It seems like yesterday when Tinsley Ellis was a young baby-faced blues hipster in snakeskin slippers who ripped out guitar riffs on his Fender Stratocaster, Atlanta’s answer to Stevie Ray Vaughn. Today, Ellis is 60 years old and a member of the Old Guard in the blues guitar world.
Ellis has returned to Alligator Records, the most prestigious blues label in existence, for his 16th solo album, Winning Hand, which comes out this Friday. And he kicks off a three-month North American tour that same night at the Variety Playhouse.
He grew up in south Florida and was inspired to become a guitarist when he saw B.B. King perform. Influenced by Freddie King, the British Blues Invasion and the Allman Brother Band, Ellis moved to Atlanta to attend Emory University, but instead of pursuing a law degree after graduation, he formed The Heartfixers with singer Chicago Bob Nelson and led the way to revitalize the blues scene in Atlanta. In an era of punk rock and disco, Ellis made it cool to be a blues guitarist and has become the most significant blues artist to emerge out of Atlanta since Blind Willie McTell.
After dipping into soul-flavored sounds with 2016’s Red Clay Soul, Ellis returns to hard-edged blues/rock for Winning Hand. He calls it his “mid-life crisis” album, and it was recorded in the wake of the deaths of his father (to whom the album is dedicated) and his close friend and mentor, Colonel Bruce Hampton, along with friends Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band.
ArtsATL recently sat down with Ellis as he awaited the release of Winning Hand and prepared for his most substantial tour in 20 years.
ArtsATL: You began your career at a time when playing blues guitar was about the least hip thing a person could do.
Tinsley Ellis: I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time. It looked like it was all going down the tubes when Stevie Ray Vaughn came along. It was a climate where you turned on the radio and you’d hear “She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby, synthesizers and funny haircuts. It was a real low for guitar. Then “Pride and Joy” burst over the airwaves in 1983. All of a sudden, all the guitar magazines were putting blues guys on the cover. He held the door open, and we all walked through the door behind him. And no one has held that door open since him. We’ve had some promising people, but no one has held that door open where blues music spikes into the pop culture. We could use another Stevie Ray Vaughn. It takes somebody with the pizzazz of Stevie Ray Vaughn and youth.
ArtsATL: I remember seeing you perform at the Moonshadow Saloon back in 1983. Instead of a guitar cable, you had a wireless system on your guitar, which was cutting edge at the time, and did a long solo where you strolled through the crowd and even walked outside into the parking lot.
Ellis: That was literally opening the door [laughs]. We’d never seen a wireless transmitter on a guitar before. Usually, you’re cabled to your amplifier. Being able to walk through the audience brought the music out to the people. I was so much younger; I’d get up on their table, chug their beer and play slide with the empty bottle. I found that Heinekens worked best for that, and it was a great way to get free beer.
I kind of started with a wild act, wild clothes and a lot of hair, and I had all kinds of get-ups and stuff. And then when I got with Alligator in 1988, it turned more into being about the music. I’d made enough of a name for myself by doing the wild man act that I was able to make it more about the music.
ArtsATL: What was your attitude going into this album?
Ellis: I’d done some theme albums on my own label. I’d done an instrumental album, Get It. And I’d done Red Clay Soul last, which was kind of a homage to Georgia music, Southern rock and soul music — less of a guitar-oriented album. On this album, I just wanted to rock, and having just hit 60 years old, there’s probably a bit of a mid-life crisis going on to make a rock ’n’ roll, guitar-driven blues/rock album. I wanted to get back to the sound I had on Alligator when I was selling lots and lots of records. The goal is not to sell a lot of records, but to make fans happy. You can’t go wrong making an album for your fans.
So I made this rockin’ album, and lo and behold, not only do I return to the sound I had on Alligator, but it ends up coming out on Alligator.
ArtsATL: You also covered Leon Russell’s “Dixie Lullaby.” Why that song?
