Since the tender age of seven when Derrick C. Ellis belted out his first solo with Mt. Zion Baptist Church’s all adult Revival Choir under the direction of Mr. Ron Stewart; music has challenged and filled his creative spirit as nothing else has. Since young Derrick was the first and only child ever allowed to sing with his family church’s all adult choir; this coveted honor was considered quite an accomplishment. This life changing opportunity introduced young Derrick to music’s many expressions of musical chords, lyrics, arrangements and the many emotional barriers that transcended in songs; he soon realized the powerful force behind music and how its energy drew him towards it like the seductive sirens of folklore. The words and music touched him so deeply; he felt a fervor led by God to fulfill his desire to arrange, sing, write and produce the songs which poured unbounded from his heart and soul.
Thirty years later, today Derrick is a well-seasoned veteran professional singer, composer and writer who has imprinted his musical talented footprints from Tennessee to California and Georgia. Following his evolving passion, Derrick studied chorus in elementary, middle, and high school as he prepared his life and future to create music. His unwavering enthusiasm and determination resulted in his selection as one of Austin-East High School Choir’s principal vocalists under the direction of Ms. Lillian Coleman. Recognizing Derrick’s talented gift, she reached out to mentor and groom him in his singing techniques, opened the door and exposed him to a variety of song genres and styles. Even working overtime on week nights and weekends she endeavored to help Derrick explore and expand his multitalented gifts. It wasn’t long before he was rewarded for all that hard work in his senior year when he was selected in 1987 for the role of “Jim” in Knoxville’s All City Chorus Production of the Broadway musical, “Big River.”
Derrick’s performance as “Jim” won him critical acclaim throughout the City of Knoxville and thus the beginning of his local professional career as a young entertainer. His first paying gig-a wedding snowballed into his performing at more than 50 weddings-including his own wedding. To further promote his budding career, he became a radio announcer and DJ for the local WKGN R&B radio station in Knoxville, solidifying his professional music industry-related goals. During the same period, he also became music producer and manager for a local female R&B dance group known as “DMIL.” This big break subsequently led to a six-month tour throughout the Southeast’s chitterlings circuit with a leading local band known for its Oldies songs and top 40’s chart songs until the tour’s lead singers, “The Blair Brothers,” unexpectedly quit the band. After a quick two, harried weeks of rehearsal, Derrick & his cousin Shawn Johnson successfully replaced the “The Blair Brothers” departure from the tour.
Using his gifted vocalist talents, Derrick later recorded over 100 reproduced R&B Karaoke tracks where he sang the lead and background for Chart Busters Karaoke of Seymour, TN. Working with Chart Busters Karaoke allowed Derrick to gain invaluable professional studio experience-some days recording up to 8 to 10 songs in an 8-hour session.
In June 1990, he was named the 1st place winner in the Knoxville Area Youth Talent Contest; scooped up the Grand Award Winner of the Tennessee Valley Fair’s Regional Youth Talent Contest, Knoxville, TN. In September of the same year he also captured Third Sweepstakes Winner in the Youth Talent International Contest in Memphis, TN. These awards spotlighted attention on the rising local talents of Derrick Ellis. He was booked in his first concert-where he single handedly arranged, produced, directed and promoted his first concert for Patrick Sullivan’s. Patrick Sullivan is located in the old historical district in Knoxville, TN known as the Old City, Knoxville, TN; only a few blocks from the urban living, revitalized downtown Knoxville and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
Following on the heels of the concert booking, Derrick recorded “Soul Town Christmas” produced by Silver Bells Music, Nashville, TN. Derrick was the lead soloist and background singer in 6 of the 12 songs produced-the remaining 6 songs were performed by another soloist lead singer, Palmer Williams, Jr. To everyone’s involved in the collaboration production of the holiday project; it was so popular, it flourished in popularity as a holiday classic and is still being played during the holidays nationwide at the retail mega giants, the Family Dollar Stores, which have over 10,000 chain stores and as of 2012 boasted revenues well over 14 billion dollars-located in over 40 states.
Prior to his move to Los Angeles (sadly on the heels of the Rodney King beating incident), Ellis’ second concert, “Hope in Christ,” was performed in April 1992 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Knoxville, TN. Taking advantage of the entertainment industry’s opportunities all around him in Los Angeles, Derrick was taken aback when he met and became not only friends with the real King of Rock and Roll-Little Richard, and the Bass King-Charles Glen to collaborate and produce a two-song demo. From this remarkable meeting with two of the industry’s artistic giants of their genre, Derrick was welcomed into an elite circle of influential power movers where he was able to mix, mingle and be introduced to A&R directors, major and independent label owners and many of the well-known nominated and award winning industry artists and stars.
