I was playing a small club in Martha's Vineyard, a place where musical heavies on vacation can come in and jam with the band without the pressure of being a star. That night we started out with Carly Simon seducing the house with an old John Prine number. Next Jim Belushi grabbed the mic and began slamming down his own brand of Chicago Blues. It was August. By eleven, every inch of exposed skin dripped with sweat, and the dance floor seemed to be rising and falling in time to the groove.
And then producer/bassist/engineer extraordinaire Jim Parr comes up and says, "That singer Ellen I told you about? She's here and she wants to do 'Stormy Monday.'"
Now 'Stormy Monday' has got to be one of the most over-played war-horse tunes in the house-band repertoire. It's a classic, but like so many classics it's best left alone. Unless you're a total monster, that is. And, frankly, I'd heard too many pretty-good women singers butcher the blues. But it was a loose scene and Jim's got big ears, so up came Ellen.
Ellen, with that fashion-model face and big Boston attitude like she was just itching to tear up the joint. Rip it into shreds as she smiled away, giving everybody just a hint of trouble-maker behind the innocent sparkling blue eyes.
Which is exactly what happened. She counted the tune down and inside of two verses, Jim Belushi literally fell to his knees, playing harp in reverence to the diva who was killing us with her jaw-drop voice. Ellen O'Brien. There might as well have been blood on the floor she was so damn good.
Next day Jim told me the whole story. That a guy named Al Campbell had heard Ellen sing and knew right away she deserved a shot at the big time. He called Jim Parr and said he'd foot the bill for a CD if Jim would produce it. Needless to say, Ellen was ready to lie down in front of traffic to get the thing made. And after hearing a demo tape, so was Jim.
That summer, Jim rounded up the right studio guys while composer Noel Cohen got together with Ellen and turned out some of his ungodly-refined pop songs. The night after we played "Stormy Monday," I signed on as well, playing guitar for free. Because, for me, any chance to play with Ellen is like getting paid. Better, actually. It's a chance to be part of something lasting. Something you care about.
Ellen keeps telling me that this CD is a dream come true, the fulfillment of everything her life has been about. But she's not the only lucky one. Because now the world finally has a chance to hear a great talent work her unforgettable magic.