She’s the vocalist for Billy Goat Strut Revue, the host of the Curious Louisville radio series and a Peabody Award winning producer for WFPK. She does it all with plucky charm and her own cerebral sensibility. Laura Ellis sits down with Rocko Jerome to discuss her journey.
In retrospect, there were signs early on that this flower would bloom beautifully. Laura Ellis has fond memories of growing up in Germantown, “back when it was cheap,” she quips. At around age 10, she would use the family boombox, the kind with the dual head tape decks, to record and produce pretend news reports with her little brother; a play activity probably low on the list of priorities for any typical kid. She always loved to sing, and that was a talent that she’s honed all of her life. Still, that ubiquitous childhood question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was a one that had no empirical answer for Laura Ellis. She was content to drift.
As a young adult in the 2000s, she sang and played guitar in a band she had co-founded called Shine-Ola. In an odd twist of fate, her bassist was an assistant on the WFPL live call-in show, State of Affairs, and he happened to be joining the Peace Corps. The position needed to be filled, and fast. Laura applied, and sure enough, she got the job. After a short training period, she was running the soundboard, booking the guests, screening the incoming calls, and doing whatever else needed to be done to keep one of Louisville’s top radio shows running...live on the air.
On-the-job training didn’t get much more qualifying than State of Affairs. It was on for an hour every weekday afternoon, and the subject matter was unlimited. One day’s theme might be something decidedly fun and frivolous, while the next might be very heavy. Taking calls from the public would provide a fascinating psychological cross-section of personalities and a constant litmus test of what was working and what was not, all in real time. “I went in with open ears,” Laura says, “and I came to really enjoy being in the thick of it.” The years went by, and she grew more and more into her role.
After a long run, State of Affairs came to an end in 2011, as tastes in radio moved away from call-in shows. However, a pair of compelling guests from one of the later episodes would show the way to an open door. University of Louisville professor Kaila Story and activist Jaison Gardner and had left a lasting impression. “I just loved the way they interacted,” Laura says, “they’re both smart and naturally funny people. I felt they had such a fantastic perspective.” Turns out, many people agreed. With Laura as the producer, the duo came together again in the studio and created the weekly series starting in 2012 called Strange Fruit. A national and even international hit, the show is billed as “Musings on Politics, Pop Culture, and Black Gay Life,” and has become a true beacon of light in Louisville.
Around that same time, Laura would assume singing duties with the Billy Goat Strut Revue, a truly superb jazz band. The group had already assembled with another singer who is a friend of Laura’s, but when she had to bow out, Ms. Ellis was ready for the call. She fit right in- with a mellifluous yet dynamic voice, Laura helps to create a timeless sensibility. Although they convey mid-century cool, they’re not just a throwback to another time. Billy Goat Strut Revue creates a living, breathing, authentic experience; fully lush and perfect for an elegant evening out. “It’s the songwriting of that time,” says Laura.
“It’s just so much fun to perform.”
Laura’s voice can also be heard on the new show, Curious Louisville. Coming somewhat full circle back to the early years of her radio career, this new show relies on engagement from the audience. If you’re interested in forgotten facts about our city, you can visit wfpl.org/category/curious-louisville/ and ask any question you might have. Laura and her team will investigate, and come back with an in-depth answer for you.
What could be down the road for Laura Ellis? It’s a podcast that began last month. Laura shares the details. “It’s called Recut, and it comes out every Tuesday and Thursday at recut.org. I produce it and the super-talented Jonese Franklin hosts it. In every episode, we talk to one of our reporters about a story they’ve covered. Radio features are only three and a half minutes, so this gives us a chance to take a little deeper look at something interesting that’s going on in our community.” And one thing is for sure: If there’s something interesting happening in Louisville, there is no better person to talk it up.