It's never too late to record your first album

“It’s Never Too Late” is a new series that tells the story of people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms. One day a f...


“It’s Never Too Late” is a new series that tells the story of people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.


One day a few years ago, the woman who had long cleaned Russ Ellis’ house in Berkeley, Calif., Showed up with a new assistant. Mr. Ellis didn’t think to ask her name.

Maybe he forgot. Or maybe the recovering academic – famous architecture professor at the University of California at Berkeley, later vice-chancellor – had other things in mind. Anyway, the slip of the tongue shook him.

Russell Ellis, your father’s mother was born into slavery, he said to himself. “You have the right not to make anyone invisible. “

He not only learned the woman’s name at that time – Eliza – but made a commitment to sing it the next time she passed. With this promise, something strange broke out in him.

“A song came straight in. Eliiiiiza. Eliiiiiiiza. And then the urge kept coming.

Calling on experienced musician friends for help, Mr. Ellis spent the next year recording “Songs from My Garden”, his very first album. He was 85 years old. (He turned 86 in June.) It consists of 11 original songs, published online with an extremely local label, in various genres.

The experience thrilled him to a new level – he was able to explore new lands, with a creative surrender he had never known. Then, with that, he was delighted to conclude his brief recording career. (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)

Q: Tell me about your life before the “Eliza” moment.

A: I have never bit on anything. Over the years, I have been an athlete, a parent, a friend, a lover. “In the golden sandbox” – that’s how I think about my life in California. As a child growing up in the black working-class world, you wanted a secure job at the post office or at the teaching school. But doing new things has always been a part of my life.

After my retirement, I got into stone carving, then plasticine, then steelwork and painting. Sometimes I would see former colleagues at Berkeley and they were still kind of wearing the clothes from the old office. I couldn’t have been happier to let it all go.

Was it difficult to start writing music for the first time?

Not difficult at all. The songs just started to come along, easily and naturally. I have always been a worker, but suddenly I had the experience of a muse saying: “I understand, I am taking over.”

How does it feel to do this entirely new thing?

Having this muse is like being accompanied by another me, more sophisticated and flexible than me. I am an empiricist. But if I had to romanticize, I would say it was a spirit who came to visit me. It was one of the best experiences of my life. What a joy to have stuff like that.

A side effect: do you know how you sometimes get a song in your head? I am now getting whole movements orchestrated. New doors still open as we age. Besides the squeaky limbs, interesting things are happening as well.

How did you learn to record and write songs?

I’m kind of connected to the musical world through my kids and their friends. I exploited all the contacts I had: Would you mind helping me for free? Everyone was very generous.

Were you nervous about taking your first steps in this new world?

There are advantages to aging. Not a lot, but some. I’m too old to get nervous. And nothing was going on about it.

What kinds of challenges did you encounter at the start?

The hardest part was the blues. Recording my song “Night Driver (The Next-to-Last Old-Ass Black Man’s Bragging Blues)” was intimidating. Singing the blues isn’t just something you do. You have to participate in it, you have to think it, you have to deliver it in a way that people participate in it themselves.

How has this album changed you?

A big surprise to me about aging is that you keep changing. I think making the album made me a nicer person. Having the clear respect and support of my kids with this – it has made me feel better about myself, and when you feel better about yourself, you feel better around other people.

In addition, I was on stage for a living, teaching 150 students, then representing the university in my administrative role. Before that, I was a track star at UCLA, from ’54 to ’58. If I had a good run, my walk around campus was an act of celebrity.

All this stage time was not good for me. I felt a little unreal. I realized, when I finished this album, that it was my last expression of my desire. I was happy to step out of the scene.

What’s the next step for you?

My wife suffers from serious health problems. This is a normal problem, as they say, but it is not trivial. Right now my life is devoted to caregiving.

What would you say to someone who feels stuck in their life?

Do something that involves other people. Even another person. Getting out of a furrow – sometimes you just need the company.

There is this fantasy that creativity is something you do alone, by candlelight. No! Do something with other people who are as genuinely interested as you are.

What would you like to know about life when you were younger?

Doesn’t that involve sex?

Life is shorter than you think and longer than you think. My two best friends are also 80-year-old black men. We marvel at our actuarial improbability. I’m glad I used my time in so many different ways – ways that connected me to the world, to people.

Were there any experiences before the album that helped you prepare for it?

Over the past 10 years, I’ve actually had a small artistic career. In the process, I discovered that I was not as vulnerable as I thought I was. At one point, I had a piece in a group show, in a gallery. I walked past it just as a guy was saying, “This painting sucks.” And I am not dead! I actually went and, without telling him that I was the artist, I asked him why he said that. It turned out that he was a painter, and he told me his reasons. I learned a whole lot.

Do you have any other lessons to share?

Take note of what is interesting in your life. Don’t keep every little piece of paper. But take note.


We’re looking for people who decide it’s never too late to change course, change their life, and pursue their dreams. Should we talk to you or someone you know? Share your story here.

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