STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For 21st Century Media
Tinsley Ellis is one of the finest blues guitarists around. And though you may not have heard of him because he’s not as well-known as other contemporary blues artists such as Derek Trucks, he’s garnered a loyal fan base over the past 30+ years of touring and recording.
Ellis just released his latest CD, “Midnight Blue” (Heartfixer Records, 2014), the second album on the record label that he started last year. It features his trademark smokin’ guitar and some of his finest vocal stylings to date. He brings his trio back to Sellersville Theater for what will be another exciting show.
The album of 10 original songs is a mixture of traditional blues and also has some elements of the music that Ellis grew up with.
“The common denominator of the whole thing is the guitar. The guitar playing doesn’t change from song to song, just the structure of the song may change. Hopefully I’m finding my own voice on my instrument after all these years,” says Ellis, during a phone interview from his home in Atlanta.
Ellis, like many musicians who were born in the 1950s, was inspired to play music when he saw The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show. And it was through other British Invasion artists that he discovered some of his own country’s blues greats.
“I loved all kinds of music with twangy guitar sounds, like The Beatles and Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival,” recalls Ellis. “It’s a natural progression from that to the roots of twangy guitar sounds, which would be early blues music…”
It was an encounter with B.B. King, when Ellis was 14 and at his first-ever concert, that inspired him to become a professional blues musician.
“That’s when he broke a string and I reached up and he gave it to me. It was really an amazing thing for me.”
That’s when “it all came together for me,” continues Ellis. “It was a combination of (King’s) friendly demeanor and the sound of the music. And it gave me a good role model for an entertainer (to experience King’s) accessibility with fans and just being on tour and putting out album after album after album.”
Ellis, who was born in Atlanta and grew up in south Florida, returned to his birthplace in 1975 to escape the music scene there.
“Bands like KC and the Sunshine Band – there was one of those on every block down in south Florida. I pretty much thought that was only going on down there, and I ran away from it, and it kind of followed me up here, too. It was a real down time for blues music. There really was not a big blues scene (in Atlanta) throughout the ‘70s, which was dominated with a lot of disco music and things like that. Of course we had southern rock, but by the time I got here that was becoming somewhat passé.
“I played (in) all kinds of horrible cover band–type situations. I was even in a band that played music by — for a bluesman unthinkable acts like KISS, Foreigner (and) Styx. I played all kinds of stuff like that.”
Yet Ellis seized the opportunity that he was given.
“I always found a way to sneak my blues guitar playing into songs like that. I was called out for not playing songs the right way. And then they’d let me sing a song like “The Thrill is Gone” by B.B. King or some James Cotton or Muddy Waters songs.”
That led to a stint in a “bona fide blues band,” The Alley Cats, and later The Heartfixers. After toiling on the circuit for over a decade, Ellis got his first big break when he signed with Alligator Records.
“It remains the biggest turning point in my career because I was able to play anywhere because I was on the same record (label) as people like Koko Taylor and Albert Collins and Johnny Winter and Roy Buchanan, all these people I really idolized.”
Ellis is probably best known for his song that was covered by then-teen Jonny Lang.
“(Jonny) came to one of my shows and we sat backstage and he asked me to show him one of the songs I had done, and I sat there with him and he played some guitar and I played some guitar and that sort of personal interaction — very similar to me and B.B. King…” led to Lang recording “A Quitter Never Wins,” which is on Lang’s debut album “Lie to Me” (A&M, 1997).
“It’s that personal touch that really helped with Jonny Lang and that song. That’s my claim to fame. I look at his face every day because I’ve got a platinum album hanging up in my living room. I owe a great debt to that young man.”
Ellis adds “I’ve done that once and I’ve got to do that again to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. I’m hoping something like that will happen with one of the 24 songs that I’ve released on (Heartfixer).”
Yet Ellis knows that it’s not typical for blues musicians to reach superstar status, and that’s OK for him. He feels fortunate to have a career doing what he loves.
“The blues world is not something that finds a lot of common ground with pop culture… It’s a niche audience, but one thing I like about the audience is they’re … very passionate and very loyal. And (they) still come to the concerts at any age. If you think about stuff that might be trendy, people don’t tend to go with their parents to those types of concerts, whereas for a guitar music show or a blues show you see three generations of people going.”
He adds: “I travel all over the world. We’ve played in Russia. We’ve played in South America, all over Europe and Australia and every state in the United States and all over Canada. I see a lot of stuff going on (and it) really makes me feel blessed to have a job and to have a standard of living that I have and play nice places like Sellersville Theater. I can think of all the dumps that I’ve played over the years, so coming to play there is certainly something to be grateful for. They treat you like an artist.”
The show at Sellersville will feature material from “Midnight Blue” as well as “Get It!” (Heartfixer Records, 2013), his previous album of instrumentals, and also some cuts from his career retrospective live album “Live! Highwayman (Alligator Records, 2005).
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Tinsley Ellis
WHERE: Sellersville Theater, 24 W. Temple Ave., Sellersville.
WHEN: Sunday, Aug. 10, at 7:30 p.m.
TICKETS: $19.50 and are available at www.st94.com or by calling (215) 257-5808.