Atlanta guitar hero Tinsley Ellis on covering Leon Russell, adoring Eric Clapton, and listening to Tom Dowd

By Steve Newton

The last time yours truly interviewed American blues-rocker Tinsley Ellis was 10 years ago, when he called the Georgia Straight in advance of a gig at the Yale Hotel, Vancouver’s top blues venue for decades. Sadly, the Granville Street joint hasn’t been a real home of the blues for years now, a fact not lost on Ellis, who plays Vancouver’s Rio Theatre tonight (February 18).

“Aw, we miss the Yale,” he says, on the line from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. “I actually played [Vancouver] a few times since then in different places, and whenever we play it’s almost a reunion of people that used to come and see me at the Yale. We have been fortunate to have moved up to where we’re playing more theatres, but the shows become somewhat of a reunion for places that are no longer there.”

Ellis—who released his debut album, Georgia Blue, 30 years ago—is touring behind a new disc called Winning Hand that showcases his smokin’ hot guitarwork and impressive songcraft. The only tune he didn’t write on the 10-track disc is “Dixie Lullaby”, a song from Leon Russell’s self-titled debut of 1970.

“I wanted to do a Leon Russell song ’cause we lost him a year or two ago,” explains Ellis, “and he was my biggest songwriting influence. He had produced albums by people like Freddie King and Jimmy Rogers, so we did it in the tradition of the Freddie King albums that he produced.”

Since turning pro in 1977, Ellis has wowed blues fans far and wide with his intense six-string skills, leading Rolling Stone magazine to proclaim that “he achieves pyrotechnics that rival early Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.” And speaking of Clapton, that’s the name that immediately pops up when Ellis is asked which guitarist he’d most like to jam with, if he could choose anyone in the world.

“He’s an old favourite of mine,” says the 60-year-old picker. “I got onboard with him—and I’m sure you did too—when Cream came out. They were just so great. And through that I got into Derek and the Dominos, and his solo stuff. So I was such a big Eric Clapton and such a big Allman Brothers fan, I figured that if I wanted to get that sound, I better get their producer. So we were able to have Tom Dowd produce one of my albums.”

Legendary knob-twiddler Dowd—a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee noted for his work with everyone from the Allman Brothers to Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin—produced Ellis’s 1997 Fire It Up album, one of the bluesman’s top sellers.

“He would talk about Derek and the Dominos,” recalls Ellis, “and he’d talk about the Allman Brothers, and he’d talk about Cream, and he’d talk about Aretha Franklin. I’d listen to him tell so many stories we had a hard time getting to the album ’cause he was so full of stories.”

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