Blues guitarist plugs in, makes pleasing sounds: Tinsley Ellis wonders if he needs to do more to get recognized
No one could blame Tinsley Ellis for wondering what a bluesman has to do to become a superstar.
Sure, he’s a guitar hero to blues fans but the mainstream public always seems to be just out of reach and out of earshot.
It’s not because of the sound or the volume. Those amps can’t be turned any louder.
Ellis has been close to stardom on a few occasions. There was the 1994 album “Storm Warning,” loved by critics at Rolling Stone. In 2000 there was the chance with the big-time record company, Capricorn.
Then there was the appearance on the “David Letterman Show.” Well, make that a near appearance. Ellis’ band was one of three playing in New York City and was considered to perform on the nationally televised show. He was denied, and watched the group that was picked instead of his band.
“It was god awful and I never heard of the person again after that,” Tinsley said. “But they were on a big, giant record label and we were not.”
The 50-year-old guitarist, who also is a prolific lyricist, continued in the true blues self-deprecating form by saying, “I don’t know how to buy into success but it’s probably something I can’t afford. I’m not sure how to make the next step. I just know if I don’t keep going around and performing then I definitely won’t have a chance at it.”
Ellis was speaking on the telephone from his home in Atlanta. After the conversation, he said he was going to his studio to put down a new song he had just come up with, then he would head to Spokane, Wash., for a show that night and begin another tour.
He’ll be touring a lot this year, promoting the new CD, “Moment of Truth.” It’s a soulful celebration of the blues guitar and what some critics are calling his best album since 1994’s “Storm Warning.” Perhaps it’s his best ever.
Ellis has returned to his former record label, Alligator, on which he has seven albums.
“Their expectations are realistic,” Ellis said. “The major labels, they’re all about having a hit song. That’s the problem with the major labels. They expect results, big results and within six weeks. There’s no nurturing. At the age of 50 I’m still being nurtured. It’s been a long, hard climb to the middle.”
The timing wasn’t good for Ellis at Capricorn, which was working with groups such as 311, Cake, Widespread Panic and The Allman Brothers.
“I just got lost in the shuffle,” he said. “When it wasn’t a hit right off the bat they moved on to the next thing.”
Alligator lets its artists’ music stand on its own merits, and “Moment of Truth” stands tall.
Ellis discovered music during the British Invasion and the Beatles on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. He was artistically influenced by the original rocking jam bands of Cream and The Allman Brothers and was flat-out changed for life at the age of 14 when he saw B.B. King. King, in fact, broke a guitar string and handed it to the teenaged Tinsley during the concert.
Ellis plays authentic blues with an electric rock ‘n’ roll base. His aggressive approach to the songs on his new album contrast to his demeanor off stage. He’s well known in the blues circle and gets plenty of airtime on satellite radio and locally on KTHX-FM.
“Moment of Truth” features a variety of guitar styles, including a brilliant Buddy Guy-style anthem “Bringing Home The Bacon” and the closing “Shadow of Doubt,” which — get this — is acoustic.
“There are a lot of different guitars and a lot of different amps,” Ellis said. “There’s not a lot of special effects but just some quirky little things like the wah-wah peddle.”
A studio freak, Ellis could be the hardest working bluesman today.
“I was sending songs up to (Alligator Records in) Chicago and they were giving me either a thumbs up or a thumbs down,” he said. “Some songs I had to fight for and some songs they were really hot for. After about 50 or 60 songs, we narrowed it down to 10, and then there’s the two covers that we had to decide on as well. There was a lot of weeding out on this particular album.”
The non-originals are Tinsley’s unique versions of “I Take What I Want,” the first single released by Sam and Dave, and the aforementioned “Shadow of a Doubt,” penned by songwriting “Svengali” Gary Nicholson.
Knowing he likely won’t get the chance to perform his music before a national television audience, Ellis, as always, is hitting the road, taking the music directly to the people. All of his travel time gives him opportunities to reflect on why the mainstream hasn’t recognized and embraced the blue-guitar virtuoso. Perhaps, he ponders, he should break out of his musical box and do something outlandish to grab some headlines.
“People do wild stuff and then they get written about,” Ellis mused. “Just to get written about for just making music, that’s quite a feat nowadays. That’s a real dog-bites-man thing: Guy plugs in, plays and makes pleasing sounds. Is it newsworthy? What else did he do? Did he run somebody over? How many DUIs has he gotten? You’ve got to have all sorts of wild stuff. So I don’t know.