Ellis: Leon Russell is my biggest songwriting influence, especially the stuff he did with Freddie King. I said, “Let’s do “Dixie Lullaby” except let’s do it as if Freddie King was doing it on his Texas Cannonball album. The guys I use on the album are all from Delbert McClinton’s band, and they know all about Freddie King. So we did it as though it was a track on Texas Cannonball. Leon Russel was a big loss. To lose Leon Russell, Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks all within a short time, that’s a lot of loss. And before that, B.B. King. Since he died, there don’t seem to be many real blues artists left anymore. There weren’t that many to begin with. We have Buddy Guy, but B.B. King came from that Big Band sound, and nobody’s doing that except for Roomful of Blues. But B.B. King being the dude and the “King of the Blues,” you’ll notice they’re not declaring somebody else the “King of the Blues.” It’s like they retired the crown with him. They really did.
ArtsATL: That would be a hard label to live up to.
Ellis: Because it’s not just the music, it’s his whole persona. I spent a lot of time with B.B. King, and I’m sure that every time I saw him he didn’t remember me, but he gave me the impression that he knew who I was. But I know he didn’t because he meets so many people. He’d always go, “I know Tinsley” whenever I was introduced to him. He made you feel special, he really did. And rock stars in general don’t make you feel that way [laughs]. At least the ones I know. Except for Bonnie Raitt; she definitely has the vibe of B.B. King. When we opened for her, she had us up on stage taking a bow and stuff. She’s just a wonderful lady, the nicest rock star I’ve ever met. So maybe she’s the new B.B. King.
ArtsATL: You met him when you were a teenager. What was that experience like?
Ellis: The first time I met him, I was 14 or 15 when he played a teen show. He stood in the lobby and greeted all the kids. So I got the idea that all the blues guys were really friendly people. So the next guy I go see is Howlin’ Wolf, and he comes off the stage and he had just done this amazing set with Hubert Sumlin on guitar and Eddie Shaw on sax. I figured that B.B. King was so nice, that Howlin’ Wolf is going to be really nice, too. The closer I got to him, the meaner and more pissed off he looked. So I just took a hard left and went and got a Coca-Cola [laughs]. I never got to see Freddie King, my biggest influence.
ArtsATL: Another influence was the Allman Brothers Band, and you went on to sit in with them many times. We lost Gregg Allman last year.
Ellis: That was a rough one. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Gregg Allman on the radio; it was when the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East album came out. I was in a car with my dad. He was driving; I was too young to drive. I was probably 14. We were listening to WSAG in Miami, which was the rock station. And “Stormy Monday Blues” came on. My dad listened; he liked rhythm and blues and jazz. I didn’t know who it was until they announced after the song who it was; we were trying to decide whether it was a white singer or a black singer. And my dad said, “That’s really good.” And I said, “Isn’t that incredible?”
That was when I got up the courage to tell him what I wanted to do with my life. He’d always pushed me to go into his and my grandfather’s law firm. Hearing that song gave me the courage to break the news to him about what I wanted to do. And immediately, he told me it was a bad idea [laughs]. And until I got into the New York Times in the ’80s, he continued to say it was a bad idea. But when I made the New York Times, he came around.
ArtsATL: You also fell under the influence of Colonel Bruce Hampton and played with him in the group Stained Souls. How did that change you?
Ellis: Bruce Hampton broke up the Heartfixers because the Heartfixers were doing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Elmore James stuff. Then I played with Bruce, and we did these long jams, stuff that bordered on being noise, and I couldn’t really go back to playing normal, traditional music after that. He kind of ruined me. And my grandmother predicted that. She saw me play on public TV with Colonel Bruce in 1984. I was over at their house and it came on. And she said to me, “You’ve got to stop playing with this man; he’s going to ruin your career.” And in a way, he kind of ruined my idea of how to play. I was a blues purist before him, and afterwards, I realized it was okay to go completely “out.” That was his gift, to bring that out in players.
When I played with Bruce Hampton all those years, he never once told me what to play. He’s like the antidote to James Brown, where everything’s scripted. Bruce, you’d get up there and he’d pick the people he wanted to play with and just trust them to do what they do. And another thing with Bruce Hampton: I don’t think we ever rehearsed one time. We’d go play shows with people in the band I’d never met before.
ArtsATL: You performed at his birthday concert last May when he collapsed and died.
