Musicians have always known how crucial excellent “sidemen” are to bands. The lead singer may enjoy the fame, but if a listener loves a song, it is very likely due to the performance by the rhythm section. However, few sidemen get the recognition they deserve. The exceptional musicians who joined together to form the group called Silent Partners are all keenly aware of the important contribution of sidemen, as they have all served in that role with some of the most influential artists in the blues genre. Drummer/singer Tony “TC” Coleman, bassist/singer Russell Jackson, and guitarist/singer Jonathan Ellison make up the powerful trio called Silent Partners, and they recently played on the Legendary Blues Cruise. Blues Blast Magazine was lucky enough to have the opportunity to catch up with the band members during the cruise, despite their busy schedule of shows, appearances on discussion panels, and being highly sought-after to participate in late-night jam sessions. They each explained which characteristics they believed most contributed to being a skilled sideman.
Coleman, who has performed with such icons as Otis Clay, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert King, Koko Taylor, and was the drummer in BB King’s band for over 25 years, noted that BB King fired him five times for being strongly opinionated, but always hired him back each time due to his skillful drumming. He indicated that what makes a sideman great is “patience—you must be able to tolerate a lot of nonsense that has nothing to do with the music”. Jackson was also in Otis Clays’ and BB King’s bands and explained, “without the sidemen, you don’t have the sound. It takes a lot of humbleness, and a true sideman knows how to accompany the artist to make the artist feel totally comfortable”. And Ellison was the band leader for Denise LaSalle for many years, before being crowned the new “King of Beale Street” in 2019 after Preston Shannon passed away. He stated, “being a proper rhythm section is about leaving space for a song to breathe and to allow the other instruments to do their jobs. It’s all about the proper measurements. It’s like baking a cake—individually the ingredients might taste bad, but when you put them together just right you’ve got something good.”
Important lessons were learned from playing with those blues legends, with Coleman noting that the primary lesson he learned was “patience”. Jackson reported, “I was only 24 years old, so BB taught me what to stay away from. I was never high or drunk on stage. The wisest advice was that he taught me how to perform. Any time he would tell me to do something, I would do it until he told me to change it. And I learned to have fun with it.” Ellison stated that the most important lesson he learned from Denise LaSalle was how she “got there before every other artist and was the last one to leave. She would sit outside at the merch table and talk to every person, even if they didn’t buy something. The rule was we could not go back to the hotel room until she was finished”. He noted that one time he tried to rush her, “and she told me, ‘Every one of those people who came to see our show is the reason you have work now. I’m going to make sure I give them my time and attention, so don’t you ever rush me again. It’s about the two P’s—People and Product. If you don’t take care of your people, they won’t buy your product.’ She was always a sweetheart to the fans and that’s what I want to strive to do”.
While all three group members share outstanding musicianship, their journeys leading them into the music world were quite varied. Coleman reported having a natural gift for music and indicated that he never needed any music lessons. He always had a passion for drumming, beginning with banging on pots and pans as a small child. His father, Carlton “King” Coleman, was a disc jockey, an emcee at the Apollo Theater, and was also the creator of the dance the “mashed potato,” and lead singer on that song, which was recorded with James Brown’s band. In addition, “King” Coleman was a good friend of BB King and Bobby Bland, although BB King did not realize the father-son relationship until after he had already hired TC Coleman.
Jackson reported that he is the only musician in his family and stated that he didn’t decide to play music until he was an adult in the Army, and then had to practice 12-14 hours a day to make it happen. Jackson was playing by ear when he was in BB King’s band, but later went to Dick Grove’s School of Music in LA, “where I learned how to read music. It was a 36-month program, but I did it in 18 months. And, when I came out, I understood technique, and learned how to read music.” Jackson recalled that when he met Coleman (while also in the Army) and was asked to join his band, he only knew how to play two songs. Coleman explained why he didn’t give up on Jackson back then, despite Jackson’s lack of performance experience.
