ArtsATL > Music > Legacy Series: Atlanta blues guitar icon Tinsley Ellis and the art of giving back

Legacy Series: Atlanta blues guitar icon Tinsley Ellis and the art of giving back

It was a late night in the early ’80s, and a teenaged Michelle Malone was riding in a car going up Piedmont Avenue near Lindbergh Drive. Traffic began to come to a crawl as they approached a shopping center anchored by a music room called the Harvest Moon Saloon. “We got closer and all these cars were stopped,” Malone says. “And there was this guy with wild curly hair playing guitar out in the middle of the street.” 

As they passed him, she saw that he was standing on a little concrete island in the road with a crowd of people from the club standing on the sidewalk watching him, and she could hear music from a band inside bleeding through the walls. “I thought, wow, that is so bad ass,” Malone says with a laugh. “And I found out later it was Tinsley Ellis.”

What Stevie Ray Vaughn was to Austin, Texas in those days, Tinsley Ellis was to Atlanta. They were each part of a new generation of still unknown guitarists that included Johnny Lang, Jimmy Vaughn and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who played loud and raunchy traditional blues with a rock ’n’ roll attitude on Fender Stratocasters. In an era where the music business was dominated by disco music, synthesizers and Big Hair, blues-inspired guitar players were treated as the musical equivalent of the hula hoop — a brief novelty whose time had expired. Vaughn and Ellis were not only contemporaries, but friends; Vaughn’s band mates would sometimes sleep in Ellis’ living room when they were playing a club date in Atlanta.

Tinsley Ellis is one of the most lauded blues guitarists alive. (Photo by Flournoy Holmes)

Ellis, 61, has gone on to become the most significant blues artist to emerge from Atlanta since Blind Willie McTell. And, like Vaughn, he has inspired — and mentored — a generation of young guitarists coming up behind him — from Malone to Derek Trucks to Donna Hopkins to Oliver Wood of The Wood Brothers to the late Sean Costello. 

He met many of them by going to local blues clubs when he was on breaks from touring, welcoming their questions and sitting in with their bands. Ellis is modest about his role as mentor. “I’m out there stealing licks, too,” he jokes. “These young guys are coming up with licks that I’m stealing.”

But others tell of his profound impact on their lives and careers.

“Tinsley is one of the founding members of Atlanta’s blues community,” says Albey Scholl, who has led The Shadows for 31 years as the house band at Blind Willie’s. “When he’s not on tour, he goes out and hangs with some of the new-generation players. All the young players have nothing but great things to say about Tinsley.”

In the years since seeing Ellis playing in the middle of Piedmont Avenue, Malone has forged her own musical path that has led her to a career as an acclaimed roots music performer. She has become friends with Ellis, and often looks to him for words of wisdom. She’s appeared on his albums, and they’ve shared band members. “We even use the same mechanic,” she says. “I saw he was on the road all the time and his van never seemed to break down, so I started using his mechanic. He’s such a great guy, and sort of the elder statesman I go to for advice.”

Blues singer and guitarist Donna Hopkins is one of the new-generation musicians who was directly mentored by Ellis. Early in her career, she had a regular Tuesday night gig at the Fuzzy’s night spot; Ellis came in and sat with her nearly every week. “He’s my inspiration,” she says. “Tinsley took the time to push me and helped me get in the scene. Because he was there playing with me, it made it bonafide for me to play.”

GOING TO SCHOOL

Ellis was born in Atlanta but grew up in south Florida. His interest in playing music was sparked by the blues-flavored bands of the British Invasion: The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Cream and The Yardbirds. One day, a friend’s older brother directed him to the musician that his favorite guitar players had all emulated: B.B. King. 

The blues legend happened to be performing in a Miami hotel lounge that week, and there was a Saturday matinee for teenagers. Going to the B.B. King concert changed the course of Ellis’ life. During the show, King broke a string and changed it out mid-song and then handed the broken string to Ellis. From that moment, Ellis was smitten with the music of the blues.

Ellis (far right) with Albey Scholl (center) and Preston Hubbard (with upright bass) in The Alley Cats.

Ellis began to make his mark as a musician when he moved back to Atlanta in 1975 to go to Emory University. He started to play at parties on campus and spent the summer of 1977 playing in the rock band at Six Flags. “We did nine shows a day out in the hot Georgia sun in full polyester jump suits, and we did the long version of ‘Free Bird’ three times a day,” Ellis says with a laugh. “But I wouldn’t trade that for anything because I learned how to adapt to an audience.”

