Featured Interview – Tinsley Ellis

Cover photo © 2022 Joseph A. Rosen

image“In the 60’s the first Blues I heard was the Rolling Stones doing ‘Little Red Rooster’ with Brian Jones playin’ that slide part. And then the Mayall album was so big for guitar playing. Eric Clapton of course and then Peter Green and Mick Taylor. But then there were so many others. The Animals were doing Blues songs. And of course the Yardbirds, that was the first one I heard that was like over the top. And then along came Cream, and Cream just like blew my mind. You know Cream just hits the sweet spot. Blues is my love but Rock n’ Roll is my heritage and they just kinda blended it perfectly. I definitely consider my music Blues Rock because if I was to declare myself a Blues artist I’d consider myself an imposter. Blues Rock describes the 2 things – my passion and my heritage.”

Tinsley Ellis is one of the most consistently inventive and endearing pillars of Blues Rock. A first rate guitarist with an instantly recognizable sound, a clever and endlessly imaginative songwriter and tireless road dog who wields his prolific recording catalog far and wide bringing the good word of the Blues to anyone who will listen; Tinsley has defined and exemplified all that Blues Rock can be. Based out of Atlanta a conversation with Tinsley is to be taken on a joyride through the low country backwoods with his rumbling Southern drawl casually peeling off pearls of wisdom and as he jokes “pithy remarks.” More than anything Tinsley is a student. A history major in college, Tinsley brings an academic’s rigor and a researcher’s zest for hard uncovered treasure to his art. Professor Ellis, pulling from his early British Invasion influence, begins with his theories about Blues Rock as a form and the exception that proves the rule.

“Blues Rock is people influenced by Jimi Hendrix. You know you had stuff before Jimi Hendrix and Cream, you have to put Cream in there because they blew up before Hendrix and were a big influence on Jimi Hendrix. But, stuff before that falls into more like Blues or maybe Rockabilly. And then stuff after Hendrix, you know I hear Hendrix influence on even the greatest Bluesmen of our time. But you know it’s always really great when someone comes along that’s not influenced by Jimi Hendrix. That’s what makes Lil’ Ed so special. Lil’ Ed and his band are the most Blues thing on the planet. Their sound and their style is totally oblivious that Jimi Hendrix ever walked the face of the earth. The rest of us are guilty as charged, no matter how high we stacked our pompadour, we heard it! Lil’ Ed appears to be from another planet, the planet of Chicago, and it’s wonderful that he’s completely untouched by that. But that’s really rare.”

Tinsley Ellis the great interviewee often fills interviewers up with many stories. His first experiences listening to B.B. King. His love of touring and the challenges to be faced. But, Tinsley hasn’t always discussed his early days in Atlanta.

“I was born in Atlanta and my dad moved us when I was like 2 years old down to South Florida. So I actually grew up in Broward County area, Hollywood, Florida. Came back up here (to Atlanta) to go to college in 1975. I was also kinda fleeing the Disco of South Florida. Disco music was kinda taking over, I kinda fled that to come up hear. Of course Disco followed my right up here (haha). In South Florida I saw B.B. King a number of times. I saw Howlin’ Wolf in concert and Muddy Waters. But you had to be like a famous Blues artist to get all the way to the bottom of South Florida. In Atlanta it was a little more on the circuit so I got to see a lot more people.”

“In Atlanta I started playing. You know Southern Rock is my only birthright I’ve got, so playing in bands doing Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker type music. They’d always let me do like “The Thrill is Gone” or something like that, sneak ‘em in you know. Then in the late 70’s, out of college I was able to join a band that was already going called The Alley Cats. I joined that band around the same time (bassist) Preston Hubbard joined the band. He was from Providence (Rhode Island) and he had been in Roomful (of Blues), he met a woman from Atlanta. We started touring and Preston schooled me on traditional Blues that he had learned from Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl. I still have in my basement cassette tapes Duke Robillard made from Preston. That’s how I learned a lot of Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and stuff that I was not really exposed to.”

