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.
Feral blues guitar…non-stop gigging has sharpened his six-string to a razor’s edge…his eloquence dazzles…he achieves pyrotechnics that rival Beck and Clapton.” Rolling Stone
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.”
“His guitar playing is superb…He’s equally inventive in his songwriting and arranging. The guy is a monster. Hard-edged, beautifully produced blues with the energy of rock. Words can’t capture the presence Ellis’ music has. It grabs you by the lapels and demands to be heard.” Sing Out!
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 was by all accounts one of the best shows of 2013.