When Bob Ellison first started singing with the U.S. Air Force Band of Mid-America out of Scott Air Force Base in the 1970s, he was introduced as a “guest vocalist.”
That’s because he wasn’t an official member of the prestigious group.
Ellison, a baritone, said he failed his audition because he couldn’t read music at the time but the group’s leaders enjoyed his version of the national anthem so they invited him to sing opening songs with the band who plays near Scott Air Force.
Ellison’s fortunes quickly changed when a four-star general heard his booming voice sing in St. Louis.
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The voice is still strong but arthritis is on my tail, though.
Vocalist Bob Ellison, who just turned 80
“He said, ‘How come they keep introducing you as the guest vocalist? I thought you were part of the band.’
“I said, ‘No sir, I didn’t pass the audition, but I appreciate the fact that I can sing with the band for one song, that’s great for me.’
“Well he said, ‘You just passed the audition.’
“And it was about four days later I was cross-trained into the Air Force band and life really began then,” Ellison said with a hearty laugh.
Ellison, of O’Fallon, was transferred from his combat support and supply job to a full-time gig with the Band of Mid-America at Scott Air Force Base. He spent 12 years with the band before retiring as a chief master sergeant in 1989 after a total of 32 years in the Air Force. Before he joined the band, his assignments included about two years in Vietnam and stops in Wiesbaden, Germany, and Wichita, Kan.
Fast forward to today and Ellison is still singing at 80 years old.
He sounds much younger.
“The voice is still strong but arthritis is on my tail, though,” he said with a laugh.
On Friday night, Ellison is scheduled to perform at the 18th Annual Compton Heights Concert Band’s Holiday Pop Spectacular! at historic Powell Hall on North Grand Avenue in St. Louis. Hugh Smith, a tenor, and Gina Galati, a soprano, also are on the bill.
Ellison has been a member of the Compton Heights Concert Band for about 35 years of the 40 years the group has been in existence.
Since Ellison is the chief caregiver for his wife of 42 years, Flora, who is battling diabetes, he’s had to cut back on some of his commitments.
He recently stepped down as one of the music leaders at Truelight Baptist Church in East St. Louis after 30 years of leading the music for the congregation every other Sunday. Ellison still sings with the church’s choir.
Ellison, whose business is called A Step Beyond…, sang Christmas songs last week for the St. Louis University Family Medicine Residency Program at HSHS St. Elizabeth's Hospital’s annual holiday party in Belleville. The crowd included military members because the residency program partners with Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation and Scott Air Force Base to train medical residents.
Ellison is a fixture at the annual Veterans Day ceremony held on the Public Square in Belleville. He sings patriotic songs such as “God Bless America” and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”
Generals always enjoyed his work, Ellison said.
I think the key to longevity is keeping that stress out of your life and handling it where it doesn’t affect you too much.
“They like that heavy, heavy music and that’s what I was geared for. Some people have to study it or really work at doing stuff. But to me, it comes natural,” he said as he snapped fingers on both hands.
“When I learned the national anthem, I used to sing it in three different keys. If you do it in three different keys, when you finish, you’re ready to sing, because it’s a hard song to sing. You go from the lowest to the highest. If you’ve got anything wrong there, it will show up.”
“That song has taken me to more places than I could ever have gone by myself. That one and ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’”
Ellison said his age hasn’t stopped him and he has no plans to give up singing as long as he has his voice. He said he is thinking about taking some disc jockey jobs. But don’t expect to hear contemporary pop or hip-hop.
He’s firmly planted in the classics.
Some of Ellison’s favorite artists include Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls, George Gershwin and Erroll Garner.
Ellison first began singing a capella when he was about 10 in his boyhood home in Cleveland and then continued in high school.
Those songs he learned some 70 years ago are still with him today.
So how does he keep performing at a high level?
“Keep the stress down,” Ellison said. “I think the key to longevity is keeping that stress out of your life and handling it where it doesn’t affect you too much.”
About Bob Ellison
- Vocalist with Band of Mid-America out of Scott Air Force Base for 12 years
- Scheduled to perform at Powell Hall in St. Louis Friday night
- A Step Beyond... is the name of his business
- Contact: 618-567-6531