The Carpenter Ants with John “Some Kind of Wonderful” Ellison
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Link: Carpenter Ants Facebook page
The Short Story
John Ellison was born in Montgomery, WV on the banks of the Kanawha River and grew up in the mining town of Landgraff in McDowell County. In 1959, he quit his job at the Carter Hotel in Welch, put his belongings in a grocery bag and bought a one-way ticket to Rochester, NY.
Eight years later, he formed The Soul Brothers Six. None other than the legendary record mogul Jerry Wexler signed the group to Atlantic Records. The group’s first release was “Some Kind of Wonderful.” In 1974, Grand Funk Railroad’s version reached the No. 3 spot in the nation.
The song has since been covered by more than 70 artists and is know throughout the world. Other notable covers were recorded by Buddy Guy, Huey Lewis and the News, and, most recently, Rod Stewart.
Ellison is a regular performer at the Nice Jazz Festival in France, and also performs regularly throughout Europe and North America. In 2015, he was inducted into The West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
At 81, he continues to perform with the energy, enthusiasm and joy of a man half his age. His shows are soulful, rocking and filled with tales of his storied life.
When performing in the U.S., The Carpenter Ants are his backing band of choice.
The Rest of the Story
Ellison has received five Lifetime Achievement awards for writing one of the world’s most played songs, and has performed and recorded with artists such as Patti Labelle, Diana Ross, James Brown, and Smokey Robinson.
Unlike many artists of that era, Ellison – who is also an astute businessman – retained the rights and the publishing to all of his songs – a move which paid off for him in many ways. In 2001, he started “Some Kind of Wonderful Foods” which he regularly markets on the Home Shopping Network. Of course, John’s pitch includes singing.
As a solo artist, Ellison has released “Welcome Back” in 1993, and “Missing You” in 2000.” In 2007, he issued “Back” which earned him nominations for “Male Vocalist of the Year,” and for “R&B/Soul Recording of the Year” at the 2008 Hamilton Music Awards in Hamilton, Ontario.
In 2012, Ellison published his autobiography, “Some Kind of Wonderful: The John Ellison Story.” The following year, he co-starred and composed the music for the A&E movie “The Rev.”
While Ellison splits his time between Toronto and Tamp, FL, whenever he visits West Virginia, he gives something back to his home state, often performing at schools and giving motivational talks for The West Virginia Music Hall of Fame’s “Music Career Counseling Program.”
The end of an era – and a new beginning
After 36 years and more than 3,000 performances with the group’s original lineup, The Carpenter Ants’ lead singer Charlie Tee passed away in December, 2021 from COVID.
His death was shockingly sudden. After surviving numerous health issues over the past dozen years, the virus took him down in a little more than a week, leaving his bandmates in disbelief and a legion of friends in WV’s music community grieving.
But thanks to Charlie’s selfless and generous nature, the Ants were able to pick up the pieces remarkably quickly and soldier on, thanks to Mark Bates. A longtime friend and frequent collaborator, Bates is a talented singer, songwriter and keyboardist and has performed often with the Ants. In 2016, he filled in for Charlie on the band’s third trip to Russia..
With a mission to celebrate Charlie’s spirit, WV’s premiere R&B/gospel-soul band carries on.
In July, the group will return to Slovakia for the third time to perform at three festivals as well as a number of shows in and around Banska Bystrica. The group will perform for the Roma community and for Ukraine refugees.
The Carpenter Ants are a band in the true sense of the word. Having logged more than 3,000 performances over more than three-and-a-half decades, the group – which, until Charlie Tee’s death in December 2021, still consisted of the four original members.
Current members are: Michael Lipton (guitar/vocals), Ted Harrison (bass, vocals) Jupie Little (drums, vocals), and new member Mark Bates (vocals, keyboards).