During this same period, in 1993 Derrick decided to return to his hometown of Knoxville, TN to begin work on a two-song demo he had written-“The Pressure” and “Missing Lover.” The musical arrangements were written by William Orr, Jr., sadly, he was killed in a car accident after the completion of the two-song project. Orr’s death was a major setback but Derrick was not discouraged only more determined to complete the original demo project. A year later when Derrick returned to Los Angeles; he hand delivered his finished product-the demo package to several major record companies-A&M Perspective, Mercury, Capital, Solar and Crystal and several independent labels with the hopeful intent of obtaining a record contract. Although Derrick’s project had great potential, the letters of rejection although somewhat expected in the course of doing business in such a competitive industry; the biggest disappointment came through an unanticipated blow when his song, “The Pressure,” was handed over by one of the record companies for recording by a mega artist.
Derrick was never contacted for permission to record the song nor given any credit for his creation but the song sung by the artist sold over five (5) million copies. Unfortunately, Derrick did not possess the funds required to hire an attorney to pursue his legal rights in a copyright lawsuit or a long drawn out court battle with recording studios with deep pockets. And sadly, in any industry, there is a risk when an unknown sends out their unsolicited works with or without the protection of airtight contracts or legal copyright parameters in place hoping that “honesty” will prevail-more often it does not in this competitive environment. Although this was a major setback Derrick refused to be dissuaded and tirelessly continued working and promoting his talent and blossoming craft. He was a featured actor singing and performing in a “Radio Shack” infomercial selling Karaoke CD players. It was hard work and gritty dedication and his industry exposure through contacts, friends, artists and acquaintances which blessed him to find a financial sponsor who supported his next music project.
Energized by the encouraging turn of events, Derrick, filled with excitement and energy, wrote five (5) new songs for a demo; introduced his project at a meeting to music producer and well-known news talk and radio show host of 98.7 WOKI, Knoxville, TN, Hallerin Hilton Hill. Hill is well known for writing, “Who Would Imagine a King” along with Mervyn Warren and recorded by the late great Whitney Houston, well known as one of the industry’s greatest singers. Houston sold over 200 million records worldwide and introduced the bestselling sound track album in history from the film The Preacher’s Wife.
Hallerin was to produce the songs side by side in collaboration with Derrick and the late William Orr, Jr. After Orr’s death, Hallerin took over the project and the 1st song, a classic, “Come Together” dedicated to the late Alex Haley, author of the infamous Roots series, was chosen as the theme song for the Haley’s Heritage Square Project and Dedication Ceremony, Knoxville, TN.
Although Derrick recorded the rest of the demo; he still faced another set of hurdles more devastating than the others when he lost his financial sponsor’s backing. His sponsor asked him to bear the manufacturing costs for the project which Derrick was unable to finance. Unable to continue this critical part of the final process, this put a halt to Derrick’s project. Undaunted, Derrick pushed his vision and in 1995 acquired a financially more stable paying position with a jazz band, The Marcus Shirley Group, which played popular local spots-Club LeConte, the Old City’s Lucille’s and other Knoxville, TN surrounding popular night spots. With Derrick as the lead singer for a mix of jazz with R&B; he was able to showcase his vocal talents in a whole new exposure platform while earning the extra money to finish his demo project which is now a CD project.
A local Broadway production, “Let the Good Times Roll,” sponsored by the Knoxville Museum of Art, contacted Derrick and asked him to play the role of “Eat Moe.” Even though their request came at the last minute, Derrick accepted. His performance never failed to surprise the show’s producers as each night even though he possessed very little experience, Derrick carried out his performance with the natural ease on stage of a seasoned actor. Then came a time in his life he was working two jobs, engaged and then later married, everything started to heap up faster than Derrick could wade through them and as the obstacles mounted up; they took their toll on him. He said, it was “by the Grace of God,” in 1998 that he managed to release his first ever CD, “Good over Bad.” Purchasing 100 CDs which included the graphics art work, shrink wrap-the whole works and he gathered himself together and prepared for his singing gig at the Knoxville, TN Kumba Festival and where he sold his CDs to the crowd in attendance for $15 each as the opening act for the “SOS Band.” Then in 1999, he was the opening act for Glen Jones, Knoxville, TN and opening act for the Blind Boys of Alabama at the legendary Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN.
After these great successes, unfortunately, by this time Derrick’s stamina for battling the forces against him was slipping-wearing thin; he could feel the crush of being stretched too thin and the weight of all his obstacles pressing upon him. By this time, the young gifted Derrick fighting against the tides of the industry was overworked, depressed and outmanned-no longer able to handle his declining physical and mental health without professional help. He checked himself into a facility to get better and clean up. This was a life changing challenge for Derrick but he still refused to give up.
After a long battle of recovery, in 2003 Derrick explains “he was resurrected by God,” at his lowest point. With a thirst for Big Orange Money and Tennessee Tailgate Music; Derrick flew to Ontario, California where he wrote, arrange and recorded the single, “Wanna Be a U.T. Vol,” and produced by King Charles Glen. The single, popular enough to attract the attention of local sports news show, presented another avenue of exposure for Derrick’s talent invited him to perform live on local TV Tailgate parties and Prep rallies. Local Knoxville, TN channel 8, WVLT’s Rick Russo invited Derrick for several show appearances-even producing a Tennessee Vols’ sports video for the song.
