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Some kind of wonderful life

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Several generations later, it would be hard for a lot of people to fully understand the kind of poverty or the racism singer/songwriter John Ellison knew growing up in West Virginia.

He just doesn't want people to forget.

Ellison, best known for penning the song "Some Kind of Wonderful," has written an autobiography, "Some Kind of Wonderful: The John Ellison Story." The 71-year-old Montgomery native-turned-Canadian resident said, "People see me and they say, 'Wow, you've accomplished a lot. You've really been blessed,'" and Ellison doesn't disagree, but there's more to him than that.

On the surface, he was the man with the right song at the right time. Recorded in 1967, "Some Kind of Wonderful" has become the third most played song in the world.

"And that's great for me," Ellison laughed. "I own the song. Every time you hear that song, I'm the guy who gets paid."

It's provided him with a comfortable life, but Ellison didn't start that way. He began in almost unimaginable poverty, born on the banks of the Kanawha River in a little house his father built from driftwood.

The second of six children, Ellison and his family moved to McDowell County when he was 8 years old. His father worked in the coal mines.

"As far as poverty, I don't think you could go any further down," Ellison said. "We were very poor. Dad was earning about $600 a year and trying to take care of eight people."

There weren't a lot of extras, but Ellison's father had a guitar, and Ellison learned to play listening to him strum and sing.

In his teens, Ellison starting playing shows with his band, Little Willie and the Rock and Rollers, but in the 10th grade, he took a job at the Carter Hotel in Welch.

"I worked 11 o'clock at night to 7 o'clock in the morning. I'd leave work and catch a bus to Kimble High School, but I found that too hard to do. By noon, I was falling asleep in class."

Ellison quit school in hopes of starting a music career. His first stop was a radio talent show at WELC in Welch that promised a cash prize plus the chance to record in New York.

"I was the only black person who showed up."

He took his turn and sang for the DJs, who seemed impressed.

"We've got our winner right here," Ellison remembered the DJs say as he walked back to the waiting room with the others contestants.

"I was feeling pretty good," he added.

But one of the DJs had forgotten to turn off the intercom. Broadcasting out throughout the building, Ellison heard someone else bark back at the DJs, "What do you mean we have a winner? I don't care how good he is. He's a g--damned nigger and there's no way in hell a g--damned nigger wins this contest."

Everyone heard, Ellison said. He was crushed, but eventually decided to just leave West Virginia on his own. He went north and moved in with a cousin who lived in Rochester, N.Y. 

"The lady who rented my cousin a room was kind enough to give me some space up in her attic, and that's where I stayed until I got a job washing dishes."

Ellison took lots of little side jobs over the years until his music career took off in the mid-'60s with the Soul Brothers Six. The group recorded "Some Kind of Wonderful," but in 1967, the song barely broke the Top 100 of the mainstream pop charts.

"In the 1960s, 99 percent of all black music was played only on black radio," he said. "So my song wasn't really heard with my group because of the racial barrier. We just weren't getting played on white radio."

That changed in 1974 when "Some Kind of Wonderful" was recorded by the all-white Grand Funk Railroad and became a big hit. The song has since been recorded by many others and even returned to the charts in the '90s with Huey Lewis and the News.

Ellison said he wants his book to both serve as a chronicle of his experiences as a black man and as an inspiration for what someone could achieve if they don't give up.

Ellison is still trying to achieve. He has his Some Kind of Wonderful food company, which makes spices, and is coming out with a line of chicken, turkey and beef burgers. He's also hoping that one of these days, he'll find his way into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.

"I just received an award from BMI," he said, referring to Broadcast Music Inc., a group that collects license fees on behalf of composers and songwriters. "My song has been played on the radio over four million times. I'm a West Virginia native, and I have been denied the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame?"

He laughed. He wasn't really mad, but he really thought they ought to let him in.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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