Interview with Tinsley Ellis, an uncompromising artist with talent, integrity and devotion to the Blues Rock

"Blues is my biggest love but as a Georgia native, it’s my birthright to play Southern Rock."

Tinsley Ellis: Southern Crossroads

Tinsley Ellis is a Blues Rock musician, who grew up in southern Florida. His love for electric blues grew by listening to British Invasion bands. Inspired by a live appearance by B.B. King, he was determined to become a blues guitarist. In 1975, he played with the Haygood Band while attending Emory near Atlanta. Two years later, already an accomplished musician, he returned to Atlanta and joined his first band, The Alley Cats. Ellis graduated from Emory University in 1979 with a degree in history. In 1981 he formed The Heartfixers, with the singer and harmonica player Chicago Bob Nelson. The group recorded three albums for the small Landslide record label, one with the singer, Nappy Brown before breaking up in 1988. In 1988 Ellis signed a recording contract with Alligator Records.

His debut solo album on Alligator Records, Georgia Blue, was released in 1988. Alligator then reissued two of his earlier CDs, Cool On It and Tore Up (featuring Nappy Brown). Ellis' next four releases were Fanning the Flames (1989), Trouble Time (1992), Storm Warning (1994), and Fire It Up (1997). Artists including Peter Buck (of R.E.M.) Derek Trucks and Chuck Leavell joined him in the studio. He worked with record producers, Eddy Offord and Tom Dowd.

Ellis shifted to Capricorn Records in 2000 and released Kingpin. In 2002 he joined Telarc Records, producing two CDs: Hell or High Water and The Hard Way. All the while Ellis never stopped touring. He returned to Alligator Records in 2005 with the live album, Live! Highwayman. In 2007 he released the studio album, Moment of Truth, followed in 2009 with Speak No Evil. Ellis continues to tour over 150 nights a year around the world. He has shared stages with Warren Haynes, Widespread Panic, Allman Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Thackery, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, Son Seals, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins and Buddy Guy. 

Tinsley Ellis, one of the premier electric blues guitarists of his generation and a certifiable master of the genre, has recorded an all-instrumental album, "Get It!" with release day at March 19.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe your philosophy for the music and what characterizes the sound of Tinsley Ellis? 

Bruce Iglauer at Alligator Records best described what I do as “guitar driven blues rock”

"Blues & Southern Rock came from the Deep South and spread out worldwide" - "Blues culture & Southern Sound have their roots in the American South."

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and songwriter?

I’ve had many personal challenges in my life, all of which have inspired the lyrics and mood of my compositions.

Some music styles can be fads but the Blues music is always with us. Why do think that is? 

Because it’s honest and emotionally intense.

What does Blues and Southern Rock mean to you & what does offered you? 

Blues is my biggest love but as a Georgia native, it’s my birthright to play Southern Rock

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Recording with producer Tom Dowd in 1996 was the best. When record label Capricorn records went out of business in 2000, right when my album for them had just come out was the worst.

Which memory from the Alley Cats and the late Chicago Bob Nelson & Heartfixers makes you smile?

The Alley Cats opening for Rory Gallagher for 2 nights in 1979 ... and Heartfixers first shows in New York City in 1983 after releasing live at the Moonshadow on Landslide records.

"I think the early years on the road with the Alley Cats and the Heartfixers were the most fun. We made no money but made some great music." (Photo: The Heartfixers)

What are you miss most nowadays from the 70s and your first steps in music?

People went out and heard live music more then.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

The digital era has made it too easy for people to get recorded music for free.

Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most? Which meetings have been the biggest experiences? 

BB King - who I met when I was 14. He stood in the lobby and greeted all his fans as we left the concert.

What is the line that connects the legacy of Southern Rock with Blues and beyond?

Both music forms came from the Deep South and spread out worldwide.

What from your memories and things (photos, records etc.) you would put in a "capsule on time"?

Photos performing with the legends of the blues (Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Lonnie Mack, Allman Brothers, etc.) all my albums that I’ve recorded. My 1959 Fender Stratocaster.

"I’ve had many personal challenges in my life, all of which have inspired the lyrics and mood of my compositions."   (Photo: Tinsley & Albert Collins)

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why? 

