Grandpa Elliott is a veteran blues singer and street performer who had been entertaining audiences for decades before he gained overnight fame through a viral online video. Grandpa Elliott was born Elliott Small in New Orleans, LA in the mid-'40s; growing up in the Lafitte Housing Projects, Elliott developed a love of music as a young boy, in part to deal with the pains of an unhappy home life. Elliott's uncle was a professional musician who worked with Lloyd Washington of the Ink Spots; the uncle gave young Elliott a harmonica and let the boy come see his band play local clubs, while at home Elliott's mother favored classical music, giving the youngster diverse tastes at an early age. Teaching himself to dance, Elliott began performing on street corners for change, dancing while singing and playing his harmonica.
In the early '60s, Elliott's family relocated to New York City, where he took his first steps as a professional entertainer. Elliott once again played on the streets in between regular gigs, which included a role in a stage revival of Showboat, working with Louisiana vocal group the Dixie-Cups, opening for the Temptations, and cutting a few R&B singles (one was entitled "I'm a Devil," and Elliott promoted the record with live appearances dressed in a red satin suit and devil's horns). Elliott became dissatisfied with life in New York and the music business in general and moved back to New Orleans in the 1980s. Elliott developed the persona of Grandpa Elliott, a bearded old man dressed in overalls, a red shirt, and a floppy hat who played blues harp and sang for the street traffic on Royal Street in the French Quarter; often teaming with guitarist Michael Stone, Elliott became an institution in New Orleans, and his act was even written up in The New York Times in 1995.
Mark Johnson launched a project called Playing for Change, dedicated to promoting international unity through music, and began recording performances by street performers from around the world; Johnson heard Elliott sing the Ben E. King hit "Stand by Me" and immediately recorded him singing the tune on Royal Street, making his performance the centerpiece of a video featuring performances of the number by a handful of artists. In 2009, after the "Stand by Me" video was posted online, it racked up over 20 million plays on YouTube, and suddenly Elliott had an international audience. Elliott signed on for a tour with a band of musicians affiliated with the Playing for Change project, and went from playing for passers-by to appearing on The Tonight Show and singing the national anthem at Dodger Stadium. Later that same year, Elliott released his first album, Sugar Sweet, in which he was accompanied by the Playing for Change Band and Keb' Mo'.