Nobody understands life’s cyclical, circular nature any better than Tinsley Ellis. After learning guitar at an early age and then joining The Alleycats in the late ’70s and in 1982 forming The Heartfixers, his Atlanta-based Blues/Rock outfit, Ellis eventually felt the pull of a solo career when he realized he wanted to be a Blues songwriter, not merely a Blues interpreter. Another factor — his band no longer resembled the group he had envisioned.
“I looked on stage and said, ‘Where did The Heartfixers go?’ It was me and three guys who weren’t in The Heartfixers when we started,” says Ellis from his Atlanta home. “It became evident to me that if you perform under your own name, then you don’t have to break up or have a reunion concert or get four people to look good in a picture. I realize that’s kind of a Machiavellian philosophy — there’s a big word for a Blues artist — but if you think about Blues guitar, you don’t really think of a group, per se, unless it’s ZZ Top or Cream. You think of Freddie King or Albert Collins or B.B. King. I grew a pair and changed the name of the band. For a second, we were Tinsley Ellis and the Heartfixers, but the longer the name, the smaller the letters, so you want something short. Like Cher. That’s how it gets big on the marquee.”
Ellis’s 1986 album with The Heartfixers, Cool On It, reached the ears of Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer, who quickly signed the incendiary guitarist and released his first five albums — including his 1988 solo debut Georgia Blue and 1997’s visceral Fire It Up — to enthusiastic acclaim.
When the major labels started sniffing around — doubtlessly piqued by press comparing Ellis to Stevie Ray Vaughan — Ellis decided to grab for the brass ring and, with Iglauer’s blessing, signed to Capricorn for his sixth album, Kingpin, just as the label dissolved in a spate of corporate acquisitions and streamlinings.
With Capricorn shuttered, Ellis moved to Cleveland’s Telarc for a pair of releases, but when he started thinking about a new album in 2005, he returned to the label that had given him his big break, releasing his first live album, Live! Highwayman, on Alligator in 2005, followed by his tenth solo album, 2007’s spectacular Moment of Truth.
“The live album is the biggest selling thing I’ve had in 15 years; the planets aligned for that one,” Ellis says. “And Moment of Truth is still going and will probably surpass the live album.”
Ellis is currently assembling his next Alligator disc, which may see release this fall or early 2010. Some new songs will likely be featured when he swings through the area this Friday at Play by Play for his first local appearance in close to five years.
“I bet I wrote 50 to 60 songs for this upcoming album, and we finally narrowed it down to 12,” Ellis says. “We’re putting the final touches on it to be mixed. We’re doing those songs live as well.”
Ellis is used to working quickly — two days to record, two days to mix — but he’s been working on his as-yet untitled eleventh album for more than a month. Although that added time would normally imply more sonic bells and whistles, Ellis notes that his new album may well be his most scaled back studio effort to date.
“It has a real trio kind of sound. I hate to say people’s names, because I’d be comparing myself to them,” says Ellis with a laugh. “Imagine ‘trio Blues/Rock’ and certain names come up; one from Texas, one from England and one from Seattle and England. The traditional Blues music that I love to listen to and we feature from time to time on the bandstand is my passion, but that southern Blues Rock is my birthright.”
Ellis’s sparse new direction was sparked by the demos he recorded at his small home studio. In listening back to his personal sessions, Ellis was struck by their powerful simplicity.
“I noticed how full they were sounding with the bare bones instrumentation, as opposed to back-up singers and horn sections,” says Ellis. “There’s a smattering of keyboards and percussion and a little back-up singing, but this one is more like the live show.”
After road-testing his new songs in front of audiences (“It’s still the best acid test”), Ellis compiled the best material for his forthcoming album. Noting that it’s not easy making a living one iTunes sale at a time, he recognizes that each new release balances his ideas of art and commerce.
“I had a song that Jonny Lang covered on Lie To Me that sold 1.8 million copies, so that was my little spike,” says Ellis. “It would be nice to have that with a song I did myself, but the fact that I don’t look like a teenage underwear model might have something to do with what sells. In an industry that’s driven by youth and image, I’m pretty much screwed. I’ve got to make the music really good.”
TV is the new radio, as the saying goes, and Ellis has had a taste of that reality as well. For any TV executives within earshot, he’s ready for another crack at that kind of exposure.
“I had a song on the Fox TV network and I just about dropped the phone when they told me what it paid,” says Ellis. “I need another phone-dropping experience and I need it quick.”
TINSLEY ELLIS plays Play by Play in Silverton Friday with The Jon Justice Band. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.