“MANY TIMES, OUT OF FRUSTRATION, I tried not to pursue music, but it just kept nagging me. Every time I put it down or took a break, the music started to reveal itself to me again.” A lifelong musician and amateur songwriter, Tim Ely ’67 will finally see one of his songs make its way into a major motion picture later this year.
It’s hard for Ely to recall a time when he wasn’t interested in music—though sometimes his own natural talent stood in the way of success. “I studied piano when I was young, but never got very far. Instead of learning how to read music, I would just memorize everything,” he says. “So I wasn’t really progressing along the lines of proper classical piano training.”
Still, when a schoolmate taught him some basic chords on the guitar, Ely picked it up quickly. “That summer, I was listening to a Rolling Stones song, and the entire verse was just one chord. I realized you don’t need a whole bunch of chords to write a song, so I wrote a song with just those three chords that I knew.” It would mark the first of many periods of inspiration for the budding songwriter.
After graduating from Allegheny College, Ely recalls, “I went to Nashville and was trying to make some headway, but I was really a songwriter without a clue. I didn’t really have the craft or the experience to make it happen.” But when he moved back to Pennsylvania, he got his first real break.
“I ran into some friends who had their own small advertising agency, and they wondered if I could write a jingle for one of their clients, who was an exterminator,” he continues. “‘Buenas Noches, Roaches!’ It was quite the sensation actually. It did wonders for his business, and it won me an advertising club award for radio.”
Ely continued in advertising for a few more years—mainly producing jingles, rather than writing them—before embarking on a successful career in the corporate world. “I was pretty consumed with actual work, so I didn’t have a whole lot of time to devote to the crafting of songs,” he says. “But music always caught up with me, especially after I had two children and life took on a different meaning. When I have things that I want to say, songs just happen to me. It’s like they just drop in my head, sometimes full-blown or sometimes just as pieces that go together.”
He continued to compose in his free time, even attending a songwriting workshop in Nashville and working one-on-one with a writing teacher for a year. “I did get some demos produced, and a few people in the industry listened to them, but nobody ended up taking them,” Ely says.
Things really took off when he learned about the music community website Broadjam. “It’s basically an online clearinghouse for people who are looking for songs and people who have songs to be found,” he explains. “They put out a brief description of what they’re looking for, and you send something that you think will fit.”
Through Broadjam, Ely connected with a producer looking for songs for film and television. “I sent him some songs, and he liked them. Nothing happened for about half a year, but then he got back in touch saying that he found a place for one of my songs in a major Hollywood motion picture.”
The song is “The Long Haul,” and the film is The Comeback Trail, starring Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, and Morgan Freeman. “It’s not small potatoes,” he smiles, “or at least that’s what my daughters keep telling me!”
The movie’s original premiere date was postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a few extra months are nothing compared to Ely’s years-long journey to songwriting success. For as the chorus of “The Long Haul” declares, “I ain’t on a fast track, it’s more like a slow train, but I ain’t gonna turn back on account of a little rain. I’m in it for the long haul.”
—Christopher Browner ’12
See the trailer to the movie and hear part of Ely’s song “The Long Haul” by searching on YouTube for The Comeback Trail.