Tinsley Ellis shed blood en route to blues mastery



By Steve Newton

Like many of today’s top blues-rock guitarists, Tinsley Ellis was hugely influenced by the six-string action of the early Rolling Stones. He recalls being particularly entranced by the fretwork of Brian Jones on the Stones’ 1965 cover of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster”.

“I heard that sound and I went and practised until my fingers bled,” recalls Ellis from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. “And then somebody told me he was using a slide, so that helped out quite a bit.”

Ellis can afford to make light of his youthful misadventures on guitar, because over the last 22 years he’s released 10 albums that have earned him praise as a virtuoso picker, the kind Guitar World magazine claims “stands alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter, and that ain’t just hype”.

Well, maybe a little hype. Ellis’s latest album, Moment of Truth, is no Texas Flood or Still Alive and Well, but it is a workmanlike effort that proves he knows his way around the fretboard of a cranked Les Paul (like the beauty he’s shown wielding on the CD’s back cover). He wrote 10 of the disc’s 12 tracks, which range from southern roadhouse boogie to steamy, Gary Moore–style workouts.

“In the mid ’90s I started writing most of my material,” explains Ellis. “I had a song on the [1994] Storm Warning CD that was covered by Jonny Lang, and he sold a couple of million copies of it, which really got me attention on a number of different levels.”

It was the then-teenaged Lang’s widely heard cover of Ellis’s “A Quitter Never Wins” that boosted the latter’s confidence in his songwriting abilities. In his own teen years, Ellis had been heavily influenced by the three Kings—Albert, Freddie, and B. B.—and it was during an all-ages show by B. B. King in Miami Beach that he experienced an unforgettable guitar-hero moment.

“He broke a string during a song and handed it to us at the front table,” recalls Ellis, who still keeps his portion of the string at home, taped to a picture of the Mississippi blues great. He doesn’t spend that much time gazing at the precious strand of metal, though, because he’s usually out making a living on the road.

“There’s not a large city on this continent that I haven’t played in,” Ellis claims, while admitting that he hasn’t performed in Vancouver since a jazz-fest appearance back in 1995. He’s thrilled to be returning, though, and also pleased to be back on Chicago-based Alligator Records, the label he left in 1997 and—after brief stints on Capricorn and Telarc—returned to in 2005.

“They are the label to be with if you’re a blues act,” he points out, “and I found that out the hard way—by leaving! But I’m back now, so all is good.”

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