Tinsley Ellis’ career as a bluesman started in a hotel lobby. A fan of British invasion acts like the Beatles, Cream, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, Ellis was told by the older brother of a friend that he needed to hear B.B. King play. King, the older brother said, was the reason the British invasion rockers knew their way around a guitar.
It just so happened that King was going to be playing a series of six shows in a nearby hotel, so Ellis asked his dad to take him and some friends to see the legend. It turned out to be the pivotal moment in his young life as a musician.
“I remember that it was Saturday afternoon,” Ellis told me in a recent phone interview. “B.B. King was playing a teen show that day. They shut the bar down and sold soda pop to the kids. I sat right up in the front row, and B.B. King just blew me away. He showed me where people like Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton came from. After that, I was a huge fan. I was bitten by the blues bug, and I went to see as many blues shows as I could.”
Ellis, who performs July 7 in Glover Pavilion in Warsaw’s Central Park as part of the city’s free Blues and BBQ Concert, always knew he wanted to be a guitar player. It was all he ever wanted to do, but after high school his parents insisted he attend college, so he enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta where he studied history, minoring in late nights and blues clubs.
“I’m very grateful to my parents for sending me to college,” he said. “It’s paid off in lots of ways, of course, although sometimes I’ll admit I feel a bit like an educated fool, someone who thinks he knows a lot but really knows nothing.” He laughed and continued, “Let’s just say I got out of there by the skin of my teeth. I was no honors student, because I was playing so much and spending lots of my nights in clubs instead of studying.”
The playing out paid off. As part of the Haygood Band, he cut his teeth and found his sound. It wasn’t easy, though. He struggled just like any young musician trying to make his way.
“I started on the road almost 40 years ago,” he said. “It was hard at the beginning. There was a lot of sleeping on people’s floors, making nothing, not knowing where my next gig would be.
In the late 80s, his career really took off. That’s when he signed with Chicago’s Alligator Records and put out the first of many critically acclaimed albums, 1986’s Cool on It, with the Heartfixers, his band at the time. Tours of the U.S., Canada and Europe followed. Also, believe it or not, a chance to open for his hero and idol, B.B. King.
“I toured with him several times,” Ellis said. “He was always very nice to me. We would sit and talk for long periods of time, and he gave me advice. He was like a grandfather to me. I know the blues will survive and blues-influenced music will always be good, but we really lost something when we lost B.B. King.”
Ellis, now 60, is doing his part to keep the blues alive. Over the years, he has served as a mentor to a number of performers, including Derek Trucks and Jonny Lang. In the case of Trucks, that story unfolded a little like Ellis’s encounter with King. Trucks’ father brought him backstage at one of Ellis’ shows, and Ellis talked with the boy, encouraging him to keep playing, to keep honing his craft. When Trucks was a young teen, Ellis brought him up on stage to play with the band. And Ellis wrote a song for Lang, who recorded it in his teens. Ellis has a good relationship with both men, who’ve made names for themselves as the next generation of blues aficionados.
“Derek always invites me to sit in and play with him, and he tells people I gave him his start, which is great. And Jonny is always kind and appreciative,” Ellis said.
“I really feel like there is a certain amount of apprenticeship in the blues. The older guys have an obligation to counsel the younger ones, and the younger ones often surpass us. Us older guys, of course, hope they don’t forget us.”
Ellis put out 12 albums on the Alligator label before breaking with them in 2013. The split was an amicable one. Ellis wanted to record an instrumental album, but Alligator wasn’t biting, so he produced Get It! under his own label, Heartfixer Records, and he’s been an independent artist ever since. His most recent effort, 2016’s Red Clay Soul, is a thematic tribute to the state of Georgia, where, Ellis said, “the blues got its soul.”
“In Red Clay Soul I’m exploring the roots of me and my band. We’re doing more of the music of the region where a long time ago Ray Charles and Otis Redding and James Brown got their start, spilling over to the more contemporary rock backs like the Allman Brothers and Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
In his four-decade-long career, Ellis has had a chance to play with a veritable who’s who of the blues and rock world, including the Allman Brothers, Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Albert Collins. He tours constantly to keep his fan base strong and his skills sharp, and he’s also no stranger to the studio. He already has a new album in the works that should drop in January. He said it’s a bit of a throwback to his days at Alligator. More rocking, a bit of a scorcher.
“We’re still throwing around titles at the moment. One thing I know for sure. It won’t be called An Educated Fool. I’ll save that one for later.”