image“We toured the East Coast. (Hubbard) left and joined the Fabulous Thunderbirds and I got with a band. There was a singer from Louisiana that had moved to Atlanta, he had lived in Boston for awhile, named Chicago Bob Nelson. He and I formed a group called The Heartfixers and that’s when I started makin’ albums it was 1981. Chicago Bob left The Hearfixers and we rediscovered Nappy Brown the old Blues singer. Did an album with Nappy Brown and toured Europe and toured America with Nappy Brown. Then around that time I started noticing: where did all the Heartfixers go? They had all been replaced by other people and I was like the last guy in the band (chuckling). So I started performing under my own name. That’s when I got with Alligator records in the late 80’s, 1988. Getting with Alligator Records was the turning point in my career. You know I’ve always had my best success on Alligator.”

Tinsley’s story, continuing on to Chicago, is another area he hasn’t often shared. Tinsley paints a vivid picture of late 80’s early 90’s Chi-town and the vibrant community that surrounded Alligator Records.

“I had just signed with Alligator records. We were based out of Chicago mainly in the late 80’s, early 90’s because now so much of our work was in Chicago. A Lot of people in Chicago, the musicians, were like ‘who is this young hippy whose been signed by the Blues label Alligator Records? You know what are they doing? There are so many great Blues artists in Chicago they should have singed. And who’s this hippy?’ And the first people who were really nice to me were Lonnie Brooks and his sons Ronnie Brooks and Wayne Baker. They always have a special place in my heart. They sat in with me and then gradually I began sitting in with the other Blues artists up there like Albert Collins and Otis Rush and Son Seals and Buddy Guy. So it took me a second but I really feel a kinship with Chicago.”

“We lived up there in a hotel called The Heart of Chicago. It was right out of something like in the Blues Brothers movie. Cars driving by the window a foot away from the bed. Screeching on the breaks you never know when a car is gonna come through the window or something (chuckles). Walking around the neighborhoods up there. I was a hanger-on at Alligator Records much like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf or Willie Dixon hanging around Chess. I was hanging around Alligator. It was really a great scene. And damn the sad thing about it is all those people I was hanging around with there Koko (Taylor) and Lonnie Brooks and Otis Rush and Son Seals, they’re all gone. It’s just a shame but you know the whole next generation with Ronnie and Wayne. So the music lives on and with Lil’ Ed of course. He’s one of the few artists, maybe the only artist, who’s still around from when I got there on Alligator. It was a great scene. I’m so glad I was part of a community while it was still goin’ on. Yeah it was a special time for me.”

When you listen to Tinsley’s play his guitar there are many influences wrapped into his distinct style. For this listener’s ears the influence of Freddie King is paramount. The way Tinsley attacks his phrases, the way he finishes his bends, even his choice of guitar, all drip with the Texas Cannonball’s genius accomplishments.

“I’m not old enough to have heard Freddie King like when ‘Hideaway’ was on the radio a lot. I got into Freddie King because in the early 70’s when he was recording the albums that King Curtis produced I think they were Capital maybe (they were on Cotillion a subsidiary of Atlantic Records), he was on a PBS special. It was a transition between his early years with the pompadour and the instrumental songs and then the Leon Russell period where he’s playing arenas. This was a PBS special I think it was called Soundstage and I watched that and I was like ‘who is this guy?’ Because you know that would have been around 1971 or 1970 maybe. I saw him on there and it just blew me away, connecting the dots. He was the guy who wrote the song on the John Mayall album ‘Hideaway,’ and Clapton doing ‘Have You Ever Loved a Woman.’ And all of a sudden it seemed like okay then this is a guy that’s the missing link between Blues and Rock.”

