Largely responsible for keeping the blues alive in Atlanta in the 1980s, guitarist Tinsley Ellis has a new CD, Tough Love, on his own label, Heartfixer Music, which he and his band will debut Saturday night in his annual concert at the Variety Playhouse.
An Atlanta native who grew up in Florida and then moved back to attend Emory University, Ellis received a degree in history, but his heart was in playing music. One of his first jobs was in a cover band that played several times a day at Six Flags Over Georgia. Ellis soon burst upon the Atlanta blues scene with the Alley Cats. He formed the Heartfixers in 1981, and has reached an iconic status as the city’s leading blues/rock export.
In the month dedicated to hearts and love, ArtsATL sat down with Ellis just before his new CD’s reveal for a heartfelt discussion about Tough Love — both relating to the CD and its title’s translation in his personal life, his lifelong love affair with the blues and the special place Atlanta holds in his own heart.
ArtsATL: I heard you were seven years old the first time you held a guitar. Who put it into your hands and why do you think they did it?
Tinsley Ellis: It was my parents. I begged them after I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. I became captivated after seeing the people screaming and hearing the twang of the music. I begged and begged for a guitar. So, they rented me one. I took a few lessons and learned about five traditional songs. Then, after that, I released myself under my own recognizance. And from that point on, I became what you’d call “self-taught.” I know nothing about written music.
ArtsATL: Did you know at that early age of seven that you wanted to be married to music?
Ellis: I think so. My parents certainly hoped I’d outgrow it, but I never did. [chuckles] I’m 57. I’ve been at it for 50 years now. Wow, that just came to me as I’m sitting here with you at this table. That’s wild and also a little scary.
ArtsATL: When was the first time you heard the blues?
Ellis: B.B. King was playing at the Marco Polo Hotel in North Miami and my dad took me and some of my friends to see him. I was 14 years old. And he blew me away. I had been listening to the music of bands like the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, Cream, Beatles, Creedence Clearwater — which are all bands who were playing a lot of blues — but when I saw B.B. King, it became defined for me.
It was a magical moment. After that show, I really had no interest in music that didn’t sound like B.B. King, or the blues. And you know, he was so cool because after the show, he came into the lobby and spoke to all the fans. He spoke to each and every one of us. That really made an impression on me, too.
ArtsATL: Your name, Tinsley, sounds so showbiz. From where did the name come?
Ellis: It’s a family name. I got it from my grandmother. My full name is William Tinsley Ellis Jr, and my dad, who will look forward to reading this interview, is William Tinsley Ellis Sr. I guess it does sound like I could have made it up. Then again, come to think of it, all names are made up by someone. But my name’s a family one and you know that’s a “Southern thang.” [chuckles]
ArtsATL: Your new CD, Tough Love, has been very well received and is gaining high acclaim. Take us through your creation process in recording it.
Ellis: Thanks. I did all the songwriting in my little studio in Tucker and also worked in my basement on the music. When I had enough songs, I whittled down the selection to about 30 songs, and then I took that on down to 10 songs. Then we went up to Nashville and recorded with Delbert McClinton’s band and just knocked it out. This one just kind of flowed right out of us. It’s the third album I’ve done with those guys and the third album on my own label.
ArtsATL: There are many references about love throughout this CD. Why did you choose the title Tough Love?
Ellis: I was going over some names with some friends and one of them said, “What about Tough Love?” And, I thought that’s about honesty and telling somebody something they need to hear, maybe more than something they may want to hear. But, also, I think I chose the name because the blues can be tough and the lifestyle of the musician can be tough and tough to love — just look at the battered guitar on the front cover. [chuckles] You know, you never saw the Monkees or Beatles setting up their equipment or breaking it back down at three in the morning, or staying four to a hotel room. They never show you all that stuff. It’s a tough business. So, all of that has also gone into this CD’s name.
ArtsATL: Are you good at administering tough love?
Ellis: Absolutely not. I’m the worst at tough love and delivering the bad news to people. So, this title is strangely ironic as it relates to me with that meaning.
ArtsATL: “Seven Years,” the first track off your new CD, is a song with some serious lyrics about the heartbreak of infidelity. When you placed that as the opening song, were you thinking that a lot of people could relate to the preverbal, seven-year itch when they heard it?
Ellis: Well, that old adage is definitely what the song is about. And sadly, it’s about someone who acts on that seven-year itch, and in doing so, throws away an entire life for one night. I questioned whether I should open the CD with that song because of it possibly being a downer or it having negative content. But, you know, that gets right back to the truth. And the song is about a harsh truth and this CD is about truth, and because of that, it actually ended up fitting perfectly as the opening song. I did follow it with “Midnight Ride” — a fun and upbeat tune. [chuckles]
ArtsATL: This CD definitely encompasses a lot of variety. Was that by design?
