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Back in the mid-1960s a five-piece group called the Villagers was a fixture on the frat-party and dance-club circuit in the Southeast. "Sure, I heard of the Villagers back then," says David Johnson, who produced records for such stars as Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter and the Commodores. "Everybody heard of the Villagers." The group's lead singer was Cliff Ellis, a fun-loving young man from Chipley, Fla., with a gravelly baritone who also had an affinity for sports, especially basketball. In 1968 Ellis chose hoops over harmonies when he took a job teaching phys ed and coaching several sports at Ruckel Junior High in Niceville, Fla. Other than a few occasions when he took the mike at school alumni gatherings, Ellis's vocal cords were used mainly to chirp at the referees.
Until recently. In 1998 Ellis, by then the basketball coach at Auburn, and Johnson, by then the executive director of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, were paired at a celebrity golf tournament and began talking about their favorite subject. After a while Johnson put down his putter and said, "Cliff, we gotta get you back in the studio." Ellis shrugged. "I don't know whether I've still got it," he said, "but I'd sure like to find out."
Last July, having decided to share the cost of the $30,000 project, the two began recording in the Alabama music mecca of Muscle Shoals. Johnson lured several outstanding musicians into the studio—including guitar legend Reggie Young, who played on early Elvis Presley sessions—and the result is a solid 12-track CD called People Get Ready, after the Curtis Mayfield classic, which Ellis (with assistance from Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah) renders on the album's third cut.
"I was excited about the project, but I had serious doubts," said Johnson, 51. "The man hadn't really sung professionally in 30 years. But I gotta tell you, Cliff nailed it. It's the most fun I've had in this business."
Ellis, 56, and Johnson each came up with a list of 25 tunes, most of them from the R&B genre they both love. Those selections were whittled down to the dozen that make up the album. Some of the choices are predictable (though Ellis does well with both the teen-slow-dance classic What's Your Name and the old standard Goodnight, My Love, which Johnson said Ellis got perfect on the first take), and some are surprising, such as a tune called You Left the Water Running. Ellis learned it from an Otis Redding demo. "That wasn't too intimidating," says Ellis, "singing something after Otis did it." Ellis invited assistant coach Shannon Weaver and three of his former players, Adrian Chilliest, Scott Pohlman and Reggie Sharp, to help with backup vocals on Charlena. Johnson praises their enthusiasm but admits he "touched up" their work in the studio.
The album, which required about three weeks in the studio, was officially released on Jan. 22, the date of the Auburn-Kentucky game. Give Ellis credit for scheduling his big night against a ranked team, and, sure enough, the Wildcats beat his Tigers 69-62. Proceeds from the record, which is available through the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and in outlets such as Wal-Mart, will be divided among the hall, Auburn and the American Red Cross.
"I haven't had that much fun in a while," said Ellis, whose team was 9-9 as of Sunday. "Working with David and all those great musicians, and having some of my team behind me—I'll never forget it. Right now, though, I need a few wins."