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Music Feature Print

Blake Ellege: The Hardest Working Tenor in Show Business

What Happens to a Gig Musician When the Gig Economy Goes Bust?

April 30, 2020 - Brevard, NC:

Coping with crisisBlake Anthony Ellege, a classically trained singer in his late 20s in Brevard, NC, bills himself as "The Hardest Working Tenor in Show Business," a claim that, by a look at his bookings, seems to ring true. Possessed with a fierce work ethic, an enthusiasm for performing in a variety of musical styles and venues, a huge personality, and a driving passion for music, he has forged a career in the entertainment business that earned him a comfortable living. Though based in Western NC, Blake has performed widely – on cruise ships and in concert venues around the globe. His remarkable personal story, along with links to his recordings, may be found on his website.

In 2019, he was performing four shows per week, each three hours long, working with eleven different bands. You name it, Blake could sing it: opera and classical music literature, country, gospel, jazz, blues, rock and roll, and retro Top 40 repertoire. His bookings stretched out for more than a year.

In 2019, he had 278 paid music gigs, and January and February performances in 2020 were still solid. Another avenue of his work, his "day job," was that of booking gigs in Western NC for other entertainers through his agency, BAE Entertainment; it, too, was going strong. Then, like a thunderclap out of nowhere, the coronavirus took hold, the bottom dropped out, and his bookings canceled rapid-fire, like falling dominos.

For an artist who was booked more than a year in advance, this sudden turn of events with no end in sight is deeply distressing. Nonetheless, Blake has forged ahead by live streaming solo performances to his fan base. On Easter Sunday he conducted a hymn sing. He's planned various all-request events such as Elvis impersonations (Blake was an Elvis tribute artist at one time, appearing at BB King's club in Memphis), singing country music favorites, or doing any song one might request. He hunts up an accompanying soundtrack and sings with it, or he accompanies himself on the piano, with customers paying into a virtual tip jar. Of course, this isn't bringing in nearly the amount of income he once enjoyed, but it's something, for now. And it keeps his name and the sound of his voice in front of his followers and the businesses that will one day hire him and his bands back, once the pandemic is over.

One of Blake's side businesses is making seasonal appearances as Santa or the Easter Bunny. He said that the idea of becoming Santa was suggested to him by friends who remarked on his "jolly appearance." More deeply, however, Blake discovered a rich opportunity to bring children an element of magic and hope. He has fully embraced this role (as only he can) and has attended the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan, where he studied character and vocal development, photography tips, and advice from behavioral psychologists on how to interact with children.

Photos of his "Appalachian Santa" character show a magnificently turned out jolly fellow who is the end product of four different costumers (one for boots, one for hats, one for vests and shirts, etc.) If there's a school for Easter Bunnies, I'm sure he'll find it.

One of the aspects of Blake's personality I've found so intriguing over the years (I was one of his professors at Brevard College) is his ability to keep reinventing himself. He is open, honest, fearless, big-hearted, and always willing to try something new. Some of this spirit of adventure may in part spring from his winning personality, but some is driven by words echoing in his memory from his musical parents who had warned him that "there is no guarantee of money in music – ever" and told him they expected him to get a day job, even as he sang with them as a youngster. And so he began pumping gas and bagging groceries to supplement his earnings.

For now, he's found temporary work in a medical practice, until the pandemic ends, but when and how normal life will return are worrying. When NC finally reaches Phase Three of its reopening plan as outlined by Governor Roy Cooper in his most recent news conference, hopefully around July or August, what will societal norms look like? How long will it take Blake and his bands to return to performing before live audiences? How long will it take for businesses to recover enough to be able to hire them? How long will it be before another wave of this pandemic hits and things have to shut down again?

When will children be allowed to approach Santa for a session on his lap and a cherished photo? When?