Grandpa Elliott (aka Elliott Small) was born in New Orleans in 1945 and began playing a harmonica he got from his uncle at the age of six. Elliott's mother liked classical music and listened to it on the radio, so he learned to play along with Mozart, later moving on to pop, jazz, and blues tunes. Elliott also claims to have taught himself to dance by watching Fred Astaire movies on television, and appeared in a stage production of Showboat when his family moved to New York City. However, Elliott's father had a violent streak, and the boy soon struck out on his own in his teens, eventually ending up back in New Orleans. Unhappy with the business side of music, Elliott became a street singer, and was a fixture in the French Quarter for decades. After producer Mark Johnson saw Elliott perform in New Orleans, he invited him to take part in a performance of "Stand by Me" that was created as part of Playing for Change, an organization dedicated to international understanding through music. The clip of Elliott and others performing the Ben E. King favorite became a YouTube hit, and after touring with the Playing for Change band, Grandpa Elliott has made his recording debut at the age of 64 with the album Sugar Sweet. With a backstory like that, it's a bit unfortunate to have to report that Grandpa Elliott's album is pleasant but ultimately unremarkable stuff. Elliott has a strong voice, and more than 40 years of singing on the streets have done little damage to his instrument, but while he's excellent for a guy you'd hear playing for change on the corner, in the studio he's on a par with the average journeyman blues/R&B vocalist recording for Alligator and touring the roadhouse circuit. It doesn't help that Elliott doesn't write songs (or if he does, he didn't opt to record them), and his choice of material leans to crowd-pleasing oldies, which he performs well but without adding any new wrinkles to songs you've already heard dozens (if not hundreds) of times before. And while the band backing Elliott includes musicians from around the world (and Keb' Mo' plays on two tracks), they sound competent but rather ordinary on Sugar Sweet, as if internationalism could be best achieved by making music on the bland side. It's hard to hear Grandpa Elliott's story and not be reminded of Ted Hawkins, the L.A. street singer who finally caught the major-label brass ring in 1994, less than a year before his unexpected death. Hawkins was a unique and surprising talent whose idiosyncrasies kept him out of the spotlight for many years; Grandpa Elliott, on the other hand, is a fine singer who has learned not to take too many risks with his music, and while it's helped him make a few bucks from passers-by, it doesn't serve him well in the recording studio. ~ Mark Deming
Living Blues (p.61) - "[H]e proves to be a warm, intimate vocalist who has no problems selling a lyric."
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