“At that time, this guitar player and I, we kept losing bass players because we were so hard on them all the time. Russell was hungry to learn and to be part of a band. And it’s all about the attitude. Sometimes when you’re really good, you have an attitude, whereas he was willing to work hard to be better, to be a good player.”
Ellison grew up in a family who had formed The Ellison Family gospel group, and he learned to play the guitar by being taught by his father. He noted, “I tune in E-flat instead of standard E because my mother and father had a gospel group and they wouldn’t buy us any tuners, so we tuned to the black keys on the piano. However, even though my dad only played gospel, he played with a bluesy feel. He had his Jimmy Reed records and he always told me, ‘Son, don’t ever play anything you can’t feel and never sing about something you don’t know about.’ So, every song you hear me sing is something I went through, and if I don’t feel it, I don’t play it.”
Jackson and Coleman initially put together Silent Partners in 1987, and in 1989 recorded one album on Antone records with guitarist Mel Brown, entitled If It’s All Night, It’s Alright. That collaboration lasted approximately two years. However, Coleman noted that, for legitimate reasons, BB King was not in favor of them having this band on the side.
“BB had us on retainer, so we got paid whether we worked or not, and we had our medical and dental insurance through BB’s band. So, I guess he felt like he didn’t need us working with other people. I had a gig with Albert Collins one time and Collins casually mentioned it to BB, and BB’s tone let me know he did not care for that.”
Not long after the release of that first album, Silent Partners stopped performing together. And, after leaving BB King’s band, Jackson and Coleman focused on their individual projects until Jim Pugh approached them about a possible reunion. Pugh is the founder of the Little Village Foundation, a non-profit organization that advertises using “music as a tool to increase cross-cultural understanding”. By obtaining grants and receiving donations, the Foundation is able to record and produce artists who might not otherwise have the opportunity to be heard outside of their local community. Pugh noted that Silent Partners was a great example of an extremely talented band that might unfortunately tend to get overlooked by executives in the music industry.
“Silent Partners is the real music of the city. It’s deep! But the sad fact is that there are a lot of different kinds of people who are marginalized, with age being one of those groups. Name me one artist over thirty years of age who has gotten any real public awareness. It doesn’t exist. It’s a game for those in their 20s. All we try to do is raise the currency and the real currency is awareness. The one thing that has value is awareness because the more people who know who you are, the more possibilities are available to you. If you look at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965—all those college kids came out to listen to Peter, Paul & Mary, but they heard Muddy Waters and thought he was cool. So, I’m trying to get Silent Partners out there to different arenas to try to connect this music with new audiences.”
Prompted by Pugh’s encouragement, Coleman and Jackson decided to proceed with a new album, but first recruited Ellison, a strong singer with a pure, beautiful guitar style similar to BB King’s sound. Coleman noted, “Jonathan is very talented and very soulful. He is what Memphis represents as far as the culture and the history of blues and soul music. He’s the real thing. He’s a piece of the root—not a fruit.”
The resulting product was the album Changing Times, which features songs written by all three members, and with each sharing the vocal responsibility. The members of Silent Partners are not afraid to tackle social issues, as all three are like-minded socially and politically, and are saddened by the current presence of violence, hate and poor race relations in the United States. Coleman expressed that he was inspired by Curtis Mayfield and tries to be on the same page with artists like Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye, who wanted equality for all, and wrote about “real stuff that affects humanity.” Two of Coleman’s original songs that are featured on the album, “Ain’t No Right Way to Do Wrong” and “Post Traumatic Blues Syndrome” seem almost prophetic in light of the recent extreme violence which occurred in Memphis (and which disrupted the International Blues Challenge being held there). Ellison was particularly affected by that incident since he lives in Memphis.
“It is terrible stuff. It just shows you how, in our country, we have a long way to go. It’s about shifting mindsets. These were Black officers who savagely beat this young Black man. That was a million percent uncalled for. It’s a microcosm of what I see the city becoming.”
The Silent Partners members have all written additional songs that will likely be on a future album, including a song Ellison wrote for his wife during the pandemic “about our shared experiences in different relationships”, and an original song by Jackson about “how the blues has been stepped on and mistreated, called ‘Have Mercy for the Blues’”.
