Tinsley Ellis is “traveling like a crazy man as usual” bringing his fiery brand of blues to audiences across the country. Ellis, 42, has toured rigorously for the last two decades. Since his solo debut in 1988, the lauded guitarist has released seven albums and established himself as one of the most respected Strat-wielders of his generation. He recently signed with Telarc Records and released Hell or High Water, his first collection consisting entirely of self-penned originals. The album boasts blues-based rock fleshed out with classic soul and old-school funk. The 12 tracks teem with grit. Whether on stage or in the studio, Tinsley aims to communicate honest emotion, preferring to hit listeners in the heart rather than the head with his musicianship.
Ellis first got his hands on a guitar at the age of seven. It was the mid-1960s, and the ostentatious youth was feeding on a steady diet of British invasion bands, such as The Rolling Stones and Cream. However, when stars like Eric Clapton repetitively cited B.B. King as an influence, Ellis’ attention drifted deeper into rock’s foundation. When the blues master was scheduled to play in the lounge of a Miami hotel, Ellis, then a 15-year-old resident of Hollywood, Fla., went with a couple of his surfer buddies to witness King in person.
Ellis arrived early to occupy the closest seat to the stage. Ellis says that despite the fact that the afternoon show drew a sparse crowd, King’s performance was spellbinding.
“It was my blues baptism,” enthused Ellis from a hotel room in Nebraska. King’s method of belting out a line from the pit of his stomach and then echoing it on guitar fascinated the hopeful performer. “It seemed to be the right way to do it,” said Ellis. “Just a man telling his stories up there.”
Near the end of King’s awe-inspiring performance, the giant dug too deep into a note, busted an E string and handed it to Ellis. After the show, Ellis told King he wanted to play like him. “Then you will play blues,” said King. The words stuck. Since meeting his hero as a teen, Ellis has opened for King on several occasions.
“Every time I play with him, he always talks about me from the stage,” glowed Ellis. “I go back to the dressing room and he acts like we’re friends and that always impresses my sidemen.”
In 1975, Ellis returned to his birthplace of Atlanta to forge his own path as a blues man. His first professional gig was with the Alley Cats, and then in 1981, he formed The Heartfixers, with whom he relentlessly toured the Southeast and released four albums. In 1988, Ellis made his solo debut with Georgia Blue on the venerable Alligator Records imprint. Ellis’ soulful vocals and sizzling guitar chops dazzled audiences and critics alike.
No longer a regional act, Ellis solidified his reputation as an ace axe man across the states with one electrifying performance after another. He released a string of strong albums on Alligator culminating with Storm Warning in 1996. The record garnered rave reviews in hollowed tomes such as Rolling Stone, which called the disc “one of the best blues albums of the 1990s.” The album is a riveting fusion of searing blues licks and rock pyrotechnics. Ellis proves apt as both an interpreter of classics such as “Early in the Morning” and as tunesmith with cuts such as “A Quitter Never Wins.” The latter caught the ear of Jonny Lang and landed on the young star’s platinum-plus selling Lie to Me LP.
“(Lang) sold two million copies of my song,” said Ellis gleefully. “God bless him. It’s a nice version, and he does it at every show.”
Ellis is proud to be a part of the music tradition that continues to reach a broader audience after more than eight decades of evolution. When frequenting clubs in Atlanta, where he currently resides, Ellis often hears bands covering “A Quitter Never Wins” and introducing it as a Lang tune. Rather than being irked by not receiving due credit for originating the tune, Ellis is pleased to simply hear it played and views it as an example of the blues lexicon being expanded and passed down from one generation to another. “Robert Johnson did the original version of ‘Dust My Broom,'” reflected Ellis. “But I really associate that song with Elmore James (the artist who later covered it and had the bigger hit).”
Ellis sees himself running his fingers over the frets of his six-string as long as possible. He wants to carry on the blues tradition but is always keeping his ears open for ways to develop and invigorate the timeless sound forged by founding fathers, such as Johnson, Charlie Patton and Muddy Waters. “The blues is passed down like a lineage,” mused Ellis. “And it has to continue to grow or it will die on the vine.”