“When they approached me, I was designated the rock guy of the tour.”
Tinsley Ellis at 56 was the youngest guy on the bill when he did the Blues at The Crossroads 2 tour in 2013 with James Cotton, Bob Margolin, Jody Williams, and Kim Wilson with The Fabulous thunderbirds backing. “They were calling me Sonny Boy and Whipper Snapper and things like that. They really busted my balls, too, but I’m a better man for it.”
Already 32 years into his career with 13 albums of his own, Tinsley was still the neophyte of the tour. Five years later, the stars are all aligned for him to take on the role perhaps not of elder statesman, but certainly one of the ranking highwaymen who carry the torch for the mature genre of the rockin’ blues.
He has rejoined the Alligator Records roster – the only artist to have signed with the label for three separate and distinct times. Alligator released Winning Hands on January 8th, and he’s currently on his longest continuous tour in 20 years. The three-month odyssey began January 12th at Variety Playhouse in his hometown Atlanta and runs through April 4th at Antone’s in Austin with stops in between at the Winter Blues Festival in Fargo, North Dakota; The City Winery in Boston; The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, California; and the Cadillac Lounge in Toronto.
“This one we’re staying gone the whole time for the better part of three months and right at the beginning of a new CD. I think that if there’s a way to market new music, it is by taking it to the people. And I haven’t done a tour like this in 20 years. I think I can still do it. Ask me in three months.”
Ellis began his musical career at 24 in 1981 forming The Heartfixers who became one of the most popular blues bands in the south in two years, backed up Nappy Brown on his 1984 comeback album Tore Up, and debuted Ellis’ vocals on the group’s 1986 album Cool on It which brought him to the attention of Alligator Records. He has signed with Alligator three separate times from 1986 to ’97, 2005 to 2009 and now in 2018. He’s released 17 albums in 31 years including 10 for Alligator, four for his own label Heartfixer, two for Telarc, and one for Capricorn.
He’s jammed with Buddy Guy, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Gov’t Mule and Widespread Panic. He’s shared the stage with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, The Allman Brothers, Leon Russell, Son Seals, Koko Taylor, and Albert Collins. His friends include Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Oliver Wood, Jonny Lang and members of Widespread Panic.
In 2015 he was awarded Rock/Blues Album of the Year for Tough Love by Blues Blast Magazine. In 2009 he told me at the end of his second tenure with Alligator, “Because I work so many blues festivals, and I’m on the leading blues label, (in interviews) I just sort of launch a pre-emptive strike on myself and declare myself blues-rock, and everybody’s okay. We move on to the next thing.”
In the press release announcing Winning Hand, Alligator credits Ellis with “joking” that “he’s the best guitarist you may never have heard of.” He explains that quote by saying, “Most in the pop culture are operating well under the radar, but we (in blues) have longer careers. I know that much. The pop artists may be famous now, and in a year where did they go?”
Returning to the Alligator roster was an easy transition for Ellis. “I have my own label (Heartfixer) that fits the music, and I still have it. I’m just not on it. They (Alligator) were doing my mail order for Heartfixer Music, and so we’ve always had a relationship. I’ve sent him (CEO Bruce Iglauer) each of the albums I’ve made, and he made an offer on Tough Love which is the biggest album I’ve put out on my own. He made an offer on it, and I didn’t take it. I regretted that because I think he really would have done great with that particular album.
“So, I said (to myself), ‘If he makes an offer again, I think I should take it,’ and lo and behold, he made a really nice offer on this one. He feels very strongly about it. So, I took it, and it’s a very casual relationship. I’ve been with the label so long, I know what they do. It’s not like they have to sell themselves to me, and vice versa. They know what I do. I don’t have to promise them I’ll go on the road. They know I’m out there on the road anyway.”
Ellis fans will find his familiar meat and potatoes rocking blues style on Winning Hand that has been consistent throughout out his career, but there’s a standout cut, “Saving Grace” that could very well become his signature song on the tour. “That’s probably my favorite track on the album or the CD,” he explains. “Back in the day, you would have made that a side closer. Remember, we’d have an album and the very best song on an album side would be some kind of long emotional piece of music.
“You would listen to that and drift off to sleep, whereas with the CD you only get one side (’cause) there’s only one, so that’s the logical place for a song like that. It actually is a song more of the Hendrix/Robin Trower variety because I used a pedal on it which simulates the slow speed of a Leslie. That’s my favorite song on the album, and that’s a song I will enjoy performing live. It was singled out by Bruce at Alligator as the reason to want to put the album out.”
“Autumn Run” is a ballad that this reviewer particularly liked with the line, ‘We couldn’t hide, but we sure could run.’