At night, he was soaking up concerts by legends like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters at places like the Great Southeast Music Hall. “Playing guitar started out as a hobby in high school and college and by my senior year at Emory, it was a wonder that I graduated because I was playing so often,” he says.

One of the bands that corrupted him was a local blues group called The Alley Cats, led by Albey Scholl. The group included former Roomful of Blues bassist Preston Hubbard, who would go on to play with The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Scholl took Ellis under his wing and schooled him on blues music. 

“Albey Scholl is one of the reasons I have the occupation of a blues musician,” says Ellis. “They were all older than me and they’d had the chance to open for people like Muddy Waters, and I was really impressed with that. They actually knew Muddy Waters, if you can imagine that.”

Scholl remembers that his then-girlfriend went to Emory with Ellis, and she mentioned that Ellis would love to play with The Alley Cats. “I went to hear him play at the Little Five Points Pub, and he was doing some Chuck Berry and B.B. King,” says Scholl. “He was good, and we hired him.”

Scholl with harmonica legend Junior Wells.

The Alley Cats often played six nights a week. It was there Ellis got his first experience on the road, and the money was so slight that seven guys would pile into a single motel room to sleep after a show. 

Ellis eventually moved in with Scholl in a house in Little Five Points and began to seriously get schooled in traditional blues. Scholl had the most extensive blues record collection Ellis had ever seen, and he insisted Ellis play the blues guitar parts correctly and made him learn Freddie King guitar solos note for note. “I can remember sitting there at the stereo, picking the needle up on the Freddie King song ‘The Stumble,’ and playing the notes on guitar, then dropping it back down.”

Scholl is also a walking encyclopedia of blues knowledge. “What an education, and I really don’t know where you would get an education like that today,” says Ellis. “In my era, if you wanted to learn something, you had to find some older guy like that and ‘maybe’ they would show you a few things.”

Scholl is humble about his role in Ellis’ career. “I gave Tinsley stuff to listen to, and eventually he moved into my house,” Scholl says. “He’d listen to my records and pick up stuff and he just took off. He didn’t need much help from me; he already had it.” 

GRADUATING TO THE HEARTFIXERS

After graduating from Emory, Ellis spent three weeks in 1981 attending law school at Mercer University in Macon. That move broke up the Alley Cats, and after he left law school, Ellis hooked up with “Chicago Bob” Nelson, a veteran blues singer, and they formed the band that would change Ellis’ world: The Heartfixers. 

There were no blues-themed nightclubs in Atlanta, so The Heartfixers would have to talk their way into clubs. One night they might play at the 688, the punk rock club, and the next at a place called Hemingways that had a mechanical bull on the floor to cash in on the Urban Cowboy craze. 

The Heartfixers soon became popular on the fraternity party circuit, and won enough fans that the frat kids would go see the band in nightclubs. “As a musician, that’s really how I got my first following,” says Ellis. Then he laughs. “And now I see people, they come up to me after concerts all over America and say, ‘I saw you at Clemson’ or ‘You were the first musician I saw play in a bar.’ And I think, how can this be? They look 20 years older than me.”

The Heartfixers became the most popular blues band in the Southeast. The group was anchored by Ellis (far right) and “Chicago Bob” Nelson (second from left). (Photo by Sam Mitchell)

In those days, Ellis could be quite the showman. The first wireless guitar transmitters were just hitting the market, allowing guitar players to go cordless on stage. Ellis got one, and he would often play an extended guitar solo while strolling through the crowd, climbing up on their tables and even venturing outside — sometimes walking out in the middle of Piedmont Avenue. “I was so much younger,” laughs Ellis. “I kind of started with a wild act, wild clothes and a lot of hair, and I had all kinds of get-ups and stuff.”

The Heartfixers landed their first recording contract just as Stevie Ray Vaughn broke nationwide. “That time had been a real low for guitar,” says Ellis. “It looked like it was all going down the tubes before Stevie Ray broke out. ‘Pride and Joy’ burst over the airwaves in 1983, and all of a sudden, all the guitar magazines were putting blues guys on the cover. He held the door open, and we all walked through the door behind him.”

Around that time, Ellis found a third mentor: Colonel Bruce Hampton. They played together in a side group called The Stained Souls as The Heartfixers were first gaining national exposure. “Bruce Hampton broke up the Heartfixers,” says Ellis. “The Heartfixers were doing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Elmore James stuff. Then I played with Bruce, and we did these long jams, stuff that bordered on being noise, and I couldn’t really go back to playing normal, traditional music after that. He kind of ruined my idea of how to play. I was a blues purist before him, and I then realized it was okay to go completely ‘out.’ That was his gift, to bring that out in players.”

