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DEATH OF WILLIE ELLISON (article first published : 2006-02-26)

Musicians and contemporary music lovers alike are mourning the tragic death of Willie Ellison, a stalwart of the Durban band scene for close on 40 years.

To non-jazz followers, perhaps the name might not immediately bring the man to mind because he was self-effacing and didn’t seek publicity. However, his tall dark-haired figure behind his double bass seen at hundreds of music gigs was always easily recognised as were his ironic smile, twinkling eyes and ready sense of humour.

His other strong identifying characteristic was his stiffened neck, the result of an early problem which saw him undergoing numerous operations, the last and most successful one was to fuse the neck to the spine. This gave him the endearing quirks of a head held slightly to one side and the need to turn his whole body towards a person when he spoke to them.

Willie was born in Turkey and came to South Africa with his parents and sister as a little boy. Educated at Christian Brothers College he left school after Standard 8 to support his family. After completing his training with Schindler lifts he was introduced to his passion – music. Largely self-taught, his natural style of doing everything to the highest standard, gave him the incentive to work hard, read the music and concentrate on learning.

One of the most liked and respected musicians in Durban’s music world; Willie was a full-time professional bass player for many years before he went into selling organs with Peter Scott and ended up being his top salesman. He had his own band and played with dance bands as well as the big bands. Following his neck operations, he started a small shopfitting outfit which over the past 25 years was built into a significant business, Elrane Shopfitters.

Over the years, Willie Ellison must have played with just about every jazz musician in Durban but he will be particularly associated with the late George Hayden who was a prominent figure on the Durban music scene. He also played often with the Kerdachi Brothers – Simon, Gerald and Des. He regularly played with long-time friend, pianist Noel Bothma and had been with Noel and his wife, singer Judy Victor, on the night of the accident.

“He was a super person,” says Simon Kerdachi. “He had a lovely sense of humour and very little got him down. Whenever things were tough – Willie always seemed to be on top of it. And he was the type of person who never changed –you didn’t have to see Willie for a year or two and when you met up again, it was as if you’d just seen him yesterday. He was a good professional player, very versatile as well.”

Willie Ellison died as result of injuries sustained in a freak car accident. It is tragically ironic that the neck that had plagued him all his life couldn’t withstand the whiplash effect. He died several days later. He leaves his wife Yvonne, children Deidre, Wanda and William, their families and grandchildren.

The funeral will take place tomorrow (February 27) at the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Newport Avenue at 12h00. Donations in lieu of flowers to Boys Town or South African Nurses Trust Fund – contact for more details. – Caroline Smart




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