Thanks to a unique and timeless blend of Appalachian soul, the group is regarded as WV’s premiere rhythm & blues band and is often called on to back local and visiting artists. As a result, the Ants have quietly amassed a resume that rivals many national groups. The band has toured Moscow three times, is preparing for its third trip to Slovakia and has appeared on NPR’s “Mountain Stage” numerous times, both as a featured act and backing other performers.
The group’s trademark country-soul sound — rich, soulful harmonies, stinging solos and a rock-solid rhythm section — captures that rare, loose-but-tight feel and has won the band international as well as regional fans.
Those fans range from famed singer/songwriter/producer Don Dixon – who produced the Ants’ last five releases – to Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson chose the band to accompany him on a barnstorming, eight-city tour prior to the 2004 presidential election, a Labor Day rally that drew 75,000 people, a march in Atlanta that featured Stevie Wonder (who tapped Ants’ drummer Jupie Little to sit in on a tune) and, most recently a “Rally For Our Rights” to support voting rights for all.
A short list of other notables who have been bitten by the Ants unique sound and joined the band onstage include: Nellie McKay, who the band has backed on a number of performances; Craig Finn (The Hold Steady), Tyler Childers, Amanda Shires, Margo Price, Steve Poltz, Paul Thorn, Terry Adams (NRBQ), Todd Snider, Lenny Kaye, Kukuruza (Russia) and Mokomba (Zimbabwe).
The group’s current release, the Don Dixon-produced “Tearin’ Down The House,” is a harmony ‘n’ rhythm-rich two-disc celebration of American music with guests including Paul Thorn and Shemekia Copeland.
This release follows up “Ants and Uncles” which featured Telecaster king Bill Kirchen throughout. When Dobro wizard Jerry Douglas heard mixes from the release, he jumped in and laid down some lap steel on the rave-up gospel track “He Saved My Soul.”
The Ants have toured Moscow three times (1996, 1997, 2016). The trips included performances at a variety of venues including the 3,500-seat Russia Concert Hall, the city’s most prestigious hall, a Letterman-styled TV show with a national audience of 100 million (!!), funky clubs and gaudy casinos. In summer 2022, the Ants will return to Slovakia with “Mountain Stage” host Larry Groce to perform at a pair of festivals and a variety of other venues.
At home, the band has played all manner of events – from wakes, church services and rallies for presidential candidates (Bill Clinton and John Kerry) to fairs, festivals, biker rallies and biennial festivals at a nudist camp in Paw Paw, WV. In 2018, the Ants recorded a rewrite of WV native John Ellison’s timeless, rock ‘n’ soul hit “Some Kind of Wonderful” (with Ellison singing!) as WV Senator Joe Manchin’s campaign song.
Members of the Ants have toured in the U.S. and Europe backing English rock legend Kevin Coyne, and played with original NRBQ guitarist Steve Ferguson for 15 years (Ferguson can be heard on 2005’s “Ants in Your Pants”).
The Carpenter Ants have appeared on NPR’s “Mountain Stage” and “Whad’Ya Know?” as well as opening numerous shows for the likes of The Holmes Brothers, Paul Thorn, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Charlie Musselwhite, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Gov’t Mule, NRBQ, George Thorogood, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Nighthawks, Bill Kirchen, and Delbert McClinton.
Thanks to Lipton’s three-plus decade-long association with the NPR syndicated radio show “Mountain Stage” as house electric guitarist, a long and varied list of players have sat in at after-show jams for sets that ping-pong from rock ‘n’ roll and blues to country and gospel. The list is a testimonial to the band’s versatility and includes Jimmy LaFave, Guy Clark, The Sweetback Sisters, Radney Foster, Bill Lloyd, Solas, NRBQ, Mollie O’Brien, Hayes Carll, Terry Reid, Ben Sollee, Dwight Twilley, The Alternate Routes, Rodney Crowell, Robyn Hitchcock, Jason Isbell, Chip Taylor, Michael Martin Murphy, Taj Mahal, and the late Luther Allison.