In 1988, Ellis landed a record deal as a solo artist with the prestigious blues label Alligator Records, and he toned down his stage act to make his shows more about the music and his guitar playing. From there, he began to have a national imprint. Thirty years later, he has a catalogue of 20 albums and tours internationally in Europe, Australia, South America and even Russia. Music is no longer a hobby; it is his career.

PASSING IT BACK

Ellis laughs about all the “hairy eyeball” looks he’s received through the years from the elder blues masters he’s shared a stage with. The look always comes when he plays something they find disagreeable. “I’ve had some of the greatest give me the hairy eyeball: Albert Collins and Buddy Guy and Otis Rush and Lonnie Mack,” he says. “And I’m a better man because of it. I got the hairy eyeball, and I developed one of my own, which I use and hopefully not too often.”

It is part of a musician learning their craft. “You used to have to apprentice in bands as a blues artist, and I hope that always stays around,” Ellis says. “That’s how you learn, by playing with older guys and them giving you the hairy eyeball.”

Ellis sometimes learned from getting a “hairy eyeball” from blues greats such as Albert Collins.

And in order to learn in more tangible ways, rising blues musicians often rely on trying to extract strands of information from their elders — tips, guitar licks, stage secrets. Ellis has been there and done that, and he has earned the reputation of someone who gives back to young musicians what he himself was given.

Over his career, he has mentored numerous others, most notably Derek Trucks, whose work with the Allman Brothers Band and now the Tedeshi-Trucks Band has earned him a place as one of the greatest modern guitarists. Trucks made his recording debut in 1994 at the age of 15 on Ellis’ Storm Warning album. “I met Derek when he was 12 years old, but we made him wait to sit in until he was 13,” says Ellis. “And when he sat in, we couldn’t let him off the stage, it was so good. To this day, I’ve never heard a young person play a musical instrument with that much soul.”

Ellis also embraced Donna Hopkins when she was just starting out. Hopkins was already a soulful singer, but she was afraid to play guitar solos until Ellis began to push her to take the risk. When he wasn’t on the road, Ellis began to go to Fuzzy’s to sit in with her on her weekly gig. 

“Every Tuesday night at Fuzzy’s, it’d be packed out and crazy,” she says. “And he’d make me play lead guitar. He’d push me against the wall when we played ‘Killing Floor’ and make me play a solo. It was either really embarrass myself or fly. He pushed me out of my comfort range.”

Between her gigs, he’d often meet her for coffee and talk about the business. “Being a woman in the blues world and new in the scene, that was very generous support,” she says. “He’d give me tips, things a lot of people won’t share.”

Michelle Malone is another woman in the male-dominated blues world, and she also turned to Ellis for advice and support. “I’ll call him with questions when I’m looking for band members or considering a new gig,” she says. “I like picking his brain. If you ask him to listen to your record, he’ll actually listen to it and tell you want he really thinks. He’s never too busy for anybody. He’s an amazing guitar player, but that’s beside the point for me.”

GEORGIA IS HOME

This has been a big year in the career of Tinsley Ellis.

He rejoined Alligator Records, released a new album (Winning Hand) in January that debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Magazine’s Blues Chart and then went on a grueling three-month North American tour.

While his own career has soared, Ellis has helped nurture the new generation of blues musicians.

But when Ellis is home and off the road, he can often be seen at local blues clubs sitting in with young musicians. It helps him stay grounded and connected. It also reminds him of how fortunate he is to have forged a sustainable career playing the guitar.

“I never really thought it would go this far,” he says. “I thought maybe I would snap out of it or something. It started off as me partying and entertaining my friends, and then it turned into an occupation and then it turned into something I better not stop doing because it’s all I can do. I thought I would play around and tour around, but I never thought I would have 20 albums out or get with Alligator Records.”

Many of Ellis’ contemporaries have moved to music centers like Nashville or Los Angeles on the theory it would give their careers a boost. But for Ellis, Georgia is home.

“It’s great to be from Georgia because everybody wants to sound like they’re from Georgia; but I actually am from Georgia, so I’ve got that going for me,” he says. “When I play outside the South, people want to know everything I know about the Allman Brothers Band, everything I can tell them about James Brown. I’m real glad to be from here. Someone asked James Brown once what his definition of soul was, and he said, ‘Soul is being comfortable with where you came from.’ I’m a proud Georgia artist. I love living here; I love Georgia.”

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