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Remembering Jonah Ellis

February 26, 2010

On February 22, 2010, Jonah Ellis was called home to be with our Lord and Savior.  Jonah was born in Wilson County, North Carolina, August 25, 1947, and reared in Washington, D.C. He was the youngest of fourteen children (Robert, John C., Rosa-Mae, Mathew-Lee, William Bruce (Bud), Hagar, Inez, Margie, Festus, William, Hagar, Almeta (Dot), Dorthy, and John (Bob) Ellis) born to General and Almeta Ellis.

Jonah’s early years were spent with his siblings farming alongside his sharecropper father in North Carolina.  There, he learned both the value of hard work and developed a great love for music. By the time he was five years old, he had learned to play the guitar by enlisting family friends who were musicians to teach him chords.  When Jonah was seven years old, he and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where his passion for music grew as he grew.

Jonah accepted Christ at an early age and was baptized at Antioch Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.  He remained a devoted Christian throughout his life, and his strong belief in God guided his personal and professional life.  He was a member of Mother Liberty CME Church in Jackson, Tennessee and Lake Grove Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee, where he served in the music ministry.

Education was a priority for Jonah as he possessed an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.  Jonah was a graduate of Spingarn Senior High School in Washington, D.C. and Morris Town Junior College in Morris Town, Tennessee. He received a B.A. degree in Music from Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a Master of Arts in Music from Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.

Jonah was full of knowledge and always had a willing heart to share it.  His career in education punctuated his professional life.  Following his own education, he began educating others, serving as professor of music at The University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Eastern Shore, Maryland. He later devoted the last fourteen years of his life to Gordon Elementary School’s Kids ‘N Blues program in Memphis, Tennessee.

Jonah was highly creative and driven. His industrious, resourceful nature and his perseverance and dedication to hard work, when applied to his career in the music industry, led to his first recording, released in 1968 in Nashville, Tennessee by his group Jonah and The Whales. The song, “Savannah Sun,” topped the charts. Because of Jonah musical talent and skills he became an associate of various recording companies including Motown and Capital Records.

Jonah was most famous for his 1981 platinum hit single, “Don’t Stop the Music,” popularized by Yarborough and Peoples.  He was a singer and band director for the Drifters, lead guitarist for the legendary group The Temptations, and song writer for Burt Bacharach, Aretha Franklin, Penny Ford, Ester Phillip, Carolyn Franklin, The Funkadelics, Billy Paul, Rolls Royce, Jimmy Hamilton, Robert Goodie, The Gap Band, and many more.  He appeared on “Soul Train” and “Dick Clark” dance shows.

In addition to the platinum and gold revival of Ellis’s early cut “Don’t Stop the Music” by current pop artists Eve and Alicia Keyes in “Gangsta Lovin’,” and Puff Daddy in “Soul Food,” Jonah continued to write and perform internationally until his untimely death.  His enduring impact on the music industry was recognized in 2003 and 2004 with BMI music awards for “Gangsta Lovin’.”

Family was of utmost importance to Jonah as he was a devoted son and brother.  In 1980, he carried that devotion into his own family that he created when he took as his bride his college sweetheart and best friend Maria Slack.  To their union, Almeta-Maria, Ashley Renee` and Amber Nicole, who Jonah loved beyond measure, were born. The children dearly loved their father and shared many adventures with him. Jonah had a sense of humor that will be fondly remembered, especially by his children.

Jonah was a master of memories as he had a knack for recapturing them in vivid color and with impeccable detail and making new ones with vibrance. Jonah loved people and was always willing to help.  He was very charitable through generously giving and helping others, especially those in need. He was always optimistic and spoke the best of others. He was a friend and an encourager. Thus, his memory will be fondly cherished by many.

Jonah was preceded in death by his father and mother General and Almeta Ellis, and his sisters and brothers Robert Ellis, John C. Ellis, William Bruce (BUD) Ellis (Sarah Ellis), Matthew-Lee Ellis, and Inez Ellis-Barham.

Jonah leaves to cherish his legacy: his three beautiful daughters Almeta-Maria Ellis of Little Rock, Arkansas; Ashley Renee` Ellis of Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Amber Nicole Ellis of Jackson, Tennessee; as well as, eight sisters and brothers: Rosa-May Adams of Freemont of North Carolina; Margie Ellis of Washington, D.C.; General (Fetus) Ellis Jr. (Teresa- Evelyn Ellis)of Fort Washington, Maryland; William Bynum (Leslie Bynum) of Washington, D.C.; Hagar McLeod (James McLeod)of Suitland, Maryland; Almeta (Dot) Ellis-Callier of Fort Washington, Maryland; Dorthy Ellis of Upper Marlboro, Maryland; John (Bob) Ellis of Washington, D.C.; and a hosts of close cousins, nieces, nephews, great nieces, great nephews; and his best friend Maria Ellis.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Donna Dufur-Lindsey permalink
    February 26, 2010 5:47 pm

    Mr. Ellis was a wonderful teacher who will be greatly missed by those of us who worked with him and all of the students that crossed the doors to the Music Room at Gordon Elementary. He made a profound impact on all of us and the children loved him. It is easy to recognize the impact he has made on the students he taught. The love of music he shared with his students was awesome and inspiring. He knew how music could pass along the great qualities needed for education in the classroom: discipline,respect,teamwork,fortitude to complete the job before you, timing,steadfastness, and the ability to really listen, and to always do your best.
    I will miss him. I will miss his smile and his love for us and his special touch with the Special education students he taught. He never treated our Special Education students any different than the other students even if it meant he had to discipline them. He did this out of love.He wanted better for them and he always stressed to all of his students the need to “stay in school”. This message was of the utmost importance to him. I think they will never forget the message or this special messanger.

