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Philly metal band rocks for wounded warriors

By DAN GERINGER | Philadelphia Daily News (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 9, 2015

By day, rhythm guitarist Mike Ellis and drummer Nikki Shannon, friends for 24 of their 48 years, rehab homes they've bought in Ellis' native West Philadelphia, then sell them and rehab some more.

By night, they morph into Crown of Earth, playing wall-shaking anthems with bandmates Chris Graziola (lead guitar), Danny Knight (vocals) and Marky Z (bass), including "Born Again Warrior," their tribute to veterans that comes straight from their heavy-metal hearts.

Ellis said that as a kid, he spent two weeks every summer with a great-uncle who'd survived the 1942 Bataan Death March and three years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp before being liberated on V-J Day in 1945.

Ellis' paternal grandfather, James Ellis, served in World War II, and was killed on D-Day during the Battle of Normandy.

And his dad, Don Ellis, was a Navy SEAL in Vietnam.

"My grandfather was killed on June 6, 1944," Ellis said. "My dad was born on July 26, 1944, so he never got to see his father. I know that always bothered my dad."

Crown of Earth did two benefit shows last year for Philadelphia Veterans House on Baltimore Avenue near 41st Street in West Philadelphia, which provides food and shelter for vets struggling with homelessness and helps them find jobs and housing.

"They're good guys," Ellis said. "We told them, 'If you need Crown of Earth to help with anything, just pick up the phone.' "

Graziola said his uncle Howard Clipner was a World War II vet who "took a bullet in an arm, which took part of his muscle out."

When Graziola's grandfather Joseph "Skeets" Deleo, a member of the Pennsylvania State Boxing Hall of Fame, retired from a post-ring dairy-delivery career as "The Boxing Milkman," he turned his route over to Clipner.

Graziola fondly remembers riding the route with his "Uncle Clip" before cancer struck.

"During Uncle Clip's dying days," Graziola said, "I visited him and I saw the way veterans were treated when they didn't have proper medical care.

"I remember walking into this big room - it looked like a gymnasium - full of sick veterans," Graziola said. "They were all on cots. These guys had fought for our country and we couldn't even care for them in their dying days. It stuck with me."

Graziola expresses his feelings in passionate guitar solos on the "Born Again Warrior" video, which has received nearly 150,000 hits on YouTube since last winter's debut.

"You have to feel that one note that grabs you," Graziola said. "My solos on 'Warrior' were where I bend a note. That note just has to come in and raise the hair on the back of your neck."

Like Graziola, Crown of Earth, whose youngest member is 47-year-old lead singer Knight, plays its heavy-metal originals with '70s-style youthful passion.

Shannon remembers his first drum audition for Ellis, two decades and two dozen bands ago.

"I was halfway through an Iron Maiden song when Mike stopped me and handed me a can of Budweiser he'd turned sideways and cut a hole in," Shannon said.

Ellis told him to pop the tab, put his mouth on the hole and "suck it all down in two seconds as my initiation into the band," Shannon said.

"I couldn't do that today," he said, laughing. "Mike and I are both 48 years old now. If the beer didn't kill me, my wife would."

©2015 the Philadelphia Daily News

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Crown of Earth: Mike Ellis (rhythm guitarist), Nikki Shannon (drummer), Chris Graziola (lead guitar), Danny Knight (vocals) and Marky Z (bass).

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