B.B. King’s busted guitar string becomes treasure for Tinsley Ellis

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 19, 1992

By Steve Newton

When one of your biggest idols gives you a souvenir—whether it be a quickly scribbled autograph or a worn-out guitar pick—that thing automatically becomes priceless. I’ve got a two-inch mirror badge that Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham gave me during my first backstage visit in ’78, and lemme tell ya—that wee chunk of glass seems more precious every time I look at it.

Atlanta blues guitarist Tinsley Ellis can relate to that feeling because when he was just 14, he scored front-row seats to see B.B. King, and when the big man broke a string on his beloved Lucille, he reached down and handed it to the awe-struck Ellis. It’s been a prized possession ever since.

“I was looking at it just the other day!” says Ellis. “It’s not the whole string, it’s just like a few inches of it, but I can remember that show. And  I can remember just after that, where I saw Howlin’ Wolf open for B.B. King, and that was probably the best blues show I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Growing up in Miami, Ellis was also inspired by the southern rock bands that toured in his vicinity, in particular the Allman Brothers. He vividly recalls being blown away by keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who also played with the Rolling Stones on their massive Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tour. So it was a special treat when Leavell offered to spread his keyboard wizardry all over Ellis’s new album, Trouble Time.

“I’d always been a fan of his,” says Ellis. “I mean he played with the Allman Brothers when he was 18 years old, on that Brothers and Sisters album. And then I was a big fan of his band Sea Level, which was out of Macon, Georgia. We met and talked a few times, and I’ve always wanted to work with him, so it’s just one of those dream-come-true kinda things, musically, for me.”

The other Ellis dream—of having Leavell in his touring band—almost came true as well.

“We had talked about it, and right after I thought maybe he would do it he got a call, and he’s been with Eric Clapton ever since. I just got a postcard from him and he’s with Eric Clapton and George Harrison in Japan! So he’s really in demand. But if you ever meet him, he’s just the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet.”

Ellis also got some heavyweight instrumental help on Trouble Time from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who stopped by to play acoustic rhythm guitar on “Sign of the Blues”, a tune Ellis wrote with Savoy Brown guitarist Kim Simmonds. Ellis says he was a big fan of British blues in its heyday, but admits his real attachment is to Chicago blues, as is evident from his version of Magic Sam’s “What Have I Done Wrong?”

“Magic Sam was one of my big influences,” claims Ellis. “I even strove for the same instrumentation as him for a while in my band—guitar, bass, drums, and sax. ’Course now it’s guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards—a little more Freddy King-oriented.”

Vancouver blues fans would do well to check out that sound for themselves when Ellis brings his band to the Town Pump this Friday and Saturday (March 20 and 21). Ellis’s anticipation of his first Vancouver show—and the fact that tickets are less than 10 bucks—bodes well.

“Blues stars from all over the world have always told me I needed to play in Vancouver,” says Ellis, “so here I come!”

 

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