  2. Mrs. Anissa R. Christian permalink
    February 27, 2010 2:16 am

    I have fond memories of Mr. Ellis and the gift of music he humbly shared with Gordon Elementary students. He and I spent many hours coordinating the activities of the Kids ‘N Blues group. He molded and groomed many of the students to pursue music in other arenas. Many of our conversations involved his goals for his girls (The 3 A’s – Almeta, Ashley, and Amber)-to perfect their vocals.

    I will miss his tenacious drive for perfecting songs, undaunting love for the children, and limitless passion for music. I pray his soul is at rest as we all must pass the way of the grave. My prayers are with his family whom he loved dearly.

  3. March 7, 2010 6:09 pm

    Today I thought about Jonah and said to my wife, “I need to try and get in touch with my friend Jonah Ellis”. When I came back from church I began looking for him on facebook and myspace. My wife found this page and I was shocked and saddened to hear that he had passed.

    I met Jonah back in the years he was playing for the Temptations. I was a staff writer for Motown at that time. He was a soft spoken, kind and gentleman. I will always remember his smile. He always had a warm toothy smile. We worked on a few songs whenever he came to Los Angeles. At that time I was not a Christian and I noticed he had a peace about him that I know now was the Holy Spirit of the Lord Jesus. I am now a Christian since 1976. I wish I could have shared that with my brother in Christ.

  4. Lyrika permalink
    March 11, 2010 9:43 am

    I met Jonah when I became a music teacher for the Orff Music Program. Everytime I saw him he was smiling. I really loved his spirit. Not many people can smile even with a grain of salt, but he could.

    Jonah was very talented, and was a wonderful music teacher to his students at Gordon who I know will terribly miss him.

    He had a great dedication and passion for music and a love for teaching.

    We will all greatly miss his smile, sense of humor, and ways we grew to love. We will be in prayer for his famil, and friends who have lost this great man, father, and legend in the music community.

  5. Lyrika permalink
    March 11, 2010 9:44 am

    We know that he is now at peace.

  6. Alfred Tarrance permalink
    March 14, 2010 3:49 pm

    Jonah and I grew up together .I was one of the first kids in the neighborhood to receive guitar lessons from him.We went to the same Merritt Elementary,Carter G Woodson Jr High ,and Spingarn High.We delivered News papers together.I went to rehearsal with him as a teenager.He was always making accomplishments on a positive scale.Although I have not seen him since the 80S ‘I often talked to my wife about the fun we had growing up.He was a happy ,gentle ,kind person.
    I’ll alway remember him as a very best friend.

  7. March 30, 2010 9:40 am

    The students at Gordon Elementary were truly privileged to have had Jonah Ellis as their music teacher for fourteen years. Mr. Ellis was both a talented musician and an excellent teacher who taught students to love and appreciate all kinds of music and to perform music at high levels. His imaginative, innovative, and exciting style of teaching was a joy to observe. He taught his students with power, grace and elegance. The music he left us will live forever in our hearts and minds.

  8. Sue permalink
    March 30, 2010 4:59 pm

    Jonah called me just a week before he passed to come to make a life in Washington with him. Sadly my visit would have been in March too late to be with such a wonderful man. Jonah was an inspiration to many, and made friends easily here in London. The distance between us was far, but it made no difference to our love. The last place we visited together before he became ill was Rome. At that time we heard about the passing of Michael Jackson. Jonah began writing a song in my consulting room about all the black soul singers who were now in heaven. Now he is with them. God bless you darling Jonah.

  9. April 2, 2010 2:14 pm

    The students at Gordon Elementary were truly privileged to have had Jonah Ellis as their music teacher for fourteen years. Mr. Ellis was both a talented musician and an excellent teacher who taught students to love and appreciate all kinds of music and to perform music at high levels. His imaginative, innovative, and exciting style of teaching was a joy to observe. He taught his students with power, grace and elegance. The music he left us will live forever in our hearts and minds.

    Ms. T.T. Roberson, Principal-Gordon Elementary

  10. Shirley Wilson permalink
    April 25, 2010 6:22 am

    It was such a delight to meet Jonah when Sue brought him to our home in England. He radiated a warmth that made us feel we had been friends for ever. He and Sue were so happy together and their love radiated joy.
    Digby and I will miss you and remember you always. May you be held in the arms of God.
    Shirley.

  11. May 12, 2010 6:35 pm

    mr.ellis was a great teacher to me i was on of his singers also a future key board player i love mr.ellis.

  12. Linda (Munoz) Mason permalink
    May 28, 2010 3:12 pm

    To Jonah’s family I extend my sincere sympathy at his passing. He was my flute teacher at UMES and inspired me to “step out of my comfort zone” and play from my heart, when he wrote LOVE SONG for me to play. For so many years I have wished that I had kept a copy of his music. His encouragement and professionalism remain a positive and inspiring influence on me today. His smile still makes me smile.

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