By Franklin Abbott
Tinsley Ellis remembers the mid-70’s to be a great time for music in Atlanta. He was still a college student when he heard B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters at the Agora Ballroom and the Southeastern Music Hall. A decade before he had seen the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and begged his parents for a guitar. The music of the British Invasion was heavily infused with the blues and Tinsley lived (and still does) in Georgia where he says, “the blues has got soul.” Ellis also spent his formative years listening to Otis Redding, Ray Charles, James Brown and the Allman Brothers. He has spent the last forty years on the road playing the blues. He quotes one of the original blues players, Robert Johnson, when asked what the blues is, “if it feels like the blues then it’s the blues.”
Ellis is not only excited by traditional blues but is inspired by younger artists including The Black Keys and Susan Tedeshi. He says about good music, “you know it when you hear it.” He composes his songs in just that way. He says he has to “hear it in my head first,” often while driving down the road. He will then sing the melody into the recorder on his cell phone and play it back later “to see if I still love it.” Ellis says he can’t write on command, “it just happens when it happens.” And he adds, “I can’t tell somebody else’s story.” When he gets excited about a song he works on it in his Tucker studio. He collaborates with other musicians and sometimes brings in song finishers to augment.
Recordings supplement Ellis’ career as a musician who makes his living on the road. In the past forty years he has traveled over a million miles crisscrossing the US and performing abroad. He says his audiences energize him. He has been touring many years with the same band. He says they play now mostly in concert venues and festivals in big cities where there is an appreciative audience of blues lovers. It is hard work getting up early to set up, do sound checks and after the show, get maybe eight hours of sleep in a hotel before getting up and starting over again. He says a life on the road requires him to be flexible, roll with the punches (and the weather) and stay in shape so he is healthy enough to do it.
According to Ellis, blues performers get better as they get older. He quips, “I’m rarely entertained by virgins.” One of his role models, Muddy Waters, said as he aged, “my best years are ahead of me.” Ellis concurs. He feels that he has grown both in skill and depth over the years. He says blues, “holds up a mirror to life” and from his years of composing and performing he has a greater sense of what life is. His music is “not the music of youthful rebellion.” His new album “Red Clay Soul” is about life’s lessons learned and in the blues vernacular, sometimes the hard way.
Ellis’ shows are a mix of electric and acoustic elements but always central is his guitar driven blues rock. His show will include songs from his new album and hits from his previous 17. He is hopeful that his music continues to touch his audiences. He says, “there is a fine line between trying to hard a giving up.” Ellis has been walking that line for forty years and his fans keep walking it with him. For a sample of his virtuosity:
Ellis and his band will be at The Variety Playhouse, this Saturday, Feb. 4. For tickets and information, visit variety-playhouse.com.
Franklin Abbott is and Atlanta psychotherapist and writer.