Sound the trumpets, roll out the barrel and spread the news! Tinsley Ellis, one of the premier electric blues guitarists of his generation and a certifiable master of the genre, has recorded his first all-instrumental album, Get It! After making his bones with Atlanta’s legendary Heartfixers in the early eighties as the heir apparent to Freddie King, Ellis bolted in 1988 to go solo and cut a broad swath through the second blues revival and beyond with 11 singular disks.
Ellis is a deeply expressive, soulful vocalist and his “voice” is everywhere in the guise of his guitar on the eight original tracks and two hip covers, in addition to the bass on five numbers. Kevin McKendree (keyboards), Lynn Williams (drums) and Ted Pecchio (bass on 1, 2, 5, 9 and 10) provide grease, groove and gusto throughout as Ellis rejects gratuitous flash in favor of brilliantly composed riffs, melodies, and a wide range of rich, sensuous tones. “Front Street Freeze” lays on the loose-limbed funk while containing a stinging homage to Albert Collins on a Strat and an old school swirling Leslie that sounds new. “Singing” with nuance over a slinky minor key R&B vamp, Ellis flexes his musical muscles in between memorable saucy motifs on “Sassy Strat.” Gorgeous, heart-rending lines seem to appear out of the ether on the tender ballad “The Milky Way” that channels a bit of Duane Eddy and a big dipper of Ellis for an emotional experience not soon forgotten. A hip cover of Bo Diddley’s 12-bar “Detour” finds Ellis “jive talking” with his iconic 1967 ES-345 and the Leslie on a variety of Diddley-isms embellishing his own scenic audio journey off the beaten path.
The dramatic ballad “Anthem for a Fallen Hero” features a soaring tribute to Roy Buchanan with Ellis expending every ounce of his considerable passion on a Les Paul and an Echoplex as he builds to a climax worthy of the late, lamented and immortal guitar hero. After emotionally draining the listener dry, Ellis comes back swinging with the title song, a back-snapping Texas shuffle with shades of classic Lone Star string slingers from Gatemouth Brown to SRV filtered through his slippery vibrato and unerring, sinewy phrasing. Driving blues-rock with McKendree laying down a fat bed of acoustic and electric keyboards pumps up the volume for Ellis to punish his wah pedal with rambunctious howls on the relentlessly surging “Fuzzbuster.”
Down shifting dynamically, Ellis presents a fitting version of the Texas Cannonball’s ballad, “Freddy’s Midnight Dream.” Equally confident in every blues-based style, he is particularly adept at finding the expressive core of ballads and plumbing their profound depths. “Berry Tossin’” acknowledges the father of rock ‘n’ roll with a bluesy shuffle sporting a musical stew of Chuck’s unique licks spiced with a dash of Freddie the K that is a required curriculum 101 for guitarists and a treat for all fans. Closing with the sweetly melancholy “Catalunya,” Ellis crafts an evocative paean to the Catalonia region with idiomatic riffs and melodies that could be rightly called his “Sketches of Spain.”
Tinsley Ellis has created a modern masterpiece with equal appeal to guitarists and all music fans. By opting for pure, classic tones on a selection of axes straight into a Fender Deluxe with few effects for a sound depending more on his heart, mind and fingers rather than technology, he has turned steel strings stretched across a wooden body into an electric magic wand to cast a timeless musical spell. An uncompromising artist with the talent and integrity to back it up, he remains the epitome of taste, tone and technique.
Dave Rubin, KBA recipient in Journalism
Tinsley Ellis wears his Southern roots proudly. Born in Atlanta in 1957, he grew up in southern Florida and first played guitar at age eight. He found the blues through the back door of British Invasion bands like The Yardbirds, The Animals, Cream, and The Rolling Stones. He especially loved the Kings — Freddie, B.B. and Albert. His love for the blues solidified when he was 14. At a B.B. King performance, Tinsley sat mesmerized in the front row. When B.B. broke a string on Lucille, he changed it without missing a beat, and handed the broken string to Ellis. Tinsley’s fate was sealed; he had to become a blues guitarist. And yes, he still has that string.
Already an accomplished teenaged musician, Ellis left Florida and returned to Atlanta in 1975. He soon joined the Alley Cats, a gritty blues band that included Preston Hubbard (Fabulous Thunderbirds fame). In 1981, along with veteran blues singer and harpist Chicago Bob Nelson, Tinsley formed The Heartfixers, a group that would become Atlanta’s top-drawing blues band. Upon hearing Live At The Moonshadow (Landslide), the band’s second release, Washington Post declared, “Tinsley Ellis is a legitimate guitar hero.” After cutting two more Heartfixers albums for Landslide, Cool On It (featuring Tinsley’s vocal debut) and Tore Up (with vocals by blues shouter Nappy Brown), Ellis was ready to head out on his own. Ellis sent a copy of the master tape for his solo debut to Bruce Iglauer at Alligator Records. “I had heard Cool On It,” recalls Iglauer, “and I was amazed. I hadn’t heard Tinsley before, but he played like the guys with huge international reputations. It wasn’t just his raw power; it was his taste and maturity that got to me. It had the power of rock but felt like the blues. I knew I wanted to hear more of this guy.”
Georgia Blue, Tinsley’s first Alligator release, hit an unprepared public by surprise in 1988. “It’s hard to overstate the raw power of his music,” raved Chicago Sun-Times. Before long, Alligator arranged to reissue Cool On It and Tore Up, thus exposing Tinsley’s blistering earlier music to a growing fan base. Tinsley’s subsequent releases — 1989’s Fanning The Flames, 1992’s Trouble Time, 1994’s Storm Warning, and 1997’s Fire It Up — further expanded the guitarist’s hero status. By now his talents as a songwriter equaled his guitar prowess. Guitar World said, “Ellis stands alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter, and that ain’t just hype.” Guests like Peter Buck (R.E.M.), guitarist Derek Trucks and keyboardist Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones) joined him in the studio. Producers Eddy Offord (John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Yes) and the legendary Tom Dowd (The Allman Brothers, Ray Charles) helped Ellis hone his studio sound. His largest audience by far came when NBC Sports ran a feature on Atlanta’s best blues guitarist during their 1996 Summer Olympic coverage, viewed by millions of people all over the world.
A move to Capricorn Records in 2000 saw Ellis revisiting his Southern roots with Kingpin. Unfortunately, the label folded soon after the CD’s release. In 2002, he joined the Telarc label, producing two well-received albums of soul-drenched blues-rock, Hell Or High Water and The Hard Way. All the while, Ellis never stopped touring. “A musician never got famous staying home,” he’s quick to note. Ellis’ 2005 return to Alligator, the searing guitar-fueled Live-Highwayman, was the live recording his fans had been demanding for years. Chicago Tribune said, “incendiary live performances, inspired, original and funky.” Then followed two more studio albums on Alligator - Moment Of Truth (2007) and Speak No Evil (2009).
Averaging over 150 live shows a year, Ellis has played in all 50 states, as well as Canada, Europe, Australia and South America. Whether he’s out with his own band or sharing stages with major artists like Buddy Guy, The Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule or Widespread Panic, he always digs deep and plays, as Guitar Player says, “…as if his life depended on it.” Ellis' most recent tour with Blues At The Crossroads II: Muddy & The Wolf with the Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring Kim Wilson, James Cotton, Jody Williams and Bob Margolin continues on the West Coast this March.