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The ‘Ambassador of Soul’ is here: Ellis Hall brings ‘big old box of crayons’ to ring in the new year

- - Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A "Chakalaka" experience awaits the audience when musician Ellis Hall brings his "big old box of crayons" to the Kennedy Center for a festive New Year's Eve concert of soul, R&B and Motown memories. He will share the stage with conductor Steven Reineke and the National Symphony Orchestra.

During a conversation with The Washington Times, the dynamic entertainer explained that Chakalaka means "joyous" and his "big old box of crayons" is the treasure trove of songs he has stored in his heart during the past 40 years.

A multi-instrumentalist and vocalist with a five-octave range, Mr. Hall last performed at the Kennedy Center in 2003, when his good friend Ray Charles asked him to play numbers from Mr. Hall's "Straight Ahead," the album they produced together. The mutual admiration forged at their first meeting in 2001 resulted in Charles signing Mr. Hall to his own label, Crossover Records, the only artist so honored. Their close friendship was based on their love of the same kinds of music and the blindness they shared that enabled them to forge a special synergy with their audiences.

After Charles died in 2004, Hall created a show in tribute to his mentor that includes some of his own original works. He continues to tour and spread his musical message with symphony orchestras throughout North America, including the New York Philharmonic conducted by Steven Reineke, the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Marvin Hamlisch and the Boston Pops conducted by Keith Lockhart. During a 2010 concert with the Rochester Symphony Orchestra, conductor Jeff Tyzik dubbed Mr. Hall the "ambassador of soul," a term that has stuck.

"I love working with symphony orchestras because I love hearing the strings soaring to the rafters and being in the mix of a soul sound so powerful we could make a cake," Mr. Hall says. "The first time I performed at the Kennedy Center, I could feel the presence of great people who had been there before. When I arrived, Ray's engineer told me his boss wanted to see me. He took me to the office and closed the door. I didn't know what to expect until Ray said, 'What are you trying to do, take my gig?'

"He had a great sense of humor and we became very close. Now when I'm sharing his music in a hall packed with his fans, I get my greatest satisfaction listening to their excitement. Once the music starts, you can't keep them from standing up and dancing to the beat. That makes me happy. I always let them know that each show comes with a warning: 'Don't hold it in or you could hurt yo self.'"

Mr. Hall was just 5 when a doctor warned that glaucoma could cause the loss of his eyesight. To prepare him for the future, his family moved from Claxton, Ga., to Boston so he could attend the Perkins School of the Blind. Knowing by then that music was his life, he devoted himself to mastering the guitar, bass, piano, keyboards and drums. He practiced on the bass in the dark so fervently that his fingers bled.

"Before I lost my sight, I saw the looks on the faces of a band whipping the audience into shape, and I knew that was where I wanted to be," he says. "While I was in school, I joined a doo-wop group singing on the corner and became very upset when people began throwing things at us, but when I discovered they were throwing money, not stones, I realized that music actually paid. My vocal coach was Nat King Cole's best friend. He told me that he could coach me technically, but to be really great, something must unlock within you."

Mr. Hall found that certain "something" quickly and in 1973 founded the Ellis Hall Group, which led to him being discovered by the R&B horn section/band Tower of Power. He performed, wrote and produced for the group, each success leading to another. By 1984, he was in Los Angeles and in demand as a session player. His vocals and instrumentals have been featured on albums with Kenny G, Donny Osmond, David Hasselhoff, Vince Gill and David Cassidy. "The Lion King 2," "Shrek 2," "A Bug's Life," "Bruce Almighty" and "Invincible" are among the film soundtracks on which he can be heard.

As a guest artist, he performed a scene from the musical "Chicago" with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger and Queen Latifah at the 75th Academy Awards. Other notable appearances: President Bill Clinton's first inaugural ceremony, Oprah Winfrey's show, and a concert for Nelson Mandela.

"Every show is exciting because it's different and every person I meet has a light," he says. "Among my greatest images are meeting Nelson Mandela, sitting at the piano for Miss Oprah, working with Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire, and playing with Stevie Wonder, George Benson and James Taylor, who sings like he means it.

"My life is full of wonderful experiences. I'll be playing for the inauguration of the new mayor of Boston with the Boston Pops, then I'm playing with symphony orchestras in Louisville, Dallas, and some other cities. I'm especially excited to welcome New Year's Eve at the Kennedy Center because we're going to 'soulify' the hall and celebrate together. Let everyone know I expect them to put on their dancing shoes."

Ellis Hall and the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Reineke, usher in the New Year

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Dec. 31

INFO: $55-$115 at 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org

New Year's Eve Grand Foyer Party with music and dancing to the Tom Cunningham Orchestra, 10:30 to 11:30 p.m., and Lady, 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Big balloon countdown to midnight. Free to all patrons with evening performance tickets.