Ray Ellington has a last name that would seem to make him a natural part of the American jazz family, but in reality his background was quite different, and his major claim to fame would be most appropriately described as "something completely different." Although a hardworking part of the British jazz and rock scenes of the '50s and '60s, the African-born drummer, vocalist, and bandleader is known to most listeners as part of the auxiliary cast of The Goon Show, a madcap radio series that ran on the British Broadcasting Corporation for a nearly a decade beginning in the early '50s. The main three performers behind the show were the great comedian Peter Sellers, the versatile musician and performer Sir Harry Secombe, and goon-of-all-trades Spike Milligan. The latter comedian and writer had begun his professional performing career as a jazz trumpeter and was keen on the genre for his entire life, so it is no surprise that he would enlist the aid of a talented jazz performer such as Ellington to help create the memorable mixture of nutty humor and high-quality music that was one of the show's most original features.
Another fine jazz musician who was part of the cast was the Dutch harmonica player Max Geldray. Working together with bandleader Wally Stott, these musicians were responsible for several musical interludes in each show, without which it is quite possible that many audience members might have died of non-stop laughter. Like all members of the show's staff, these musicians also took part in the skits themselves. In fact, it would be quite appropriate to list "long drawn-out African-sounding gibberish" as part of Ellington's instrumental credits, as this was a regular part of his contributions to various sketches. Bengali dialects, on the other hand, were the speciality of both Milligan and Sellers. Ellington took on a variety smaller roles in sketches, such as Chief Ellinga, Gladys, and the Red Bladder.
Ellington's family immigrated to England when he was young, and he was an instructor in the Royal Air Force prior to embarking on his professional music career. He formed his original Ray Ellington Quartet in 1950, and was also known to millions through the radio program Mr. Ros and Mr. Ray. Ironically, his association with the Goons helped him sustain a musical career during an era when British Invasion rock & roll was vanquishing just about any kind of musical performer who did not possess a mop-top haircut and the ability to sing "yeah, yeah, yeah." Not that he stuck to straight jazz when exploiting the popularity of the Goons; he had chart singles in the early '60s, but these were rock and rhythm & blues numbers, some produced by the superb Joe Meek. In 1970, Ellington established the popular Ray Ellington Big Band & Singers. His son, singer Lance Ellington, took his place on a 50th anniversary special of The Goon Show in 2001. ~ Eugene Chadbourne