“That song is semi-autobiographical, and it’s all about how we all start out pretty wild in our years and then things slow down, and autumn is the season of slowing down. It is a time of dying. For a lot of us it’s a time of things slowing down a little bit and is autobiographical, and that is a song I wrote, oh, about 10 years ago, and I’ve been wanting to put it out and it fits in with this group of songs.”
The only cover song on the album is “Dixie Lullaby” by Leon Russell and Chris Stainton. I asked Ellis if Russell’s passing inspired him to do that cover because he rarely does covers.
“Yes, it did. He’s my greatest songwriting influence, and I can cite about a half dozen songs that I wrote in his style like “Hell & High Water.” On the last album there’s one called “All I Think About,” the last song off the live album, and there’s a song called “Peace & Love” off my Midnight Blue album. He’s my biggest songwriting influence, and I saw him back in the day. Leon Russell had a production company and maybe even a label, and he did a Freddie King album. So, I just thought the production he did on the Freddie King’s album was just great, and (my keyboardist and producer) Kevin McKendree feels the same way about Leon Russell. You know, Leon Russell is a very rare musical artist. If you ask what kind of music he played, you wouldn’t be able to say. He and Ray Charles and Willie Nelson they’re sort of like a genre unto themselves.”
Ellis has at least six albums worth of material in the can. “I continue to write, and I keep all the songs on my laptop and iTunes and drag them into folders. That’s how my instrumental album came from an album concept ’cause I pulled all the instrumentals that I had written or demo-ed. I put them all in a folder, and there was a bunch of songs on there and so that’s a pretty cool album.”
Most of his songs are about relationship challenges. I asked him what his wife thinks of those songs. “I don’t know. I’m not going to ask. I don’t live in all these songs, but I sure do observe a lot of stuff that goes on, and I mean there’s some songs on these albums that are weight of the world songs or social relevance, but really the boy/girl thing as a topic for blues songs is as old as the genre of blues itself and even older than that, essentially worth singing about. You got two choices. You can cry about it or sing about it.”
Is working on these songs therapeutic?
“It is. I have a home studio, and I love going in there and turning stuff on and having a cup of coffee. I may even be in my pajamas or something and grab a guitar and start writing. I’m a morning guy, so I do a lot of recording in the morning. In fact, the song on the album “Don’t Turn Off The Light,” the guitar also is recorded at about 6:30 in the morning over a cup of coffee. My mind works so much better in the morning. I think I really think better in the morning, too. By the end of the day, the voice can be like toast which is not a bad thing in a blues singer world, but in the morning it’s just got something to it, kinda mojo in the morning.”
Winning Hand is dedicated to Ellis’ dad William Tinsley Ellis who passed a year ago February. “He passed away very suddenly, and he was the greatest man in my life and I dedicated the album. Thank you for noticing that.
“There was always music in our house, a mixture of two different kinds of music and obviously church music because we had grown up in the south coming from kind of a churchy family, but the other music was jazz music, music my father used to like. He was responsible for bringing Louis Armstrong to perform at his college, Emery University, in the 1950s, and he really turned me on to a lot of different music.
“My dad was the one who told me about Howlin’ Wolf. I had already seen B.B. King in concert, but he was coming back to play in South Florida where I grew up, and my dad said, ‘Hey, B. B. King’s coming and Howlin’ Wolf is gonna be the opening act.’ So, I went to see B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, great show. If there’s any show in my life I could go back and see, it would be that show.”
Like his father, Tinsley Ellis went to Emery College and graduated with a degree in history. “Not exactly the hardest major you can have in college, but it was stuff about history. It’s a good thing for somebody who likes to read a lot. I took music appreciation and stuff like that, art appreciation, the cultural liberal arts quote, unquote course. Not the hardest thing to study in a university, but I like that kind of education.”
Ellis writes his songs for his fans and not for himself, radio, or the critics, and he learned the hard way not to write for his record label.
“I had one opportunity to do a major label, Capricorn Records, and I made an album that I thought was going to take me to another level, and it did. It took me another level down, and it’s not what the fans wanted. I knew that at the time. but I was so intoxicated with the major label possibilities, you know, videos, tour support and stuff like that, and nowadays I’m thinking about, well, what would work good in concert? I do it that way now.”
Capricorn went out of business right after they put his album out. “It’s a wonder the damn thing came out at all to tell you the truth. I think that happened to Otis Rush one time. He put out an album, and the record company went out of business that week or something. That is something that happens to blues artists when they get an opportunity. I can think of several blues artists who got big opportunities and all kinds of things thwarted it, so maybe the bottom line is a blues artist’s work needs to remain confidential like a spy or something, for artistic purposes, but I don’t know. This particular album (Winning Hand) I certainly could have put it out myself, and it would have done pretty well, but it has a much better chance to get into a system on a real label that knows what it’s doing.”
