Ellis Hall is a joyful performer. His charisma is contagious. He gives it his all.
He’s also about as versatile a musician as you can find, proficient at the piano and organ, on drums, on guitar and on bass.
But it’s his voice that’s most riveting, with its rasp and range, its high falsetto notes, its sweetness, its croon.
Hall, a protege of Ray Charles, is one of those super-talented people you’d think ought to be much more famous than he is.
Actually, you might not know that you already know this blind musician. He was the piano player in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can” who sang the tune “I’m Shooting High.” He performed the song “Flip Flop and Fly” in the 2000 stop-action animated film “Chicken Run.” He sang “One of Us” for the video “The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride.”
He performed “It’s a Perfect, Perfect World” in the 1991 movie “Highlander II: The Quickening.” He performed his own tune, “What is Real,” in the 2006 Mark Wahlberg film “Invincible.”
Hall appeared on Kenny G’s 1986 multi-platinum record “Duotones.” And he was the only singer that joined the famous horn-heavy band Tower of Power, recording a 1987 album with the group called “Power.”
“I’m the soundtrack of your life and you didn’t know it,” he said.
Next up for Hall? Charleston.
He’ll join the Charleston Symphony Orchestra on Saturday for a show at the Gaillard Center called “Ellis Hall: Soul Unlimited.” No doubt his soul will be unlimited. And his limbs will be busy. He moves between piano, drums, bass and guitar.
It’s one of two shows he’s currently touring. The other is “Ellis Hall Presents: Ray, Motown and Beyond.”
Yuriy Bekker, principal Pops conductor, said working with "the Ambassador of Soul," as Ellis is known, is a terrific opportunity.
"He is an inspiring musician, and we look forward to performing with him," Bekker said. Together with Ellis, our orchestra will bring the house down."
Speaking of Ray Charles: Hall, now 65, was signed to Charles’ label in 2001. The elder mentor was so impressed by Hall, he went out of his way to open doors.
“If he loved what you did, he exalted your prowess,” Hall said. “If he felt you were faking it, any amount of expletives, he found them to tell you, you jivin’.” Charles had little patience for jivin’.
At one point, Charles told Hall, “You need to get into symphonies.”
“Well, Papa Ray, how do I do it?” Hall replied.
“Let me make some phone calls.”
So Charles made some phone calls and found Hall an orchestra led by Marvin Hamlisch. Thus began the current phase of his long career.
Born in Savannah, he and his family quickly relocated to Claxton, Georgia. When Hall’s brown eyes turned blue, his family got to worrying. He had congenital glaucoma and would likely go blind in both eyes. Indeed, he soon lost sight in his right eye.
“What are we gonna do, how is he gonna make his way?” his family wondered.
They figured it out quickly, moving to Boston so young Ellis could attend the Perkins School for the Blind. There, instructors introduced him to piano in the third grade, and his musical proclivities soon were apparent.
“When I was 14, I snuck into a club — my mother found out later, ha! — saw the looks of people in the band with my good eye, and the audience. I thought: ‘That’s what I’m supposed to do.’ A light went on in my head.”
In high school he wrestled and played football. A sporting accident (elbow to the eye), blinded him on the left side. But in a way Hall was prepared. He had spent many hours in a dark closet playing guitar and bass until his fingers bled, preparing for the moment when he would lose his sight completely.
And the school was providing essential learning and support.
“Perkins was great in helping me gather my 'interdependence,' ” he said.
In the 1970s, he started his first band, the Ellis Hall Group. He played pure funk, opening for Herbie Hancock, Earth, Wind and Fire and others. Then came several years with Tower of Power. Hall has worked with a number of musical luminaries: Stevie Wonder, Maurice White, George Benson, Carol King and Billy Preston, to name some of them.
He’s written about 3,900 songs, he said.
“I have to play what’s in my head, then write my lyrics out.” He’ll study the Braille lyrics until they’re memorized.
He enjoys performing before an audience as much as he likes recording in the studio, though for different reasons. While live shows generate an electric charge and offer an immediacy that only an audience can provide, recording gives Hall a chance to experiment and flex every musical bone in his body.
“When I’m in the studio, I’m like a mad scientist,” first on drums, then bass, then guitar and keyboards, he said.
He strives to strike a balance between his professional obligations and family time. He said he meditates and loves nothing more than to be with his wife, Leighala Jimenez, and their four children.
His April 1 concert with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra will bring Hall to Charleston for the first time, he said.