Remembering a San Diego Music Icon: Ella Ruth Piggee

23 Jan

I  had recently been reminiscing about some of my talented musician friends in California, both from San Diego and on the Central Coast. I feel fortunate that I can go on YouTube or on my IPod to watch and listen to them perform. I was already planning on revisiting some of these musicians on my blog and Facebook, either with new articles or by reproducing prior articles from my blog or other sites where I have published. The recent deaths of a number of music icons have led me to expedite those plans. Over the next several months, I will be featuring musicians, both deceased and alive.

Ella Ruth Piggee was an incredibly popular, charismatic singer in San Diego for nearly ten years before her tragic passing due to cancer in 1988. I am always on a quest to find great live music, with my favorites being R&B, jazz, funk, standards, Latin, and classical. In my quest in that regard, in 1978, I was told about Ella Ruth Piggee, who was then performing at a bar in East San Diego, in an economically-challenged area. I first saw her perform at the Black Frog to a predominantly African-American crowd. I was blown away by her vocal talent, her ability to connect with the audience, and her great sense of humor. Anyone who ever regularly went to see Ella Ruth perform knew if you sat in one of the tables near the stage that you would be subject to her chiding, anything from the type of socks you were wearing to mentioning that in spite of having the best seat in the house you have hardly ordered any drinks. Then she would let out one of her loud, infectious laughs.

 

Over time, Ella Ruth and I became very good friends, and it was always a delight to hear her perform or to spend social time with her. Early on, she sang with Bruce Cameron (trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn) and Hollis Gentry III (saxophones and flute). Carl Evans, Jr. (keyboards) and Hollis (who were also friends of mine,), went on to be two of the founders of hugely internationally successful jazz-funk/fusion band with Latin influences, Fattburger. Unfortunately, they both suffered premature deaths due to health issues, as well. Ella Ruth sang, “Make That Dream Come True” on Fattburger’s Good News album, which I believe was released in 1987 shortly before her death. The song was also featured on the Best of Fattburger released in 1992.

 

Typically, Ella Ruth’s Talk of the Town band would play instrumentals for the first half the set and then she would finish the set with R&B, jazz and pop vocals. In my opinion, this form of music sets featuring both instrumentals and vocals gave those in the audience unfamiliar with jazz exposure to it, which helped to increase interest in instrumental and vocal jazz in San Diego. Ella Ruth finished every song with her signature spontaneous, creative scat. Over time, she became a very popular entertainer throughout San Diego, including the venerable Crossroads in downtown, The Triton in East San Diego and Cardiff, Chuck’s Steakhouse in La Jolla, the Catamaran on Mission Bay, and many more.

 

While the world class instrumental musicians sometimes changed, Ella Ruth was the main draw for a diverse San Diego audience, which can be seen in her various YouTube videos. I thank all of the caring musicians who took time to upload some of her performances, including Cecil Mc Bee, Jr. (bassist) and Tony Barnwell (keyboard and vocals.)

 

Ella Ruth was originally from Des Moines Iowa and had also lived in Omaha Nebraska. As I had also lived in Nebraska, and did my undergraduate degree in Omaha, we also had that connection. I arrived back in San Diego in 1978, around the time she did. When I was a poor starving graduate student in San Diego, Ella Ruth would sometimes treat me to a traditional Nebraska, Italian-style steakhouse. In spite of her charismatic on-stage persona, Ella Ruth was a very private person. After performances, she frequently cooked spaghetti at her home for the band, and Midwestern-style fried chicken especially for me, the best ever. Whenever I asked her for the recipe, she told me it was just flour, salt and pepper, which I never believed. I was also pleased to have the opportunity to spend extra time with her during the time she stayed with me when she was looking for a new place to live.

 

Ella Ruth’s longtime friend, Mitch Manker plays trumpet, flugelhorn and pocket horn on the posted YouTube video. Like Ella Ruth, Mitch also came from Des Moines to San Diego, following his stint as first chair trumpet for Ray Charles. Also featured in the posted video is Michael Evans (drums), Jeff Snider (guitar), and Michael Thompson (keyboard.) Keep in mind these recordings are over 30 years old, and the technology for informally recording live music at clubs back then was limited.

Not long before she became ill, Ella Ruth recorded a “demo tape,” a copy of which she gave to me with her personal handwriting of the songs she recorded. Hollis is clearly the saxophonist. I have been unable to figure out who is the fantastic keyboard player, in spite of asking a number of her musical contemporaries, so if anyone out there thinks they may know, I can send you a digital copy of the recording. I have been in contact with the San Diego Museum of Jazz to whom I plan to donate the tape.