If the Capricorn CD was an anomaly, his Blues Is Dead tour last year was another example of a road rarely taken. The side project started on April 9th at the three-day Skull and Roses Festival in Ventura, California where he performed blues and R&B songs by The Grateful Dead and other rock acts of the ’60s and ’70s.
“Oh, it was really fun. I didn’t have a new album out last year and just doing some things for fun with a different collection of musicians, and we went out and played blues songs that were covered by the Grateful Dead, and then we stretched it out to include other bands from the Fillmore era like Hot Tuna and Cream, and we just went out and really jammed it out. It was the youngest audience I’ve played in front of for 30 years, and people with tie-dyes twirling around, and I’m thinking you know young jam band people they love blues. They just don’t know that’s what they’re listening to.
“We were doing songs like “Spoonful,” “I’m So Glad,” old blues covers, but we were jamming out on it and looking back on it, our music was probably more influenced by the early Allman Brothers than by the Grateful Dead, but we thought the tongue in cheek name Blues Is Dead was too good not to use.”
Tinsley lives on the road. He calls his itinerary his calling card. “We actually had the tour booked before we were on Alligator, but I think when Bruce Iglauer saw it, he saw there was something going on, and now we’re adding to it, and I will get what he brings to the table as well in addition to the tour that was already set up.”
Did his extensive touring schedule have something to do with Alligator re-signing Tinsley so easily?
“Well, it didn’t hurt. That’s for sure. When I was thinking about signing artists to my little label, one of the main criteria was that people be a touring entity as opposed to something that you would have to introduce and talk people into booking. So, it sure doesn’t hurt to have an itinerary. If you want to see if a band has something going on, go to their website, look at their itinerary, and then you can check out the music, but an itinerary is your calling card. By calling card I mean a gauge to see if somebody has something going on or not, whether they’re just playing locally or whether they’re doing it all over the place.
“We don’t drive overnight. I have in the past, but we won’t drive after the show until the sun comes up ’cause that’s a good way to hit a deer or something and get killed or whatever, but we don’t do that, but, no, there’s no limit. My days of being a highwayman I’ve done some incredible overnight drives. The (worst) I ever did was between a music fest in Milwaukee one night and then the next afternoon played in Buffalo, New York.
“I was a much younger man then – all the way around those lakes – I was a much younger man then, Now, drives of four to eight hours a day are not uncommon. I think that’s probably – eight hours seems like long enough alright.”
Ellis does 95% of the driving himself. “Either that, or I want to control their piss breaks,” he says tongue in cheek. “I mean there’s comes a point in every musician’s career where they have to decide if they want to play around where they live or whether they want to really go for it, and I’m the guy that helps them decide that. I just tell ’em right up front. I show them the shows and say, ‘Can you do it?’ My itinerary says it all. Here’s what I do. Here’s where I’m gonna be every night.
“It’s almost like music is not so much a job. It’s more of a calling. Have you got the calling to do this? Meaning it’s in your DNA to just traipse around.
“There’s very few places where somebody could play locally and the world would come to them. I think Chicago would be one of those places. New Orleans would be a place where the world comes to you. Only the Buddy Guys really make it on late night tv, and the rest of us better be willing to do like the politicians do and go from town to town shaking hands and kissing babies.”
Ellis has learned more on the road than he ever did in college. He calls it his B.S. degree, the B.S. standing for bullshit, and he jokingly refer to his B. A, in history as his Boring Asshole degree. He’s learned how to survive in a tough business from the veterans he’s worked with on the road. “Years ago, when I’d first gotten to Chicago in the ’80s with Alligator, Son Seals told me, ‘You can make a good living in the blues if you’re willing to carry your own amp.’ And what that means is keep your overhead down low. Otherwise, you’re going to be working for everybody but yourself. Everything Son Seals told me when I first got to Chicago is true, every single thing because he’d seen it before. Listen to older people. They know what’s going on.”
On The Crossroads tour, he took some advanced courses to add to his B.S. “When Jody Williams and Cotton would talk about Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf these stories they told were definitely unprintable, just amazing stories. I don’t know where else you could go to get stories like that. James is gone. He was the star of the whole tour. He was 79 when we started the tour, and he’d just had hip replacement surgery, and by the end of the tour we were all like ready to take to the bed, and he was still going strong. Their stories were just unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”
Check out Tinsley’s website at: www.tinsleyellis.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.