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Ellis, Bobby Rush family celebrates

by Richard Ledbetter Special to The Commercial | June 2, 2023 at 3:55 a.m.
Children kept themselves occupied with bingo and a bounce house. (Special to The Commercial/Richard Ledbetter)

East of the Arkansas River outside Pine Bluff, the 14-acre homestead of well-known local businessman Larry "Shine King" Ellis sits amidst miles of Delta cornfields.

Ellis has been a downtown figure for years occupying his corner of Pop's Barber Shop on Main Street. Snapping his rag while plying his trade, he is expert at making old shoes look like new and new shoes shine like a new dime.

In addition to his skills with brush and polish, he is also readily recognized as the master of ceremonies for world-renowned Grammy winner and music icon Bobby Rush, regularly introducing the bluesman in appearances across the country. The association is derived from his close, lifelong relationship with Rush. Ellis is Bobby's youngest brother.

Born Emmett Ellis Jr., at Haynesville, La., in 1933, Rush's father was a Baptist preacher. When Rush was 11 in 1947, his father's ministry brought the family of 10 kids to the tiny farm community of Sherrill. Upon beginning a career as a blues musician in nearby Pine Bluff's Third Avenue juke joints, he adopted the stage name "Bobby Rush" out of respect for his preacher father because religious folks tended to frown on the blues.

On May 27, in honor of Memorial Day, several of Rush's relatives gathered on the Ellis place outside Sherrill to recognize area veterans and, as Shine King put it while welcoming his guests "the first ever 12-month celebration of everybody's birthday."

A Vietnam veteran, Ellis' own 75th birthday took place on March 23 but he insisted his family wait to celebrate it until Memorial Day weekend in order to include his fellow veterans on the occasion.

In addition to remembering veterans both living and deceased, Ellis reminded attendants the music being played over the course of the evening would contain tributes to some of the historic blues men and women now passed on including B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Taylor, Elmore James, Lightning Hopkins and many others.

The abundant variety of soul food provided for the party included catfish fillets and buffalo ribs, quail, barbecue raccoon, squirrel, pigs' feet and ears as well as greens, okra and beans.

Special guests in attendance were Bobby and Larry's 90-year-old elder brother Alvin "Tebo" Ellis from Chicago and a sister, 81-year-old Gurtie B. Ellis Crater from Jackson, Ill. The pair shared what it was like growing up near Sherrill.

"We lived on E.L. Burgess' farm," Crater said. "The population of Sherrill was just 24 people until we came. Then it went up to 34." She added, "We all used to get together for a family reunion this time every year until Momma died. Hopefully this is a new beginning for the family to gather up again each year."

Oldest son Alvin followed in his father's footsteps taking up ministry in Illinois.

"I only lived in Sherrill five years," he said. "I was 15 when we came from Haynesville and moved to Chicago when I turned 19. Our folks moved from Sherrill to Pine Bluff about that same time and took up residence near Ohio Street. My wife Ellin and I were married 57 years before she passed away. I say we were in the marriage business, we were partners in making it work that long. We were more than just husband and wife; we were best friends."

In his autobiography, "Ain't Studdin' You" released in 2021, Bobby Rush stated on page 37, "in Sherrill the land was way more fertile than in Louisiana ... and everything grew. Daddy had five times the cotton yield. Back in Louisiana, we had to pick three times the acreage to get a hundred pounds of cotton. Now the cotton was easier to pick, so you went faster. And that meant more money. As I loaded that cotton up, Daddy took out his handkerchief. I thought he was going to wipe his brow, but he put it over his eyes and wept like a baby. This was the first time I saw Daddy cry."

Rush was originally slated to drive in from his home in Jackson, Miss., to make an evening appearance but just days prior to the event, he received a call from an entertainment venue in Switzerland to perform for a European crowd. In a brief phone conversation speaking from a hotel in France, Rush said, "They made me an offer too good to refuse."

A large crowd continued to filter in over the course of the evening at Sherrill.

  photo  Domino tables occupied favorite spots beneath the shade of several spreading pecan trees. (Special to The Commercial/Richard Ledbetter)
  photo  Bluesman Bobby Rush's relatives, brother, the Rev. Alvin "Tebo" Ellis (left) brother Larry Ellis' wife Doris, and sister, Gurtie B. Ellis Crater, shared stories of life in and around Sherrill. (Special to The Commercial/Richard Ledbetter)
  photo  Memorial Day celebration host Larry "Shine King" Ellis welcomed guests while playing and singing for the crowd. (Special to The Commercial/Richard Ledbetter)

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