Sometimes Grandpa gets that wistful look in his eye…
Perhaps it’s a song that brings it on, a tune he’s not heard in years, and suddenly he’s transported, back to the days of muscle cars and rock and roll and that sweet California sun, when all the world was fresh and vibrant, and anything was possible.
By now, we’re all familiar with the makings of the spirit of the 1960s, and the vibe that made California the place to be back then. It’s been immortalized in songs and movies and books in the decades since, after all, so it’s no great feat to conjure up the images and sounds of that now-immortal era.
But Tom Ellis doesn’t have to reach back into the annals of history to recall the essence of those heady days. Whether through happenstance, or fate, or whatever one chooses to call it, Tom was there when it all began, living out the American dream and holding down the backbeat that became the heartbeat of his generation.
Sometimes Grandpa wants to tell us a story. And if we’re wise enough, and open enough, we’ll listen to the details but take utmost care to feel, and to understand, that beautiful beat.
“For years, I had the grandkids convinced that I was the first hippy!” jokes Tom, who will celebrate a Grandpa milestone for the ages when he turns 80 alongside his wife and friends with the Huckleberrys here at the Brewstation on Friday evening.
“As they grew up, they soon realized that this was more Grandpa humor, and took it as such. Truth is, I was right in the pocket at the start.”
He was born in ’43, he relates, in the middle of the war, and grew up in the boom times that followed in his native California.
“It was a time of amazing creative growth,” he says, “and as a kid it was like a whirlwind: hot rods, surfboards, TV, jeans and tee shirts, sneakers — and then along came rock and roll…”
Like so many young people of his generation, Tom found himself swept up by that groovy irreverent sound, and like so many kids back then, he also found a way to add his own sound to the mix. He found an old marching drum in the attic at home (‘must have been my older brothers,’ he conjectures) and soon was marching to the beat of his own (sorta) drum.
“Mother promptly put an end to that,” he says, “but she did set up a room down in the basement…and I now had a little space to listen to records and play music.”
His paper route (remember those?) earned Tom the dough to buy his first set, and the folks at the Drum Shack, a legendary (now long-defunct) drum store in San Francisco, lit his world on fire with the possibilities of his instrument
“All the Big Band drummers throughout San Francisco would hit that drum store,” he recalls. “I saw Buddy Rich jamming with the guys at the shop. For a little kid, that’s kind of amazing. And that’s kind of what did it for me — watching the old jazz guys, who were my heroes before rock and roll.”
To a drummer, the “before rock and roll” days might just as accurately be called the “before Ringo days,” as the kooky, mop-topped Beatle was yet to make his indelible mark on the drumming world.
“It was a different world from then on,” Tom says, and we know that it’s basically impossible to disagree.
Soon, Tom’s ‘different world’ would be the campus at UC Berkeley, where but one intrepid individual dared to rock long hair. Berkeley didn’t work out, and he then found himself at an art school, where the music really took hold.
Like-minded, would-be musicians were everywhere back then, so Tom found a few and became a part of the San Francisco sound. “The Wildflower,” as the band was called, featured all the trimmings of the era – long hair, bellbottoms, sandals, etc. And as luck would have it, the band got to live out its own version of the dream right from the start.
“We played at all the events you read about now in Hippy History: We played the very first night that The Fillmore opened, The Family Dog, The Firehouse, the Be-In at Golden Gate Park, The Straight Theater. We opened for a funny little Irish guy with a band called Them (Van Morrison, of course) at the Oakland Auditorium, opened for The Byrds at The Fillmore … played down in LA … toured the East Coast, and finally ended up touring Canada with The Youngbloods, just as ‘Get Together’’ went number one.”
But nothing lasts forever, after all, and when a weed bust took out one of the band’s members, it was back to school, meet a girl, settle down in … Hawaii!?
Not a bad way for it all to turn out, eh?
The years passed as they do (25 of them spent in Hawaii in this case), and Tom and his wife, Colleen, eventually found folks to play music with again. And some time after that, they found a new home in Cottage Grove and a new group of musicians to jam with.
“I made a personal decision after it was over to have fun with it,” he recalls. “It was so much about other stuff at the end that it wasn’t fun – it was trying to make money, become this or that. When we started playing again, especially with my wife, it was for fun, to lift our spirits. And I’m grateful that we’re still doing it. I can’t believe it, actually.”
For quite a while now, playing music for fun has meant drumming on an old trashcan with Cottage Grove stalwarts the Huckleberrys, whose sound undoubtedly carries the beat of the early rock and roll that defined Tom’s younger days. He credits the Feed Store here with stocking the can (made in the USA, he proudly notes) that’s still the backbeat of his musical contribution.
“I was immediately in trashcan heaven, and that can is still with us today,” he says.
Sometimes Grandpa wants to tell us a story, but he doesn’t want to use words. Sometimes he wants to jam with his friends. And if we’re wise enough, we’ll join them for that jam, or someday wish we had.
We’ll see you all here Friday, November 3rd to wish our good friend Tom a happy 80th! The Huckleberrys take the stage at 6 pm.
PICTURED: Tom Ellis (on drums) with his band opening for the Byrds at the Fillmore West in 1965.
Tom before and after his introduction to the trashcan drum.
With the original The Huckleberrys lineup at a 2010 Art Walk, including bassist Jeff Boyle, who passed away in 2018.
Tom’s longtime partner in many things, including song, Colleen, performs with the band.