Knowing it was important to capitalize from the momentum of the song’s popularity; Derrick teamed up with Michael Middlebrook, drummer/producer of Atlanta, Georgia and in 2004 released a full Tennessee Tailgate CD, “New Rocky Top.” From the CD, they started a band singing R&B and Tailgaiting all over the city. Even though the band had a short run due to creative differences over the releasing the CD at a Smoothie King Tailgate party on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN Cumberland Avenue Strip-a gathering place for campus students and locals; they parted company.
On his own again, Derrick arranged for two parties on the UT-Knoxville, TN Cumberland Avenue strip at a popular sports bar and night spot, Buffalo Wild Wings and Smoothie King where he sang, offered his CDs for sale and performed as DJ and all day and night on Tennessee Vol Game days on Saturdays in Knoxville, TN. Single handedly, he sold over 500 CDs in the first season of his five-year Tailgating run. During this period of success, Derrick faced another darker personal time in his life. His seriously ill grandson inspired him to record and dedicate a tribute song, Granddaddy’s Boy,” for a fundraiser where people purchased and donated up to $100 for a CD. Shortly afterward, he wrote “Diamond in the Ruff” and “Clap Your Hands Tennessee Fans.”
During this same period, Larry Suchomski, former Executive Director of the Tennessee Valley Fair asked Derrick to return to the fair located in the heart of the inner city. He wanted Derrick’s help improving the event’s relationship with the African American community. Using his professional experience in the music and entertainment industry, Derrick planned a day-long festival of various entertainment venues including the Austin East High School Marching Band. The community was a major force of support for the high school. He also created another draw card-a Re-mix for local youth contests and various bands. Derrick made all the arrangements and scheduled all the events for a flawless outcome. He was also instrumental in soliciting and securing contributions from individuals and corporations to finance the festival events.
Over the years, Ellis has unselfishly given back his personal time and talents to the youth of Knoxville, TN. Through his efforts and commitment, he has become an integral part of the Tennessee Valley Fair and still continues to organize festival events spotlighting the African American community. His assistance and dedication to this event since 2004 when Larry Suchomski first reached out to him, has spanned a decade with Derrick celebrating his 10th year anniversary in 2014.
In 2006, Derrick was the opening act for Debbie Winan (of the famous Winan Gospel Singing Family), Yolanda Adams, Harold Ford, Jr., and Barrack Obama who made history as the first African American sworn into the Office of President of the United States in 2009. Still hungry to grow and learn more about his craft, in 2007 Derrick moved to Atlanta, GA to meet and gain serious exposure for himself to the music and film industry where his interests and energies turned to learning how to make movies. He wanted to make a documentary film about his life and learn how to incorporate his new music into video and film. To accomplish this; he enrolled in a small Media school, “CSB,” where he learned the art of film, business, and equipment which introduced him to whole new industry network.
Quickly, Derrick’s outgoing personality and enthusiasm for the industry helped him make new friends quickly and also reunited him with old friends in the music and film circles. Before long, he soon found himself singing every Friday night at a live music bar, Pastis in Roswell, GA. An old Knoxville friend, Palmer Williams, Jr., encouraged Derrick “to fatten up his style and cop some new licks from some more experienced cats in Music,” as he put it and invited Derrick to Pastis. To this day whenever Derrick is in town, he can be found at Pastis on a Friday nights belting out his strong musical vocals to the customers.
Still pursuing his dreams, in 2010 Derrick released his 1st EPK DVD, “Diamond in the Rough,” and later became the opening act for En Vogue at the Tennessee Valley Fair.
Derrick’s musical ambitions, personal challenges, disappointments, and even his great successes have led him down many paths but each one left him with life learning experiences which honed his musical talents, his professional experience and survival in such a competitive industry. But these challenges along with the successes only continued to fuel his dreams and creative visions.
In 2014, Derrick opened his own small independent video company and now has a website, http://www.EllisSings.com and is recording new music, working with a small record company out of Atlanta, GA, producing that video documentary on his life and adding more achievements and updates to his website all the time.
This year, Derrick was the opening act for Ginuwine, a Platinum-selling, grammy-nominated R&B singer who has sold over 6.98 million in album sales. Ginuwine was the featured famous entertainer and artist, appearing at the 2014 Tennessee Valley Fair, Knoxville, TN.
As his personal and professional successes mount up, Derrick says, “I am a true believer in “Jesus Christ,” the dreams, the music which fills his soul and spirit, his visions and he never ever gives up his passion for music, singing, and writing new materials. He also loves art, enjoys cooking, acting, working hard at what he loves, show business, his family, and just people in general. Derrick Ellis is truly a rare undiscovered, “Diamond in the Rough.”
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