In Memoriam: Herb Ellis (1921-2010)

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I met Herbie way before he joined Oscar Peterson, going back to at least 1953. Herb worked for me, and he also recorded with me a few times. He worked with me on the Steve Allen show—he and Barney Kessel would take turns. There was also a group with Buddy DeFranco and a tribute to Benny Goodman with Buddy and Herb. Herbie was not only a great soloist, he was the best guitarist for any rhythm section. Boy, could he comp. You wouldn't even need a pianist! And he knew I loved big bands. He would play like a big band, with all these big band figures, behind me. He had respect for me, too—he liked my playing. But most importantly, he was one of my good friends. Living on the road is when you get to know somebody. And I got to know him on the road. I once mentioned to an audience I was playing for, "Who do you think was on TV the longest?" All sorts of names were thrown at me—Merv Griffin, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson—but it was Herb actually. He went from the Steve Allen Show to the Della Reese Show to the Regis Philbin Show and on. When one show would end, he would be hired for the next show and then the show after that. I'm 85 now, and there aren't many people still around today that knew him. They may know the name, but not the person. He really had a great life. Goodness, he played with one of the greatest piano players that ever lived in Oscar Peterson and of course with bassist Ray Brown; he accompanied Ella and all the great singers. When you can do that.... Well, he was one of a kind. I'm going to miss him. He was a good guy.

—TERRY GIBBS, Vibraphonist

I first met Herb in 1978, when he took Ray Brown's recommendation to hire a 25-year-old kid who just got off Woody's band. We played together many times through the years including with Oscar Peterson's Quartet, which also included Ray. For me, it was like climbing into those classic recordings I'd grown up listening and playing to. After the group stomped through the first tune on the opening night, Herb turned around to me and saw that I was smiling from ear to ear. He said, "Well, did you like that?" I replied, "Oh yeah!" He then said, "Good... 'cause it ain't gonna get any better than this." His passing is a huge loss to all who were fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to hear him... let alone play with him. He always provided the spark and was always a team player with rhythm sections, making sure everyone was on the same wavelength. Fortunately, every time I hear his recordings, I'll have to grin knowing that he's leaning back and raising his leg off the floor while "gettin' a hold of it."


Herb was a dear friend. I first heard Herb in a big band, I believe Jimmy Dorsey's. I also got to hear him up close with the Soft Winds Trio with Johnny Frigo and Lou Carter. He was really important, as was Barney Kessel, as both went from big bands to small groups and then leaders. Herb and I became friends and I heard him a lot—it was just so exciting, that amazing trio with Herb, Ray Brown and Oscar. It swung so hard! He and I stayed in touch one way or another and I was really inspired by him personally. He had a very outgoing personality and was very giving. His playing was and still is really exciting for me. He was a big inspiration.

—JIM HALL, Guitarist

I was privileged to have met Herb in the late '50s—he was with Oscar Peterson in Chicago and we had a chance to first connect then. Several years after he called me and we since remained good friends. I always loved his playing. He was truly one of the greats. We worked together through several tours of Europe with the Great Guitars: Mundell Lowe, Herb and myself. I joined the Great Guitars and jokingly suggested calling it the "OK Guitars" since they had so many great guitarists before I joined—Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd, Barney Kessel. I did two tours with the Great Guitars featuring Herb and as this was getting close to when he stopped playing, I held his hand right through the whole trip. It was great and we had a good time. He did my "Guitar Nights," a weekly guitar series I started in 1997 and have had at various locations in Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, he did his retirement gig at the one on December 4th, 2000 at Rocco's. That became a tribute and his official retirement. I will always cherish the great musical moments and, as is the case with losing a great dear friend, there is always a lot of sadness—but I have great memories.

—JOHN PISANO, Guitarist


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