Tinsley Ellis still a blues powerhouse after all these years
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Blues guitar ace Tinsley Ellis can’t recall every time he’s performed in Knoxville, but one in particular stands out — mostly because it seems every time he comes back here, he runs into another fan who remembers it.
Feb. 5, 1984 at the Alumni Memorial Gym on the University of Tennessee campus — he’s got a poster promoting the show hanging in his house. And it never fails, he told The Daily Times this week — any time he plays the East Tennessee area, as he’ll do on Saturday night at “The Shed” at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson in Maryville, he’ll run into someone else who claims they were in attendance.
Of course, the reason it’s such a well-remembered show is because of the other act on the bill that night: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble.
“We were on tour with him, and he was just staring to take off,” Ellis said. “They’d just put out the ‘Texas Flood’ album, and he was on fire. I remember there was a big snowstorm in Knoxville, and the description on the poster says, ‘A new guitar legend in the tradition of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.’”
A lot has changed in the 27 years since that night. Admission for the show was $5 for UT students and $7 for the general public; Vaughan died in a 1990 helicopter crash; and Ellis, who’s still going strong, has ridden out the crest of the blues-rock phenomenon and is still working hard to call attention to the fact that he’s every bit as talented as the young guy for whom he opened all of those years ago.
It’s not easy, but given his longevity and all the work he’s put in to date, there’s little else that Ellis could ever see himself doing.
“All I can say about the past 27 years is that it’s been a long, hard climb to the middle,” Ellis said. “The blues was on fire then, and now it’s just kind of regular. But these things happen, and I’m fortunate to be grandfathered in. It would be very tough starting out right now, and I’m not really sure I’d want to do it.”
Fortunately for blues lovers, he did do it — starting out at the age of 7, when he first picked up the guitar as a child growing up in South Florida. At first, he churned out the hits of British Invasion groups like The Yardbirds, Cream, the Stones and The Animals; by 1975, he’d dug a little deeper and uncovered the direct influence of the original blues masters on their British protégés.
The three Kings — Freddy, B.B. and Albert — all found a place in his repertoire, along with music by Otis Rush and Magic Sam, and not long after, he hooked up with the Alley Cats, playing with Preston Hubbard, who would go on to join the Fabulous Thunderbirds. In 1981, Ellis formed The Heartfixers with veteran blues singer and harp player “Chicago” Bob Nelson. A deal with Landslide Records earned Ellis national acclaim, moving to Alligator Records in 1988, recording three records, including the critically acclaimed “Storm Warning.” It featured appearances from Allman Brothers guitar virtuoso Derek Trucks and the Rolling Stones’ Chuck Leavell and was described by Rolling Stone magazine as “one of the best blues albums of the 1990s.”
After one album for Capricorn and two for Telarc, Ellis returned to Alligator in 2005 with a live album; his most recent, “Speak No Evil,” has been described as the most guitar-driven album of his long career. His playing is better than ever, and the songs cut with all the pleasure and smoothness of a newly sharpened straight razor fresh off the strop.
“It’s sort of more like the live show than any other record I’ve done since the live one,” he said. “It’s really stripped down, just the three of us with the addition of Delbert McClinton’s organ player. I’ve found less is more when it comes to what I like to do with my songs. For the most part, it’s very similar to what they’d see if they came out to the live show.”
To assemble it, he and his band gathered in his studio outside of his hometown of Atlanta, working through the 50 songs Ellis had written and narrowing them down to the best 12. What didn’t make the cut got shelved; there’s always the chance he’ll revisit, rework and record them down the road. It’s a process that’s worked well for years, he said, and it seems to pay off if the reviews of his work are any indication.
“It’s really nice when you get a really great review in something like Rolling Stone or The New York Times or something like that, and it feels that hole, that void — then all the sudden you’re hungry again for it,” he said with a laugh. “It’s never enough. And of course, the bad ones are entertaining, too.”