Charles W. Ellis Jr.

Talented singer established two church youth choirs and performed for many years in area gospel groups

November 26, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Charles Winfield "Sonny" Ellis Jr., a retired social worker and gospel singer who was choir director at New Psalmist Baptist Church, died of sepsis Nov. 16 at Sinai Hospital.

The longtime Catonsville resident, who had lived in assisted-living facilities for the past two years, was 73.

Mr. Ellis was born and raised in East Baltimore. He was a 1954 graduate of Dunbar High School and attended Loyola College and the Peabody Conservatory.

Mr. Ellis had worked for the state Motor Vehicle Administration and was a social worker for four years for the Maryland Department of Social Services before retiring in 1998.

His interest in music began at an early age after he was baptized at Memorial Baptist Church. After joining United Baptist Church, he established the youth choir and directed the Herman Hill Memorial Choir.

Mr. Ellis later lent his musical expertise in establishing the youth choir at Pentecostal Holiness Church. He became an active member at New Psalmist Baptist Church about 30 years ago.

"He just wanted to be a pew member, but his musical talents preceded him, and he was recruited to join the choir and eventually do what he did best: direct," said his daughter, Phaedra Ellis-Goods of Pikesville.

Working with Bishop Walter S. Thomas Sr., pastor of New Psalmist, Mr. Ellis created the church's Praise Team and also chaired and coordinated the 100th anniversary of the Edmondson Village church, which was founded in 1899.

"He worked for many a year with our choirs and he had a love for God, and he expressed that love in music. His singing touched hearts, and when Sonny sang, you felt the presence of God," said Bishop Thomas. "He was respected and loved by everyone. We're going to miss him."

In addition to working with church choirs, Mr. Ellis had been a member and performed with the Gospel Leaders, Maryland Suburban Mass Choir and Gospel Music Workshop of Maryland.

Despite an injury to his left hand, Mr. Ellis was proficient at both the organ and piano.

"Music was his No. 1 talent, and he enjoyed good music, singing and directing," his daughter said.

Thomas R. Roberts, a longtime friend, directed a number of gospel groups to which Mr. Ellis belonged.

"I've known him almost 50 years, and we've been singing together for more than 35 years," said Mr. Roberts. "The three groups of mine that he sang with included the Tommy Roberts Singers, Gospel Leaders and the Gospel Music Workshop of Maryland."

Mr. Ellis was known for his renditions of several gospel favorites, such as "It's Real" and "Give Me a Clean Heart."

"Charles was a very soulful singer who always sang with a lot of emotion," Mr. Roberts recalled.

"He didn't just jump on a song. When he sang, if he didn't feel it, he wouldn't sing it. The harmony and diction had to be right. He was always a perfectionist," he said.

"Other favorites included 'Nobody Knows.' He'd start off real slow, and after the second bar, he jumped into it and picked up the pace. And when he did that, he took everyone with him," Mr. Roberts said.

"Oh, yes. He'd taken them big time," said Bishop Thomas.

Mr. Roberts added: "He also soared with 'Christ My Hope,' and another fantastic number of his was 'Use Me, Lord.' Charles was always fun to be around. He was a jubilant, happy individual."

His daughter said he "loved to laugh and make people laugh," and at the same time was a good listener, freely offering advice and, if need be, criticism.

"And he could handle criticism. He was a very outgoing individual and didn't mind letting people know who he was or how he felt," she said.

"Because he was always upfront, you never had to guess what he was thinking. If he didn't tell you, you could always tell from his facial expression," said Mrs. Ellis-Goods.

Mr. Ellis, who was noted for his stylish dress, liked to accent his perfectly tailored suits with a pocket handkerchief.

"He loved to dress and make a statement," his daughter said. "His favorite line was, 'You can be down and out, but you don't have to look it.' "

Services were held Tuesday at his church.

Also surviving are a son, Dwayne Ellis of Baltimore; and a granddaughter. His marriage to the former Isadora Gee, a pianist, ended in divorce.

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