 

 

 

 

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16 Responses to “Remembering a San Diego Music Icon: Ella Ruth Piggee”

  1. John Wengrzynowicz July 29, 2016 at 12:02 am #

    I knew Ella Ruth and Hollis in the 80’s as I was an employee of the Old Pacific Beach Cafe in Pacific Beach. ( bouncer and then a bartender for several years) which they both played at numerous times during that time period. There may be a possibility that the key board player you are trying to remember could be another San Diego resident George Taylor Emerson who was a very hot player on the jazz scene in San Diego and LA during the late 80′ and early 90’s. I also knew George very well from Pacific Beach. Ella Ruth was a legend at the time and so was Hollis. I used to party a bit with Hollis and he was such a nice guy and always treated everybody with kindness and respect.

    • dawnrstarr August 8, 2016 at 5:26 pm #

      I obviously knew Ella Ruth very well, and Hollis since high school orchestra. Thanks for your input. I will check it out. Nice to communicate with people who remember the special talent we had in San Diego at that time.

    • Bob Camacho November 4, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

      My wife is now questioning my memory about seeing Ella Ruth with Nova
      in Del Mar at the Albatross….we do recall (at the same time) of seeing her at the Black Frog and the Triton on El Cajon Blvd.

      • dawnrstarr November 6, 2016 at 10:43 am #

        I started going to see Ella Ruth at the Black Frog, and later at Triton on El Cajon Blvd and in Cardiff, Crossroads, Chuck’s Steakhouse in La Jolla, the Catamaran, and more. Both musicians Cecil McBee Jr., and Tony Barnwell have uploaded videos of her to youtube. If you send me your email, I can send you the songs from her demo tape, which are the same ones I put in my article above. It is nice that people still fondly remember her.

    • CASEY PIGGEE November 7, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

      THANK U 4 ALL THE NICE WORDS ABOUT MY AUNT. CASEY PIGGEE NEPHEW

      • dawnrstarr November 7, 2017 at 2:58 pm #

        You are so welcome. A very talented woman, very much missed in San Diego, and one of my closest friends there.

  2. CASEY PIGGEE November 8, 2016 at 5:56 pm #

    THANK YOU FOR THAT GREAT ARTICLE ON MY AUNT ELLA RUTH PIGGEE. IT’S ALWAYS NICE TO READ OR HEAR GREAT THINGS ABOUT HER. WE WOULD LISTEN TO HER PLAY THE PIANO WHEN WE WERE VERY YOUNG. SHE COULD REALLY PLAY & SING. THANKS AGAIN. HER NEPHEW CASEY PIGGEE.

    • dawnrstarr November 11, 2016 at 9:30 am #

      I am so happy that you enjoyed the article on Ella Ruth. I think it is important to keep the memory of her contributions to the San Diego jazz scene alive.

      • Bob Camacho November 11, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

        How do I provide you with my email address to receive the Ella Ruth recording you have without putting my email address out there?

  3. iloveasunnydayGail March 8, 2017 at 7:47 pm #

    Hi, thanks so much for this article on one of my favorite jazz singers! I, too remember her from the San Diego days, singing with Hollis and Butch Lacy (is this the piano player here??); she really commanded the room and her voice simply crept into one’s heart and grabbed hold. She told a story through music. What great memories you’ve had with her, she truly left a void in this world. And thanks for the trip down memory lane…some great music!!

    • dawnrstarr March 23, 2017 at 8:10 am #

      I thought that was Butch Lacy on piano, but I contacted him and he said it was not. Thanks for your comment. I still miss her.

    • Bob Camacho March 23, 2017 at 12:55 pm #

      Does anyone remember the Jazz group “Nova” from San Diego that was from that time period? Can’t seem to find their recordings.

      • dawnrstarr April 3, 2017 at 9:46 pm #

        Did you mean Neon? Hollis was a part of the group (after I left San Diego.) Here is one Youtube performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfc4VeGNoec. More on YouTube if you look under Hollis Gentry III

      • Bob Camacho April 4, 2017 at 12:03 am #

        I sure am hoping somebody else out there remembers “Nova”

  4. CASEY PIGGEE November 7, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

    WOW I KNEW SHE WAS LOVED BY MANY, BUT 2 HEAR IT ALWAYS MAKES ME FEEL PROUD 2 BE HER NEPHEW. I MISS HER ALSO. WHAT A GOOD LIFE CUT SHORT. HER NEPHEW CASEY PIGGEE

    • Bob C. November 7, 2017 at 5:01 pm #

      Please ask your family who may remember if Ella ever performed with a group called “Nova” here in San Diego

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