Before spending eight years in an orphanage, Irishman Danny Ellis grew up in the heart of Dublin close to the River Liffey. He often skipped school, pretending to be a pirate captain. From age 8 to 16, Ellis learned the trombone. Upon leaving the orphanage at 16, he picked up guitar, keyboards and percussion to become a professional musician. Fifty years later, he is now recognized with a unique Celtic voice, and was even named lyricist of 2009 by JPF Music Organization.
Also a composer, arranger and author, Ellis will come to Wilmington for a rare appearance on Friday the 13th and Saturday the 14th of December. He will present a book reading of his memoir, “The Boy at the Gate” at Pomegranate Books on the 13th, and then hold a performance at Ted’s Fun on the River on the 14th.
“The Boy at the Gate” recounts Ellis’ life in an orphanage, after his family fell apart. “I undertook the task [of writing] very reluctantly because of the emotional charge within the memories,” Ellis recalls. “But to my surprise it was a very healing and cathartic journey that has changed my life immeasurably for the better.”
Inspired from his CD, “800 Voices,” Ellis says it deeply explores all events and characters that molded him in life. Separated from his siblings, Ellis was placed in the Artane Industrial School, one the most notoriously brutal Irish orphanages. While there, he was steered in the direction of music thanks to the school’s band.
“Celtic music has always been in my core, but it’s only recently [that] I started writing in that genre, [as I] still write in other styles, like folk, rock, blues and even some old-fashioned country,” Ellis comments.
After he left the orphanage in 1963, he composed for many European song festivals and even landed in the finals of the Irish heats in The Eurovision Song Contest, a major annual event featuring work from various European countries. He later ventured to London to play in bars and streets, before touring Europe with other musicians, such as Graham Parker and the Rumor and The Foundations. While trekking through Spain, he met his wife, Liz, an American, and soon moved to the States where he has remained.
Though he currently lives in Asheville, Ellis has been touring for the last three months, visiting New Orleans, Savannah, New York and Chicago. “I was fortunate to play at Thalian a couple of years ago and really enjoyed Wilmington,” Ellis says, “so when Pomegranate books contacted us about my book reading, it was an immediate ‘yes.’”
Guests can expect a different experience from normal readings, as Ellis also plans to sing songs and tell about his orphanage experience. “I like to take folks on a journey so it’s like a little piece of theatre,” he says.
Ellis will be performing at Ted’s Fun on the River for the first time on Saturday night. “Folks can expect an entertaining, inspiring evening of original songs inter-spaced with stories,” Ellis details. “My lyrics are very life-affirming and audiences generally attest to my gigs being heart-warming and fun.”
The reaction to his music, which Ellis describes as an “eclectic blend of folk/rock/Celtic/blues,” has been very well received stateside, more so than among his Irish friends, who “raised a few eyebrows.”
“I think that mining the emotional depth of ‘800 Voices’ material and the subsequent book took a lot of courage and I’m very proud of that,” Ellis says, speaking of his greatest achievement. “800 Voices” is Ellis’ award-wining album, which features modern Celtic melodies and lyrics that take the listener on a journey through his childhood at the orphanage. The album and his memoir have been well-received in his homeland, which isn’t always the most accepting country for talent according to Ellis.
The album is based on the 800 kids in the playground of the orphanage and received nominations for four major awards at the JFP Music Awards in Nashville in 2009. Ellis won Best Lyricist and took second for Best Contemporary Folk Song, as well as fourth for Best Celtic Album.
Another of Ellis’ top achievements came when he opened for American blues singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt. “Hearing her talk about how much she loved my music was very cool,” he notes.
As for the future, he has no plans to slow down and likes to think his greatest work is still ahead of him. Ellis currently has ideas for more books, too. Naturally, more music is on the way, as well, with influences ranging from early Paul Brady to Christy Moore. “I just loved the process of writing,” he says, “and look forward to finding my way into another project soon.”
He has even taken “800 Voices” into musical territory. “I have usually performed it myself as a one-man show,” Ellis notes, “but wanted to look at turning it into a musical. I wrote some new material for it, which allowed the characters and people in my life to come alive. I have been focused on the book, which has recently been released here in the U.S. and will look at moving the musical project forward in the new year.”
At present Ellis offers music and singing lessons through his website, www.dannyellismusic.com.
December 13th, 7 p.m.
Reading at Pomegranate Books
4418 Park Ave. • (910) 452-1107
December 14th, 7 p.m.
Performance at Ted’s Fun on the River
2 Castle St.
Tickets: $15, (910) 777-8889