While Coleman often appears to be the spokesperson for the band, he notes that they are equal partners, and none of them has a vote that can overrule the others.
“We’re three. We have to think like a band. If one person thinks like an individual, it won’t work. We all have different strengths, and I love to talk, that’s my strength, but we’re a band–like a band of brothers. It seems like we don’t have many bands anymore—you have artists with bands backing the artist. I prefer bands.”
Jackson agreed with the beauty of the equality in the band, and appreciates how each have the opportunity to share their original songs and harmonize their vocals. However, he was somewhat humble about his own singing ability, noting “I can sing, but Jon and Tony can saaaang!”
While Coleman, Jackson and Ellison frequently play many different styles of music, they note that when they do play the blues they tend to be “blues purists”. They often feel frustrated when, after paying their dues and perfecting their sound by learning from the foremost leaders in the blues, they find themselves feeling as if they are starting from scratch. Jackson’s original song, “Proving Ground” speaks of the experience of sensing that they must prove their worth all over again. Coleman explained further, stating, “We are the blues. We are raw blues. We played with the greatest people in our lifetime and to be disregarded and not acknowledged—I just don’t think that’s right. It’s like a crop duster company that needs a pilot and then here comes a guy that was formerly a NASA astronaut, and they want to see his resume, even though they know he worked for NASA.”
The members of Silent Partners also discussed how it sometimes seems as if they are being overlooked for show opportunities based on decisions that don’t seem related to the music, and those opportunities are instead given to white musicians who are not true blues artists. Ellison explained that, to him, what makes the difference in real blues artists is how their life experiences seem able to come out through their music, causing the audience to feel the emotions in inexplicable ways. And, in the honest, candid manner for which he is well-known, Coleman also spoke about this situation, and did so with passion. However, he clarified that he was, in no way, endorsing some of the extreme, hateful statements that had appeared on some social media platforms which argued that no white person should play the blues. He stressed that he just wants to call people’s attention to the inequities that are present in the business so they can be addressed and so all artists can be treated with equal respect. He noted that many Black artists are afraid to discuss this topic out of fear that it will be misconstrued as simply being unwelcoming to any white artists in the genre.
“What executives in the industry are pushing these days is not blues. It’s hard to see some white artists making millions of dollars off our music when they don’t even understand the culture. I see a girl with her skirt up high and her breasts hanging out, and she is made more important than someone who can really do the music. There are certainly some white artists that can connect with the culture, but many aren’t interested in the culture. The blues is fundamentally Black music, and they don’t even feel comfortable being around Black people. To explain this further, I was asked to play with Jamey Johnson, who is a country artist, so I went around Nashville and sat in redneck bars and listened to the music and talked to country musicians. People wondered why I was there, but I was interested in learning their culture and trying to get inside of it if I was going to play country. Someone who was raised around country music is going to play it better than me—that is just a fact. The same thing with reggae bands. I was told once that I’m a good drummer, but my reggae sucks. You have to get into the culture in order to play it well. Today it seems like people can half-ass everything and call it the blues.”
Silent Partners’ new release is getting excellent reviews, and doors do appear to be opening for this deserving band. Ellison noted that their chemistry only gets better with every show, and “it’s great that we actually like each other—we’re like brothers now. We do our best and leave it all out there every show”. Coleman agreed, noting “I think we have the potential to be one of the best blues-based musical bands in history. But we must stay focused. When we’re with Silent Partners, I don’t want to do Tony Coleman. We’re good individually, but we’re even better working together!”
Audiences who go see Silent Partners perform will soon understand why Blues Blast Magazine’s senior writer Marty Gunther described them in the following manner: “Searing, skin-tight…contemporary blues, sure to have you begging for more. Propelled by one of the best rhythm sections ever to set foot on a blues stage…(this is) soulful blues from folks who really know what they’re doing.”
You can find out more about Silent Partners at www.silentpartnerstheband.com and you can purchase their album at www.littlevillagefoundation.com
Writer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.