“When I started playing more Blues in the shows that I was doing in the bar bands in the late 70’s I found that the Freddie King songs always went over great. Especially those instrumentals – ‘The Stumble,’ ‘Hideaway,’ ‘San-Ho-Zay,’ and ‘In the Open.’ We did all those songs. You know vocally not as easy to pull off, what a singer he was. I’ve always done his songs on my albums. In fact the very first Heartfixers album that we did in 1981, we did ‘I Love the Woman’ which was coincidentally his first 45, maybe even the flip side of ‘Hideaway.”

image“I still bring his playing into everything I do. The attack. He used a metal finger pick and a metal thumb pick. So he always had that attack. He could sort of form the metal claw when he played. He played at a 100 watt level which means he played a (Fender) Twin Reverb type amp. It was very clean, almost no distortion really, just clean and in your face. Coincidentally I’m such a Freddie King fan that I use a metal guitar pick. And when Gibson did a run of 200 Freddie King reissue guitars I bought one of the 200. It’s almost too nice to play. I used it on my albums and I’ve only brought it out once to play in public. But it’s a reissue of his red 1960’s Gibson ES-345, the one he’s pictured with on Freddie King Gives you a Bonanza of Instrumentals. So I bought one of those and I use the metal guitar pick so that puts me right in the Freddie King fanatic territory.”

Tinsley was searching for that Freddie King sound even before he bought that reissue. The number 1 guitar in his arsenal is a sunburst ES-345 with the Varitone switch. For those of us who are not familiar, the Varitone switch is a special circuit added to the ES-345 signal that allows the player a number of different tone options. As Tinsley explained to Premier Guitar’s Ted Drozdowski (https://youtu.be/IM3QmEns2Wc) it is impossibly hard to replace but well worth the hardship in tone variation.

“I got that guitar because the very first Blues show I saw was B.B. King in North Miami Beach in the early 70’s and B.B was playing the big hollow-body with the Varitone switch on it. I’ve gotta have one of those. First I started with a cherry read 335 but I wanted the Varitone switch so I could get tone that he got on Blues is King is very wonderful live album with the Varitone and the reverb. That’s probably my main guitar. If I was flying to do a festival that’s the one guitar I would bring. It’s very similar to the reissue Freddie King one.”

Being a proud Atlantan, Tinsley is deeply influenced by the Allman Brothers. “The Allman Brothers reclaimed the Blues crown for America” Tinsley proudly asserts. “Prior to that it was all about Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Cream. You know Hendrix and the Allmans bring our music back to us.”

“Well they were the local band growing up when I was a teenager. I never got to see Duane Allman, I just missed him. But I saw them right when Chuck Leavell joined the band. I’ve got every damn thing they’ve done. Growin’ up as a fan, then Dicky Betts would start sitting in with us and I sat in with the Greg Allman Band. Finally I got the big opportunity to open up for them and sit in with the Allman Brothers band on a number of occasions. If someone had told me that when I was a teenager I’d have thought they were really pulling my leg. (chuckles) Yeah I’ve been really blessed being able to record with their members. Chuck Leavell is such a big part of my biggest album Storm Warning. And that was Derek Trucks recording debut, that was 1994 and he was only, I think he’s only 14 years old then. They’ve been very nice to me and I sure miss ‘em.”

Although the Allman Brothers have factored into Tinsley’s music throughout his career, his 2022 romp Devil May Care is an explicit love letter to the Allmans. This love letter was also given the stamp of approval by one of the more dedicated Allman fanatics, and pretty a fantastic player in his own rite.

“When the pandemic hit and I went into total songwriter mode I found myself listening to even more of their recordings from the Duane and the Chuck Leavell eras. Then I found that I had a nice collection of those style songs. Let’s face it I’m never gonna be Muddy Waters, I’m never gonna be Freddie King, the only birthright I’ve got is to play Georgia music and I feel real natural doin’ it. I brought that up to Bruce Iglauer and he let me take a chance and get the album very much in the Allman’s spin or flavor. Turns out it hits a real sweet spot with Blues Rock fans. I’m not trying to be something I’m not, you know.”

image“Half the album is definitely channeling their sound. I even launched a preemptive strike and sent it to Warren Haynes cause I didn’t want him to think I was rippin’ them off. He called it an homage and I took that as a very nice compliment. One thing that’s great about Warren he’s played in so many different types of groups. And he will talk about the Allman Brothers Band ad infinitum about who played what guitar on what song and stuff like that. What a great wealth of information he’s been and what a great passion he has for their music as well.”

