Jim Ellison Biography


James Walter Ellison was born April 18, 1964, an Aries, the first sign in the zodiac.
Compelled from the get-go to be boundless in energy and equipped with the foresight and fortitude, Jim Ellison proved to be the leader in his gang of hooligans, shouting the praises of a good pop song with an incredible ability to merge melody and lyric, and tie it tightly at the edges, thus creating a name for himself and his band, Material Issue.

Jim proved he could pull off the very same thing he admired from heroes like David Bowie, The Who, and Sweet; a passion for music and the effect it could generate to the masses. His "in-your face" approach to delivering his songs was something unmeasured by anyone in the Chicago music scene at this time. It wasn't beyond Jim to stop in the middle of a song and point you out in a crowd and ask you why you weren't participating in having a "good time" if that's the "feel" he got from you. It was this kind of "takes charge" behavior that warranted him the respect as the artist from the perspective of the audience. He was abrasive, and bold, loud, and passionate, and yet still incredibly tender.

A bit Punk, a bit Pop, a bit Mod, a bit Rocker, Jim blended them all and created the band of his dreams.
In the mid-1980's, while attending Columbia Art College in Chicago, Jim sought out the makings of his "Super Group".
The Chicago music scene at this time in its history was one of lazy abandonment. One where local bands played out every other weekend and created a following and were content to remain "Big Fish" in a sea of local aristocracy. But not Jim, he wasn't satisfied to just "make it" in his hometown. He had a grandeur vision of power pop eminence, and like Columbus, set sail to conquer uncharted territories, making the world, his destination.

In fellow student Ted Ansani, he found the bass player he'd been searching for that could also add vocal harmonies to Jim's vocal abilities. In drummer Mike Zelenko he found the intense beat strived to drive the songs along. Mike entered the picture when he answered an ad in a local music paper, and thus this incarnation of Material Issue was born.

In the early days of Material Issue, it wasn't uncommon to see the band playing out everywhere in the city. Material Issue was consummate in their diligence and played out as much as they could. In hand, they created a local buzz on the Chicago music scene, but unlike most local Chicago acts, didn't stop when they achieved a status of local hierarchy. It was once they started achieving this status that they took their wares to the road and began traveling the states in an old beat-up van that sported the American flag as it's moniker into nearly every "small town U.S.A". Living out of a van; on a diet of Green River sodas, Moon Pies and Marlboro's, the band trudged along through the trenches of rock-n-roll "boot-camp", picking up the "how to" of life on the road of a rock star. But Jim Ellison was ALWAYS a rock star.

Jim swaggered onstage like Mick Jagger and staggered like Keith Richards, wrote love ballads about girls he longed for and knew of those that longed for him. His fashion sense soon became one of his trademarks-skinny stove ­piped black jeans that were tailored to fit his already lanky body, stuffed at the cuff into a pair of whatever color Doc Marten boot he decided; his hair in a half pageboy crop. The other trait was an indelible sneer that was so compelling he was actually able to "reel you in," every time he shot you that look. His ability to captivate an audience went unchallenged, as he would often pick out people in the audience that weren't paying attention to his act, publicly humbling the naysayers that dared disrupt his shows. But at the end, Jim always knew it was the audience that he played to.

During this time, while Jim was still in his early 20's, he started his own recording label "Big Block Records" out of his tiny bedroom in Addison Illinois, and worked continuously at self-promoting, setting up tours without the help of any major music distributors.

Material Issue's first recordings were under Jim's label-proving to the rest of the music industry that independent distribution could be done while still being able to pull a small profit.
It wasn't long after this that Jim and the bands hard work of playing out and marketing started to pay off.
The buzz was out about the power pop trio from Chicago. Many record labels came to Chicago to scout from talent being generated by the buzz the trio had created. Chicago was the next "Big Thing" to happen in music at the time, especially the "Wicker Park" scene that such notables as Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins and the boys from Urge Overkill came to eventually be noted for. In the summer of 1990, Material Issue got their "chance of a lifetime" and was the forerunner of these bands signed to a major label, Polygram records.

From then on it became the business of non-stop music.

Big arena rock tours replaced many of the smaller venues the band were used to playing, opening for bands like Simple Minds, The Pretenders, INXStelevision appearances (Rick Dees Show, Nia Peeples Party Machine, Dennis Miller, Mtv Spring Break), many movie Soundtracks, and even an appearance in a movie "Reason to Believe".

A huge tour bus replaced the van, and Material Issue was on their way, fulfilling the all American Rock-n-Roll dream; parties and photos and groupies and all of that which comes with the rock­n­roll lifestyle. Throughout this whirlwind ride, Material Issue put out 3 albums with Polygram. Their first "International Pop Overthrow"(1991) sold more then 200,000 albums.

The follow-up "Destination Universe"(1992) produced a video for "What Girls Want". Their third major label release was "Freak City Soundtrack"(1994), and saw the Mtv video of "Kim the Waitress".

Throughout these three albums, one could see the music and lyric style of Jim Ellison come to certain maturity both lyrically and musically. While still staying true to Power Pops' three chord changes, Jim blossomed into quite a songwriter with a keen sense of poetic ambiance.
But by the mid 90's, with the music in the ever-changing "Industry" taking a different route, and harder rock music staking a claim, Material Issue and Polygram records decided amicably to part ways.

For the next year or so, Jim and the band found them selves busy with many new projects, working on producing and writing with fellow musicians. Friends like The Smithereens, Lowen and Navarro and Gilbey Clarke of Guns­n-Roses all worked with Jim and out of a few of these unions a side project was being assembled calling themselves The Wild Bunch, where the idea was to form a traveling group of musicians playing obscure, almost one hit wonders.
Material Issue also continued to record and play, and at this time began putting together what unknowingly would be their last album.
The album tracks were nearly complete when Jim Ellison's untimely death occurred in June of 1996.

Telecommando Americano, was released pothstumously by Rykodisc in May 1997, almost a year after Jim's death and is dedicated "in loving memory of Jim" and to "all friends of MI (Material Issue) everywhere".

In the years since Jim's death, his fight and determination for music still continues. In 1997, The International Pop Overthrow Festival in Southern California was erected in homage to the salvation of power pop music. It is an event that pop bands from all over the world come from far and wide to participate in continuing the legacy of its genre.
The Wild Bunch still get together every so often with different musicians carrying on the torch of the tradition.
Mike Zelenko and Ted Ansani still live in Chicago and continue to perform in and with many different musical projects.

There's a longing in the hearts of the many that Jim Ellison and his band Material Issue touched and left behind. A truth in Jim's living and death that never was able to quite reach maturity, a longing for that truth to continue and to yet be preservedbut if time proves that the life of a man can transcend adversity to become what he envisions, then Jim Ellison, the imperial born Power Pop Star, immortalized himself here on earth, and still shines as brightly from somewhere so close, and yet from so very far.

By Gretchen Erickson


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