Travelin' Bluesman Tinsley Ellis
Travelin’ Man Tinsley Ellis‘ Total Recall tells the inside story of how his career began plus future predictions for the blues as a genre. The prolific southern blues-rocker is on top of his game today. But it wasn’t always that way.
Known as one of the best next generation blues-rock guitarists around, this busy southern man releases a new album annually. His latest Red Clay Soul, debuted as #1 on the June Living Blues Radio Charts.
On the road over 200 days per year includes a mix of criss-crossing the country as well as overseas. Taxing for some; impossible for most, this journeyman actually thrives on touring.
We caught up with Tinsley at the Iridium in New York for a one-on-one chat on his early years.
The Inside Back story
Tinsley started playing the Blues way before the resurgence of Blues music in the late ’70s to early ’80s. He was among the first of new generation musicians to come on the scene. This new crop of Blues cats included his friend Stevie Ray Vaughn, as well as Blues faves Robert Cray and The Fabulous Thunderbirds — to name a few.
I first met Tinsley in college in Atlanta, Georgia. He would play at our Fraternity House parties with a band called “The Alley Cats (1979-1981),” that included Preston Hubbard (The Fabulous Thunderbirds). We’d follow him around Atlanta at the local joints like Little 5 Points Pub and Moonshadow Saloon. I should point out that the drinking age was 18 back then, so no laws were broken.
Tinsley left The Alley Cats in 1981 to form his own band called “The Heartfixers (1982-1988).” He was joined by veteran Blues singer and harp player Bob Nelson, a/k/a Chicago Bob, who remained in the band through 1984. Like the Alley Cats, Tinsley and The Heartfixers were mainstays on campus and a fixture at all the Frat parties; even the Frat Formal off-campus. They were also fixtures at all the clubs around Atlanta, too.
First Racially-Integrated Blues Band in the Georgia Area
What most people don’t know is that during that time, Georgia and Atlanta, too, were still very much old south. According to Tinsley, “All the black bands were playing at their clubs, and the white bands were playing at their designated clubs.”
“Chicago Bob had a pedigree which no one else had and still has,” says Tinsley. He’s played with so many of the great Blues legends as Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Earl Hooker and Muddy Waters.
Tinsley and Chicago Bob made kick-ass traditional southern blues music together and made significant inroads in Atlanta and the entire Georgia area; despite the obstacles put in front of them.
“We turned a whole generation of college kids onto the blues dating from the late ’70s to early ’80s. Now, there’s a whole lotta people doing it.” — Tinsley Ellis
The Heartfixers went on to become Atlanta’s and the region’s number one blues band with four albums under their belt before disbanding. But, not before Tinsley made his vocal debut on album number two, Cool On It.
Shortly after in 1988, Tinsley signed with Chicago Blues label Alligator Records, which became the turning point in his career. That relationship proved very lucrative for them both, but not without its bumps in the road. Tinsley left the label at one point for a larger one, only to return again in 2011.
Tinsley’s career is well documented, so we won’t bore you with repeats. It is worth highlighting some of his and the world’s Blues Heroes that he has had the good fortune of playing with. Legends include Chicago Blues icons Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Son Seals, Correy Harris, Eddie Shaw, James Cotton, Otis Clay and more.
Flash forward to 2013 when Tinsley started his own label Heartfixer Music. A fitting name; a reminder of the band that truly started his rise to Blues hero. Hearfixer Music‘s first album was a Tinsley Ellis instrumental called Get It.
Ever since, Tinsley puts out one new album a year. “I notice the people who do it, seem to do better. I figure if I keep hammering the fans with new information and new material, it will work for me, too,” he says.
A personal highlight of his 40 year career of electrifying blues — joining the Blues at Crossroads 2013 Tour: A Tribute to Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. As the young southern rock guy on the tour, he strummed out licks with the likes of Bob Margolin, James Cotton, Kim Wilson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Jody Williams.
Socially Sparked News: There seems to be a resurgence and escalating interest in Blues music. Do you think the Rolling Stones Blue and Lonesome album has something to do with this?
Tinsley: It always helps when a band like the Rolling Stones give lip service to blues albums so that’s gonna help it. Kinda’ thing happened when the Blues Brothers did their movie and all of a sudden the blues spiked up in pop culture.
Socially Sparked News: What’s your take on the Stones’ blues album?
Tinsley: To me, they did it right. The first time, they were like kids. Now, they sound like old blues guys.
Socially Sparked News: The future of the Blues?
Tinsley: Compared to Muddy & Howlin Wolf, the new generation better step up to the plate, ’cause those guys are still unsurpassed. I understand why those guys still play Muddy Waters, Willy Dixon & Howlin Wolf songs…’cause it’s still so much better than what we’re doing now. We’re all really good, but those guy are like WOW.
Socially Sparked News: Their are rumblings that Shemekia Copeland is primed to be the next Koko Taylor, queen of the blues. What’s your take?
Tinsley: In my opinion, Koko, BB King and Muddy Waters — they came up from a whole different era. When they passed away, they kind of retired the title, ’cause those guys — especially BB and Muddy — they were undisputed.
Whereas if anybody would lay claim to that, it would probably be Buddy Guy and Shemkia Copeland. But, nobody’s come out and pronounced that, ’cause that’s a big claim.
Socially Sparked News: Maybe it’s Tinsley Ellis?
Tinsley: NO. (emphatically no). I am a Southern Blues-Rocker with Georgia Roots at my core. That’s my pedigree and how I prefer to be known.
Socially Sparked News: The future for Tinsley Ellis?
Tinsley: More songwriting & touring. Maybe getting some other acts on Heartfixer Music. Get some youngins starting out and help get them produced. I’d like to try to find somebody who is good enough to play with me; somebody I can mentor, and polish up my production skills, too. It’s a delicate balance. If I really liked an artist and want them to do well, I’d probably call Bruce (Iglauer) first and give it to Alligator rather than trying to do it myself.
Tinsley Ellis’ blues highway continues. — Abbe Sparks is Socially Sparked. @sosparkednews
Tinsley Ellis Live at the Iridium 2017
Originally published in 2017 in Socially Sparked News.