PORTLAND, Maine — Questlove, the iconic, Afro-wearing drummer for The Roots is looking for Ellie, a local woman who started his record collection at a Congress Street hotel in 1976.
He told the story of how it happened in a Saturday Facebook post, asking if anyone could put him in touch with the mystery woman who bought him a turntable and three records when he was 5 years old. The post included a picture of a handwritten note on a napkin dated May 25, 1976.
“Being the irresistible cat that I was, I talked an older woman named Ellie into buying me a stereo and a record collection,” the 49-year-old bandleader wrote. “I knew talking to strangers was a no no but my instincts paid off.”
Questlove was born Ahmir Khalib Thompson in 1971. He grew up to be an influential and Grammy-winning drummer for The Roots with hits like “You Got Me,” featuring Erykah Badu. Questlove has also made his mark as a producer, working with artists including Elvis Costello, Common, D’Angelo, Jay-Z, Al Green, Amy Winehouse and John Legend.
Both his parents were also musicians and toured with the soul group Congress Alley and Lee Andrews and the Hearts out of Philadelphia. Rather than leave their son at home when they were on the road, they took him along. That’s how he ended up at a Portland nightspot more than 40 years ago.
“My era was pre babysitters (an 80s thing) in my day you went to work or you became part of the act,” Questlove wrote. “I’d sit in the nightclub as a 5-year-old while my parents did their two sets.”
On the fateful night, his parents were playing at the Portlander Hotel at 645 Congress St. It later became a University of Southern Maine dormitory. The building was torn down and replaced a few years ago.
While waiting for his parents’ show to finish, knowing he was not supposed to be talking with strangers, he struck up a conversation with the woman he only remembers as Ellie. Questlove asked her if she’d buy him records. She wrote down which ones he wanted on the napkin that he’s hung onto all these years.
Ellie asked him what kinds of records he wanted and he told her he liked the Jackson Five and “Dance With Me” by Rufus, a 1975 hit featuring Chaka Khan. Questlove also said he liked “Bad Blood” by Neil Sedaka — an odd choice for someone who would grow up to be so funky.
“Hey, you adapted to what was on the radio — but really? Sedaka’s MCA subsidiary label Rocket Records had the coolest looking logo when it rotated on the turntable,” he wrote. “Back then I liked cool labels FIRST, then the artist and song next.”
The next night, Ellie came in with the records and a portable turntable. Questlove reports that his parents were furious, but his benefactor talked them out of punishing him for his impertinent request.
“Whatever she pleaded saved my behind that night,” Questlove wrote, “because black parents don’t play with talking to strangers.”
It’s clearly a fond memory for the man who has led the “Tonight Show” band since 2014. Questlove ended his post with a request for anyone who might know Ellie, to get in touch.
“On the off chance someone in Portland, Maine knows of a kind woman who in 1976 randomly purchased a turntable and three records for this ‘lil black kid w an afro the size of Texas named Ellie,” he wrote, “I’d like to know.”
The word has started to spread in Portland and the search for Ellie has begun.
“This is one of the dopest stories to come out of Portland. Share it far and wide and let’s figure out who Ellie is,” Portlander Michael Koharian wrote as he shared the post yesterday.
In 1976, records and a turntable could have been purchased at Porteous, Woolworths, DeOrsey’s or Recordland — all on Congress Street and not far from the gig.
As of 11 a.m. Monday, the post had been shared 526 times.