“Somewhere between me saying wild stuff and making good music is where I need to be.”
Q & A with Tinsley Ellis
When he was 14 years old, Tinsley Ellis was handed a broken guitar string by B.B. King, who was performing a concert for teens in Miami. From that moment, Ellis’ destiny was set. The blues rocker spoke from his home in Atlanta by telephone with Lake Tahoe Action’s Tim Parsons before heading out on tour. He said he will perform songs from his new album, “Moment of Truth,” and his 2005 CD “Live – Highwayman” at his two shows Monday and Tuesday, July 30-31 in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Red Room.
Action: Blues has always been your thing, hasn’t it?
Ellis: It really speaks to me. It’s earthy and there’s not a lot of synthesizers. It’s natural music.
Action: But you come at it from a rock point of view.
Ellis: It’s the mixture of the blues that I love and the rock ‘n’ roll that is my heritage, Allman Brothers and Cream and people like that and walking the fine line between the two. Coming to it from 1968-69 in terms of the music that I like to listen to. Early Fleetwood Mac, Cream and obviously The Allman Brothers being from down here in Georgia.
Action: Everybody’s a jam band nowadays, but The Allman Brothers were the original jam band, don’t you agree?
Ellis: Well, The Grateful Dead came a little earlier. And Cream. I prefer those jam bands, but that’s just me – I’m a geezer.
Action: You are always touring. Does that help your songwriting?
Ellis: When a song comes to you, it comes to you. You could be in the shower or when you’re driving a van or it could be in the middle of the night. It just comes to you. You can designate time for songwriting but I’ve never had that work. That’s like something they do in Nashville where they have songwriter appointments. Have your manager call my manager and we’ll have a songwriter appointment. And that’s what those songs sound like. As opposed to getting out on the edge with it — scribbling it down on an airsickness bag on a flight from Brussels to Copenhagen.
Action: Is “Bringing Home The Bacon” an homage to Buddy Guy?
Ellis: Thank you. Somebody else from a blues magazine totally missed the mark on that one. It’s so obviously a Buddy Guy rip-off that anyone who knows anything about modern blues couldn’t think otherwise.
Action: Buddy Guy just came through Tahoe. He was a really nice guy.
Ellis: Did you get to interview him?
Action: I did. It was a real highlight for me. It was amazing.
Ellis: How about that. He’s like maybe second in line to king of the blues.
Ellis: After B.B. King, of course. The undisputed king of the blues, B.B. King.
Action: That must have been cool when he handed you that guitar string.
Ellis: It really was. And we get the chance to do shows with him now and I remind him of that incident and he always pretends to remember. That’s what he’s best at – pretending to remember everybody who says, “I met you at …” And then he will go “Oh, yes.” He’s the master of that.
Action: Is the blues healthy today?
Ellis: It was healthier before when we had bonafide heroes like Stevie Ray Vaughan who were leading the way in selling millions of albums and talking about Buddy Guy and Otis Rush and Albert Collins in every interview. But he’s gone and there doesn’t seem to be anybody whose doing anything near that well now. But we still have good people now. Keb Mo is very good; and Buddy Guy. But that sort of crossover type thing that’s going to attract new people to the music, I don’t see that. Somebody may come out every once in a while like a Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Johnny Lang, and they’ll have a good amount of success with bluesy music and then they sort of abandon it on their second album.
Action: Yeah, Lang was going to be the next big thing.
Ellis: He’s shifted gears and he certainly has the right to do that but it happens so many times with people in blues. They get a hit song and then they abandon the genre totally. Stevie Ray Vaughan was an exception to that. He’d do his blues music but then he’d continue to do Buddy Guy and Otis Rush and Albert Collins and Lonnie Mack songs, Albert King.
Action: Which do you prefer, the studio or live shows?
Ellis: When you play live everyone applauds and they give you money. When you make an album everybody criticizes and they take money. So it’s kind of a no-brainer.
Action: You had a short run with a big record company.
Ellis: The major labels, they’re all about having a hit song. That’s the problem with the major labels. They expect results. Big results, within six weeks. There’s no nurturing. At the age of 50 and I’m still being nurtured. It’s been a long, hard climb to the middle.
Action: That’s sounds like a title for a new song.
Ellis: I think it is. I think I’m going to go work on that.