Ever since the Granada Theater reopened as a music venue in 2004, there has been one thing you could count on — tall, bespectacled Bill Ellison near the stage, often wearing black and taking many pictures of whoever is playing that night. You’d see his pictures on the venue’s website and on advertisements for upcoming shows. His Flickr and YouTube pages have thousands of videos and pictures between them.
On Tuesday afternoon, Facebook posts circulated that Ellison, 64, had died after a long fight with pancreatic cancer. Ellison's ailment was no secret — a benefit concert was held in 2016 to help him pay his medical bills — but it was easy to forget as he was still seen smiling at shows.
Ellison's photos presented local and national acts in full and balanced color, making them look like superstars. He didn't believe in post-production or fancy filters. Ellison was an old-school photographer; for him, it was all about the camera.
“[If] you're smart, alert and patient, usually something good will find its way to your lens,” Ellison told the Observer in 2014.
Plenty of other local photographers praised him for his work and his work ethic.
“Bill was my kind of guy,” Mike Brooks says. “Get up early, work hard, take pictures all night and play guitar on the weekends. On nights I was at the the Granada, I liked to arrive early to shoot the breeze with Bill and the crew. He would tell me who sounded great at soundcheck, let me know if they were cool or warn me if their tour manager was an a-hole.”
Chris McDonald, a former Granada employee, has many positive memories of Ellison.
“Bill was not just a massive part of the Granada team but also the Dallas music community,” McDonald says. “He had a quick wit, a photographer’s eye and a heart of gold. My favorite Bill photos were not always of the artist on the Granada stage but of the smiling fans in the crowd. Bill had a knack for capturing those special moments, and countless Dallas music fans probably have a Bill photo of themselves at a Granada show.”
Ellison wasn’t the kind of photographer who got in your face. He stepped back and let you play. Ellison was a guitarist, so he understood what was happening on the other side of the lens. He also helped plenty of people feel more at ease in front of the camera.
“I met him at my first ever Granada show a few years ago, and he was so supportive,” singer-songwriter Nicholas Altobelli says. “He really reduced my nervousness of the night whether he intended to or not.”
But those who knew Ellison remember him for a lot more than his skill with a camera.
“Bill wasn’t just a photographer, even though he was a great one,” says Gavin Mulloy, who worked at the Granada before moving on to Trees and the Bomb Factory. “He loaded bands in, lent gear, but also really made them feel at home. He was there from day one and was part of that room.”
“Having played the Granada dozens of times, I never missed an opportunity to shoot the shit with him,” says Danny Balis, a local musician and producer for radio station The Ticket. “The sweetest fella you could hope to meet but also a kindred, dark, sardonic sense of humor that attracted me to him. I'll never sneak a smoke in the VIP area of the Granada and not miss his kindness and hilarity, not to mention his exquisite mustache.”
Even touring bands walked away amazed by Ellison's generosity.
"I think I first met Bill Ellison in 2007,” says Austin-based Jeff Klein of the band My Jerusalem. “I pulled up to the Granada late while on tour with Ani DiFranco. Bill introduced himself as the house photographer but then proceeded to help me load all my gear in. The next morning, he emailed a bunch of great photos and one of the nicest notes about enjoying my music. From then on, I looked forward to seeing him at each show and receiving a nice email the day after. Granada is one of my favorite venues, and like most great venues, it has nothing to do with the building, but the people that work to make it feel like home."
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Ellison was a family man as well as an artist.
"Bill was one of the kindest, sweetest men I've ever had the pleasure to know,” says Beau Wagener of West Windows. “More important than his brilliant photography was his amazing love for his family and his life. He lived and breathed for everyone around him. I've experienced countless amounts of laughter and joy with him, and I'll never, ever forget him."
Not seeing Ellison at the Granada anymore is a big loss, but his spirit isn’t going anywhere.
“If the legacy of a man is measured by how much he is loved, then the legend of Bill Ellison will live forever in all of us,” McDonald says. “He will be missed dearly.”