Growing up in Washington, D.C., with his religious grandmother Libba Cotten, a member of the Folk Music Hall of Fame, and the likes of Pete Seeger and Taj Mahal parading through the living room, Larry Ellis found himself faced with both a musical mandate and a search for a path of righteousness. His memory of hitting the road to play out came with the constant prayer, “Lord, if you give me a hit record, I’ll build a church for you.”
Four decades later, in an interview published in the Sept. 13, 1995 Syracuse New Times, he reflected, “But he doesn’t deal that way, apparently.” Ellis died on June 14, at age 70, at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
At the time of the 1995 interview, British and French releases of Black Hammer’s “Funky Time” from 1969, with Ellis on organ, brought a brief flash of revival portent and reversal of the prayer. Ellis, by then “Reverend,” had built God’s Way Church on the city’s South Side. He added quickly that if the band were to reunite for a set in town he would definitely go to hear them, but would not jam himself.
“I have to be careful,” Ellis told New Times photographer Michael Davis and this reporter, listening to a surprise recording of “Funky Time” we had brought. “What I do now is very serious. It’s a piece of a past. Not a bad past, but it’s separate. Some people might not understand.”
Although he sent soulful notes on his Hammond B3 heavenward from God’s Way every Sunday, the Reverend knew some of his parishioners would consider the recording’s party-hard ambiance out of tune with the Holy Spirit, if not downright devil’s music. He knew also, however, that it could easily touch the souls of others in the congregation who felt comfortable testifying at Sunday service to their struggles with rehab from drink or drug, or their need to embrace it.
And there was no pretension in the Reverend’s description of his mission as very serious, as he brought it out of God’s Way, 1800 S. Salina St., to the gang-dominated street corners of the South Side and the arena of local politics. In 1999 he ran for the Syracuse Common Council on the Green Party line, and when leaders of the local communities of color debated strategy for 2001, whether to endorse one of the several Democratic mayoral contenders or create a party of their own, Ellis advocated strongly for a “black-based party” to expand inclusion.
While the impact of his message could be readily observable among a range of folks, from drug dealers to police officers, not all of the Rev. Ellis’ prayers would be answered. Along with then-NAACP president Donna Reese, he campaigned hard, but without success, for the passage of a federal “Jonny Gammage Law” to mandate independent investigation of charges of police misconduct.
But when Jay-Z sampled “Funky Thing” for his American Gangster album (Roc-a-Fella Records), the Reverend realized that sometimes it takes awhile for the Lord to make good on the deal.