Skip to main content
Original Issue

From X's & O's To R&BAfter more than 30 years, Auburn coach Cliff Ellis returnsto his musical roots

Back in the mid-1960s a five-piece group called the Villagers was
a fixture on the frat-party and dance-club circuit in the
Southeast. "Sure, I heard of the Villagers back then," says David
Johnson, who produced records for such stars as Percy Sledge,
Clarence Carter and the Commodores. "Everybody heard of the
Villagers." The group's lead singer was Cliff Ellis, a fun-loving
young man from Chipley, Fla., with a gravelly baritone who also
had an affinity for sports, especially basketball. In 1968 Ellis
chose hoops over harmonies when he took a job teaching phys ed
and coaching several sports at Ruckel Junior High in Niceville,
Fla. Other than a few occasions when he took the mike at school
alumni gatherings, Ellis's vocal cords were used mainly to chirp
at the referees.

Until recently. In 1998 Ellis, by then the basketball coach at
Auburn, and Johnson, by then the executive director of the
Alabama Music Hall of Fame, were paired at a celebrity golf
tournament and began talking about their favorite subject. After
a while Johnson put down his putter and said, "Cliff, we gotta
get you back in the studio." Ellis shrugged. "I don't know
whether I've still got it," he said, "but I'd sure like to find

Last July, having decided to share the cost of the $30,000
project, the two began recording in the Alabama music mecca of
Muscle Shoals. Johnson lured several outstanding musicians into
the studio--including guitar legend Reggie Young, who played on
early Elvis Presley sessions--and the result is a solid 12-track
CD called People Get Ready, after the Curtis Mayfield classic,
which Ellis (with assistance from Marty Raybon, lead singer of
Shenandoah) renders on the album's third cut.

"I was excited about the project, but I had serious doubts," said
Johnson, 51. "The man hadn't really sung professionally in 30
years. But I gotta tell you, Cliff nailed it. It's the most fun
I've had in this business."

Ellis, 56, and Johnson each came up with a list of 25 tunes, most
of them from the R&B genre they both love. Those selections were
whittled down to the dozen that make up the album. Some of the
choices are predictable (though Ellis does well with both the
teen-slow-dance classic What's Your Name and the old standard
Goodnight, My Love, which Johnson said Ellis got perfect on the
first take), and some are surprising, such as a tune called You
Left the Water Running. Ellis learned it from an Otis Redding
demo. "That wasn't too intimidating," says Ellis, "singing
something after Otis did it." Ellis invited assistant coach
Shannon Weaver and three of his former players, Adrian Chilliest,
Scott Pohlman and Reggie Sharp, to help with backup vocals on
Charlena. Johnson praises their enthusiasm but admits he "touched
up" their work in the studio.

The album, which required about three weeks in the studio, was
officially released on Jan. 22, the date of the Auburn-Kentucky
game. Give Ellis credit for scheduling his big night against a
ranked team, and, sure enough, the Wildcats beat his Tigers
69-62. Proceeds from the record, which is available through the
Alabama Music Hall of Fame and in outlets such as Wal-Mart, will
be divided among the hall, Auburn and the American Red Cross.

"I haven't had that much fun in a while," said Ellis, whose team
was 9-9 as of Sunday. "Working with David and all those great
musicians, and having some of my team behind me--I'll never forget
it. Right now, though, I need a few wins."


"That wasn't too intimidating," says Ellis, "singing something
after Otis Redding did it."