Amarillo, Texas troubadour Joe Ely, born on February 9, 1947, learned his craft in rock’n’roll territory. He grew up and formed his first bands 125 miles south in Lubbock, famous as the home town of Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
Ely first came to prominence there, around 1970, as a member of the Flatlanders, with and Butch Hancock. The trio gained great notoriety, not to mention collectability, by completing only one original album, 1972’s All American Music, which never saw a full release at the time. They reunited for Now Again in 2002.
New wave insider
Joe’s solo debut came in 1977, and when he travelled to London, he found himself in the inner circle of a group who became new wave royalty. He and The Clash became fast friends and toured together, elevating Ely’s music to new credibility with its tinges of early rock’n’roll, rockabilly and Tex-Mex that sat well in the punk era. He has the distinction of providing some of the backing vocals on the Clash anthem “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”
“Playing with the Clash definitely kicked my band up a notch,” Ely told the Austin Chronicle in 2000. “Growing up in Lubbock, I always hung around with the rock & roll guys, so I came from a rockin’ background. We played the Palladium in Hollywood together and Monterey Pop festival, Bond’s in New York.
“It was a big boost for us, so when they invited us back the following year for the London Calling shows in London, it was a real eye-opener. We were playing their venues with them, the Electric Ballroom, Hammersmith Odeon, wild, steamy, crazy shows that were unbelievable.
“I ran into them accidentally in New York,” Ely continued, “when they were cutting ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ and [Joe] Strummer said, ‘Hey, help me with my Spanish.’ So me and Strummer and the Puerto Rican engineer sat down and translated the lyrics into the weirdest Spanish ever. Then we sang it all.”
Ely first appeared on the US album chart in 1981, with Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, returning there within a few months with Live Shots. There was only one more visit to the mainstream bestsellers, with the MCA album Hi-Res in 1984, but Joe has continued to be a key name in southern roots music. He has recorded in recent years for the Rack ‘Em label and toured acoustically with fellow Texans Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark, as well as John Hiatt.
A Texan birthday bash
Joe has also continued to play live with his band, including at a 70th birthday show on February 10, 2017 at Austin’s Paramount Theater, in his beloved state of Texas. Summer 2018 brought the release of Full Circle: The Lubbock Tapes, recorded at two significant points in his career in 1974 and 1978. An accomplished artist and author, he is also a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
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His fellow troubadour Darden Smith writes on his website: “The first time I saw Joe Ely was around 1986, at the Austin Opry House. I remember saying to the person with me, ‘Well, that’s what rock and roll looks like.’ It was raw like good church, a show. He was all over the stage. The songs were a crazy mash up of West Texas swing, Mexican rhythms, and flat-out rave. Loud guitars, pedal steel, drums and accordions.”
In October 2022, Ely was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, and a tribute special from that night was scheduled for broadcast on February 25, 2023 on PBS stations. To coincide, his seminal first three albums are made available again in new physical and digital editions from February 17.
Pre-order Joe Ely, Honky Tonk Masquerade and Down On The Drag, which are reissued on February 17.