Tinsley Ellis is a prolific songwriter. Clever and witty, Tinsley writes songs that are personal and relatable, about life and love, hardships and victories. Bringing a craftsman discipline, Tinsley has a process.

“Songwriting is very much my passion. There’s really no such thing anymore as like a Blues songwriter, like somebody who does that exclusively. Blues songwriters also perform and they’re band leaders and do different projects. Songwriting is something I can’t really do in conjunction with touring. So right now, (off the road) I’m totally in the songwriter mode. Which means in the morning I get up, I’m an early riser, I also stay up late, but I get up early. I get a cup of coffee and I go down stairs and I fire up my recording studio. Then I work on songs that I’ve got that are partially written or if I’m looking for inspiration I’ll play some music. You know some Leon Russell or Freddie King or Peter Green or Sam and Dave. I hopefully get inspired to write, but sometimes the inspiration doesn’t come but it’s great havin’ it downstairs. I actually did some this morning.”

“I’ve really only got one song that was ever a Blues hit and that was “A Quitter Never Wins” which Johnny Lang sold like 2 million copies of. It’s also on the new John Mayall album. You know John Mayall got me into this whole Blues thing to begin with. When I heard he was doin’ that song I cried because he’s like royalty. He did a very beautiful version of it on his latest CD (The Sun is Shining Down).”

In 2013 Tinsley participated in Blues at the Crossroads, a legendary line up of Blues greats who “busted (Tinsley’s) balls” because he was the “kid.” Don Wilcock’s 2018 Blues Blast interview with Tinsley hilariously details this fantastic tour, https://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/tinsley-ellis-mojo-in-the-morning/. Born out of Blues at the Crossroads, a new tour is being planned for late next year or early 2024.

“I’ve got several very exciting projects in the works and you’ll get the scoop on them actually. In addition to me being out there playing in my usual band format I’m going to be part of a tour. It’s a tour that celebrates the 3 Kings: B.B., Albert and Freddie. Guess which King I’m gonna be? (pause) Freddie King. Although I’m no Freddie King I’m gonna do my best. Coco Montoya and Ronnie Baker Brooks are gonna be the other 2 kings. With Coco focusing on Albert and Ronnie focusing on B.B. and then all of us jamming at the end. It’s gonna be a very big festival performing arts center tour. I’m very excited about that.”

Tinsley Ellis is as important a modern Bluesman as there is today. Although he would certainly demure from the compliment, Tinsley is a Bluesman. The Blues come in many forms and are open hearted enough to embrace all types of expression. With his relentless commitment and his effervescent presence, Tinsley is one of the torch bearers. Constantly pushing, Tinsley is continuing to move forward and challenge himself and he shows no signs of turning down his energy or his volume.

“I haven’t done this in many years, I’m going to do a solo acoustic shows called Tinsley Ellis: Acoustic Songs and Stories. Cause I love to talk. I’m gonna do some Delta Blues on my 1937 National Steel and I’m bringin’ my Martin D-35 out. I’ll be doing some songs that I have recorded and written, doing them acoustically. Maybe talkin’ a little bit about how I wrote the songs. Then tellin’ some stories, some of them ribald, tellin’ stories of the road. And then doin’ whatever the hell I want to do. Maybe throw in a Bob Dylan and a Gregg Allman song or a Buddy Holly or Leo Kottke. But a lot of it is gonna be me talking, cause I like to talk and people like that. You know I’m not goin’ soft on yah I’m trying something different. It’ll be rockin’ acoustic. Venues have told me to turn down no matter what my delivery system. I think what they’re tellin’ me is turn down the vibe (strain in his voice). You know it’ll be rockin’.”

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