Ellis: I was at the concert; I played, but I left. They were playing “Jessica” — Chuck [Leavell], Warren [Haynes] and Derek [Trucks] — and I turned to somebody and said, “I think I’m going to go home. I don’t think it’s going to get any better than that.” And so I stayed a little bit and left, and I’m glad I didn’t have to be there and see my friend die. The concert was going so well. It was like what a dynamic, the best concert ever turning into the worst concert ever. That’s too much dynamics.
Every show I do, somebody talks about him. When I did the Blues Is Dead [Grateful Dead tribute] tour last year, we did “Turn On Your Love Light” and dedicated it to him, and people knew. Especially in Colorado. They never met him or knew him; he was like a myth to them, a legend.
Yeah, I’ve had a lot of losses lately. Butch Trucks, Gregg Allman, Bruce Hampton, within a very short time period. And we’re going to have more, I’m afraid. These are people who were friends. I guess that’s what growing old is all about. You grow older, and all of a sudden, where did everybody go?
ArtsATL: You’re about to embark on a three-month tour, which is not something you’ve done in a while.
Ellis: We’re doing 60-plus shows in 10 and a half weeks. So it’s five, six nights a week. We’re doing the entire country, and Canada — basically, North America — in a van. I haven’t done a tour like that in 20 years. I’ve done three weeks, five weeks, maybe six weeks. But not the full monty.
One of the reasons I wanted to be with Alligator Records is I know they’re going to promote the tour. And I want the record to have a chance. It’s a real special album for me, and I dedicate the album to my dad, too. That was another loss last year. It’s a really special record to me, and I want it to have a chance. That’s why I partnered with Alligator.
ArtsATL: You’ve had a long career but never a hit record. Ever curse the stars that you didn’t become The Next Big Thing?
Ellis: Years ago when Willie Perkins was my manager, he said, “The goal is not to make it big overnight; the goal is to sustain a career.” And that’s really hard to do. I’ve seen so many people burn out, either completely by dying or just giving up or you don’t know what happens to them. But I’ve seen them come and go, and that’s why I’m really skeptical when somebody says, “That’s the next big thing.” The problem with the next big thing is that it never is.
Like Willie Perkins says, it’s about sustaining your career. And I thought about that. At the time he and Alex Hodges were managing me, we were showcasing for all the major labels; I really wanted everything right then and there. And when I didn’t get it, I got really cross about it. Now, looking back, I can see what he was talking about. It really takes a lifetime to build a career as a roots performer. Buddy Guy started off being a sideman. He pretty much had to beg Chess Records to let him be a front man, and now he’s the Number One guy.
So it takes a lifetime. A lot of my friends I started out playing with, a lot of them weren’t blues artists, but they’ve gone on to bigger things. Peter Buck of R.E.M. and I hung out right here in this neighborhood in the ’70s. I was getting into blues, and he’d just heard a band called the B-52s, and he told me he was moving to Athens to get into the music scene in Athens and I was, like, well good luck! Widespread Panic, they were kicking around, and now they’re arena acts.
I don’t have that good fortune, but I do have what they have in terms of a long career. So do you want to get famous overnight and have it go away in a year? Or do you want to not ever really be famous but have a long career and play music. I’m going for the long career.
ArtsATL: The one time you signed with a major label, they released your album and promptly went out of business.
Ellis: Something like that is cosmically unique to roots performers. I think maybe there is a need for our work to remain confidential, fly under the radar. Because what’s the worst thing to happen to a blues act? A hit song. Then they start chasing the hits. I’m not going to name anybody, but you get a hit and then you start chasing the hit. I haven’t had that problem, and a lot of people I know have.
To keep the struggle alive is probably a good thing. You realize it’s not about a big record deal, it’s about going out and working hard. The music business is about five percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration, going out and rolling up your sleeves and doing it.
It takes a lifetime. But once you get there, the fans are so loyal. They’re not going to jump ship and go to something else, because they feel like they’re a part of it. I’m glad I chose the blues genre because it’s very forgiving. They don’t expect you to sell millions of albums. And the fans are very loyal.