – a gift.
Raise a glass of nog (Captain Morgan optional), would you, to those you love and those we’ve lost? Here’s some you might wish to include: Bob Elliot, Bob of Bob and Ray; Frank Sinatra Jr. (we had tickets to see him we didn’t get to use); Ken Howard of 1776; brilliant Garry Shandling; Anton Yelchin of Star Trek; Hugh O’Brien, who made Wyatt Earp famous again; magnificent Robert Vaughn, the Man from U.N.C.L.E. but also Hustle; and of course Gene Wilder (“We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams”). Add your favorites and especially those who’ve given you the gift of laughter and/or music.
Rest in peace, Ellis Kell.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Once again Quarry is among the best shows of 2016.
Check out this nice write-up on the Quarry series, having to do with its appearance in the UK.
Finally, here’s a chronology with an article about the Quarry book series, with my comments.