I think the early years on the road with the Alley Cats and the Heartfixers were the most fun. We made no money but made some great music.

From the musical and feeling point of view what are the difference and similarities between “Get It” and the past albums?

Obviously the biggest difference is that its an all instrumental album. The guitar playing and style of music however is very similar to all previous albums.

Do you know why Southern sound is connected to the Blues culture?

Because both have their roots in the American South.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

Yes. And that is why I label my music Blues Rock.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you? 

John Hammond told me in 1982 to play under my own name and not a band name.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Me on stage with everyone smiling in the audience and on the bandstand.

Tinsley Ellis - Official website




Sound the trumpets, roll out the barrel and spread the news! Tinsley Ellis, one of the premier electric blues guitarists of his generation and a certifiable master of the genre, has recorded his first all-instrumental album, Get It! After making his bones with Atlanta’s legendary Heartfixers in the early eighties as the heir apparent to Freddie King, Ellis bolted in 1988 to go solo and cut a broad swath through the second blues revival and beyond with 11 singular disks.

 Ellis is a deeply expressive, soulful vocalist and his “voice” is everywhere in the guise of his guitar on the eight original tracks and two hip covers, in addition to the bass on five numbers. Kevin McKendree (keyboards), Lynn Williams (drums) and Ted Pecchio (bass) provide grease, groove and gusto throughout as Ellis rejects gratuitous flash in favor of brilliantly composed riffs, melodies, and a wide range of rich, sensuous tones. “Front Street Freeze” lays on the loose-limbed funk while containing a stinging homage to Albert Collins on a Strat and an old school swirling Leslie that sounds new. “Singing” with nuance over a slinky minor key R&B vamp, Ellis flexes his musical muscles in between memorable saucy motifs on “Sassy Strat.” Gorgeous, heart-rending lines seem to appear out of the ether on the tender ballad “The Milky Way” that channels a bit of Duane Eddy and a big dipper of Ellis for an emotional experience not soon forgotten. A hip cover of Bo Diddley’s 12-bar “Detour” finds Ellis “jive talking” with his iconic 1967 ES-345 and the Leslie on a variety of Diddley-isms embellishing his own scenic audio journey off the beaten path.

 The dramatic ballad “Anthem for a Fallen Hero” features a soaring tribute to Roy Buchanan with Ellis expending every ounce of his considerable passion on a Les Paul and an Echoplex as he builds to a climax worthy of the late, lamented and immortal guitar hero. After emotionally draining the listener dry, Ellis comes back swinging with the title song, a back-snapping Texas shuffle with shades of classic Lone Star string slingers from Gatemouth Brown to SRV filtered through his slippery vibrato and unerring, sinewy phrasing. Driving blues-rock with McKendree laying down a fat bed of acoustic and electric keyboards pumps up the volume for Ellis to punish his wah pedal with rambunctious howls on the relentlessly surging “Fuzzbuster.”

 Down shifting dynamically, Ellis presents a fitting version of the Texas Cannonball’s ballad, “Freddy’s Midnight Dream.” Equally confident in every blues-based style, he is particularly adept at finding the expressive core of ballads and plumbing their profound depths. “Berry Tossin’” acknowledges the father of rock ‘n’ roll with a bluesy shuffle sporting a musical stew of Chuck’s unique licks spiced with a dash of Freddie the K that is a required curriculum 101 for guitarists and a treat for all fans. Closing with the sweetly melancholy “Catalunya,” Ellis crafts an evocative paean to the Catalonia region with idiomatic riffs and melodies that could be rightly called his “Sketches of Spain.”

 Tinsley Ellis has created a modern masterpiece with equal appeal to guitarists and all music fans. By opting for pure, classic tones on a selection of axes straight into a Fender Deluxe with few effects for a sound depending more on his heart, mind and fingers rather than technology, he has turned steel strings stretched across a wooden body into an electric magic wand to cast a timeless musical spell. An uncompromising artist with the talent and integrity to back it up, he remains the epitome of taste, tone and technique.

 Dave Rubin, KBA recipient in Journalism


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