In 2013, radio legend “Uncle Len” Ellis maneuvered his wheelchair to the front of a grand stage, ready to speak to the graduates of Columbia College. While he physically seemed somewhat frail, his mind was as sharp as a tack.
“I had an interview with Dolly Parton not too long ago,” the Columbia College alumnus told the crowd, many of whom dreamed of a day that they, too, could make a living playing the music they loved. “Dolly kept saying, ‘Get a little closer, Uncle Len.’ I tried.”
Laughter ensued, and then “Uncle Len” continued.
“Dolly said ‘come over here … they don’t bite,” he said, letting a sly smile take form on his face. “Thank you.”
And with that, he was done. And with that, many in the audience probably realized what they had just seen, what this man would always mean to the radio community and just how many stories he would take with him once he left this earth.
And yes, we find ourselves asking that very question at this moment.
“Uncle Len” passed away Jan. 14 at the age of 89.
A country music pioneer, Len became a morning DJ in Michigan in 1949 and would eventually be known best as the founder of Radio One Communications. He was was also a charter member of the Country Music Association and one of just 15 people in 1957 to found the CMA, according to Northwest Indiana’s “NWI Times.” In 1983, he would be inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame.
The stories of his career read like a history book. Len first began playing country music over the northwest Indiana airwaves to essentially welcome people who had moved to the area from the south to work in the region’s steel mills.
“There was a group of people who were working in the steel mills and these were my listeners,” Len said in an interview titled “50 Years of Radio One Communications: A Tribute to ‘Uncle’ Len Ellis.” “My goal was to be someone who was bringing the country to Northwest Indiana. That was the goal. It was not at first a goal to have a radio station, but I found out it was easier to reach my goal if I had a radio station.”
He also worked as a concert promoter for 12 years, bringing a boatload of country music’s biggest artists to the midwest to play live. He also spent much time interviewing those artists throughout the years. Heck, he even appeared on an episode of “Hee Haw” in the early 1970s.
“Thank you for accepting country music as it is,” he once said in an interview. “It will change, but it will always be country.”
Wise words indeed.
Rare Country sends our heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and fans of “Uncle Len” Ellis.