Ben Elliott was not a household name, but the record producer and sound engineer was revered among musicians in the Garden State and beyond.
Notables such as Keith Richards, Steve Miller, Levon Helm and Hubert Sumlin made the trek to Elliott’s Showplace Recording Studios, a stone’s throw off Route 10 in Dover. They and many others in the rock, blues and jazz genres admired Elliott’s talent and warmth.
“Ben was one of a kind (and) one of the best recording engineers that I’ve ever met,” said John Ginty, a keyboardist who has performed with the Dixie Chicks, Robert Randolph’s Family Band, the Allman Betts Band and many others. “His ear was second to none; he really had a unique sound. His sound was as wide as an 18-wheeler and it was all the brass and leather you could stand.”
Ginty and many others whose lives the affable Elliott touched are mourning the loss of the production maven, who died April 5 at the age of 67. The cause of death was complications from cancer after a yearlong battle, according to friend and business partner Joni Forte. He is survived by his wife, Paula, and a son, Max.
As word of the Morristown native’s death spread, the memories began to flow forth like the notes that caressed the walls at the studio where he worked and held court. Lou Pallo, a guitarist in the Les Paul Trio for 30 years, remembered being in the hospital last year.
“He came every day to see me — every day he showed up! I just couldn’t believe it,” said Pallo. “And I couldn’t talk (due to surgery). I would just look at him (and) he would talk. He would sit with me for hours in the hospital. But what a super guy to do this.”
They worked together on Thank You Les, a tribute album and video to the musical legend that features Miller, Richards, José Feliciano, Billy Gibbons and the late Bucky Pizzarelli.
“The love he had for me and the love I had for him, when we were recording, was unbelievable. Just a great, super engineer, super guy (and) beautiful with his family,” said Pallo, who lives in Wanaque. “I’m really going to miss him. I just talked to him three weeks ago and said, ‘Can’t wait to get together.’ ”
It wasn’t just the big names and industry legends that the award-wining producer got together with.
Helping younger musicians “was really important to him. It was probably more than half of the stuff that we did,” said Ginty, who started recording with Elliott in the 1990s and eventually co-produced albums with the studio wizard. “Obviously, the big names would be in there doing stuff, but he was constantly looking for young artists that just had ‘the thing.’ And he was always eyeballing N.J. artists that had a true sound.”
For Ginty, who resides in Bernardsville after growing up in Morristown, the loss is particularly personal.
“His dad Murray was a dentist in Morristown, and in the late ’60s, early ’70s, my mother was his dental assistant,” said Ginty. “So Ben always loved telling me that he had vivid memories of meeting my parents when they were dating. And he has good, good memories of little Johnny playing with blocks and coloring books in the waiting room of his dad’s office.
“He was 16 years old and the cool kid coming in and out. … Through the years, we probably worked on, I’d say 25-30 different projects together. Tons of records, lots of great blues records.”
Many of those recordings were put out by the American Showplace Music label, which Elliott owned. Along with top-shelf digital equipment, his studio was renowned and favored for its large collection of vintage and analog gear. It also enjoyed a colorful history, as the front of the building housed a club that featured go-go dancers and live music — sometimes on the same day.
For Joni Forte, Elliott was more than just a business partner in Showplace Music Productions.
“We always joked he was my brother from another mother since we were always on the same page,” said Forte, a Montville resident. “Ben Elliott was a stand-up, honest and very humorous guy who adored his family and friends.
“Ben was extremely knowledgeable in most all aspects of the music industry, in addition to being a gifted sound engineer and producer. He was a wonderful partner, and we produced three projects together.” Another those is the album Jersey Guitar Mafia, which featured guitarists Pizzarelli, Pallo, Al Caiola and Frank Vignola and bassist Gary Mazzaroppi.
Other notable musicians Elliott worked with include Warren Haynes, Leslie West, Eddie Brigati, Luther Vandross, Ben E. King, Bernard Purdie, Slash, Melinda Doolittle, Nokie Edwards and the Henry Rollins Band.
Concerning services, Ginty posted the following on his Facebook page: “The family of Ben Elliott has asked that I relay a message. Due to the current state of affairs with the coronavirus, we will not be able to have a funeral that the public can attend. As soon as conditions are back to normal, there will be a memorial service for our beloved Ben. The artists at American Showplace will plan a tribute concert as well.”
Tom Skevin is an award-winning journalist and music publicist who resides in Sussex County. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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