Ron Ellington Shy plays the crowd like a Vegas showman. With his right hand pounding the keyboard and his left hand juggling a saxophone and harmonica, the 61-year-old nephew of jazz legend Duke Ellington delights in belting out a Brook Benton cover onstage at Pickwick & Frolic.
You'll find Shy flexing his four-octave vocal range there every Sunday night. It's a gig that he hopes will return him to the days of packed halls and stadiums.
In June, Shy moved back to his native Cleveland after more than 40 years in the "Hollywood rat race." After battles with prostate cancer, throat nodules, a faulty gall bladder, and a blood clot in his leg, he decided it was time to regroup. "I've played for 50,000 people, and I've played for 2 people," he says. "I'm starting on the ground floor."
Shy's career goes back to 1955, when he performed with early rock and rollers Don & Dewey. They had minor chart success, but managed to book major tours from Las Vegas to London. Suddenly, Shy found himself in the company of rock and roll royalty: Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley.
The good times continued to roll. B.B. King gave Shy one of his custom "Lucille" guitars. Mahalia Jackson offered to line him up with an audition at Columbia Records. His globe-trotting lifestyle turned into one party after another. "We were wild out there," he says. "Drugs, liquor -- all that shit."
He landed roles on TV's Falcon Crest and Knots Landing, and even hosted his own talk and variety show. But in 1994, Shy's career came to a halt because of his health problems.
Now he realizes that his wife and four children come first, and if he can jump-start his music career, he'll consider himself blessed. "I'm on a train to Jordan," he says. "[But] I don't want anybody to say, 'Let's get this ol' motherfucker off the stage.'
"Sooner or later, I'll get another shot."