Ellis: I wanted to have the CD mirror my musical tastes, which are varied, much like my album collection. I’m about the blues, but also I’m about rock. I always loved it that Allman Brothers would engage such a variety of blues, rock, jazz and a little psychedelic. I think I learned from them that offering your audience variety was a real good thing. So, yes, you could say it was by design.
ArtsATL: Some of the biggest names in the business — Widespread Panic, the Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, John Hiatt, just to name a few — invite you to join them onstage. What’s it like to get onstage with people like that?
Ellis: Because the Allmans and Widespread Panic play long sets, I’m always conscious of jumping in cold after they’ve been playing for a long time and not being warmed up. I don’t want to risk having someone in the audience turning to their friend and saying, “Man, you or I could do a better job than that.” I just want to give them my best and that usually means playing on the blues songs. It’s a real joy to play with them. They are folk artists — which is the highest compliment you can pay an artist because they play to a segment of the population but they aren’t necessarily going to be seen on late night TV with their hit albums.
Colonel Bruce Hampton is a great example of a folk artist, too — just in it for the love of the music. And if that’s anything, it’s honest. I have a lot of respect for that. The thing is, when any musician invites you on their stage to play, they want to shine the light on you. So, it’s a delicate balance of not trying to overdo it, but yet, also respecting that light they are trying to shine on you. You’ve got to find a sweet spot and the sweet spot is waiting till you’re called to solo, and then just really going for it. And that’s what I try to do — just try to go for it when they shine the light.
I was just in Hawaii and was asked to come up on stage with Elvin Bishop. But when I got up there we realized there weren’t enough amps on stage. We were one short. So, Elvin unplugged and let me play and he just played air guitar. I thought that was pretty darn nice of him.
Ellis: B.B. King. Although I’ve toured with him many times and he’s introduced me from the stage, I’ve never gotten to play with him. And let’s face it, for all of us who sing and play guitar, he’s the last man standing. They’re not making any more B.B. Kings. Anytime I’ve ever been sitting with him in his presence, I’ve felt like I’m before the Dalai Lama or something. He’s so filled with greatness and humility. He makes a point of making each and every person around him feel special. He always asks them what they are doing. He never talks about what he’s doing. I’ve learned a lot from that man. He’s an amazing person.
ArtsATL: What three things must be present in any music to tantalize Tinsley?
Ellis: Honesty, soul and melody. Those three things are most important to me. I love melodic music, you can’t get too far without honesty and you’ve got to have soul. James Brown said soul is being comfortable with where you come from. I’ve tried slicking my hair back and wearing leather, but now I just go for comfort, like with this flannel shirt. I don’t really have a wardrobe onstage.
ArtsATL: You and John Bell (Widespread Panic) could be bringing flannel back?
Ellis: Well, it’s awfully comfortable to hang out in. [chuckles]
ArtsATL: You’re producing your own music. You have your own label, Heartfixer Music. Along the way, who most influenced your decision to produce your own music today?
Ellis: I’ve learned so much from each of the producers I’ve worked with because they showed me what my strengths and weaknesses are. I can remember everything Tom Dowd said. He was an amazing man, a genius. And he and I talked on the phone right up to his death. He was just full of fatherly advice. And speaking of tough love, he was truly the king of it. He spoke his mind. He didn’t pull any punches and I needed that.
Eddy Offord, another legendary producer, has also been an amazing presence and great guide. And I’ve been lucky to be with great record labels, as well. Bruce Iglauer, the president of Alligator Records, has been instrumental in the success of my business model. He’s another one who’s all about the tough love, giving it to you straight, delivering the bad news when the need calls for it.
ArtsATL: There’s that truth factor surfacing again. Could it be that it’s been there — in your music — all along the way?
Ellis: Oh yeah, for sure. The blues are about the truth, about mirroring life — the good, the bad, the ugly, the funny, the sad — and I think any kind of grassroots music does that, and I’m drawn to that. Some music wants you to just feel good, and keep you dancing and keep the party going. But the blues doesn’t do that. The blues just slaps you right across the face with the truth — no matter what. It just rips the Band-Aid right off, whether you’re ready or not.
ArtsATL: You graduated from Emory University with a degree in history. If you could hop into a time capsule and travel back in time, in what period of history might we find you?
Ellis: You know, I really wouldn’t go that far back. I think I’d go to the Fillmore East era of music where you’d look down at the playbill and see that there was a cool band playing and a cool band opening for them. I really wish you’d see more of that now. So, I’d probably just go take a visit to the early sixties.
ArtsATL: Jumping back to the future — on February 21, you’re going to debut Tough Love to a hometown crowd when you take the stage at the Variety Playhouse. How do you feel about that?
Ellis: I’m very excited about that. Atlanta is really important to me. Playing before the hometown crowd is always special, but to debut your new CD before the hometown crowd is just an extra special feeling. And I love the Variety Playhouse. It’s a great place to do it. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun that night.