James Brown once said the definition of Soul is “being proud of where you came from.” Without question, Tinsley Ellis is proud to be from Georgia, a state blessed with a rich Rhythm and Blues heritage, having spawned James Brown, Otis Redding, The Allman Brothers Band and numerous other major influences. Tinsley Ellis wears his Southern roots proudly and that is most evident on his latest album, TOUGH LOVE, wherein he blends the red clay soul of those who came before him with the finely honed power of blues guitar and heartfelt vocals. TOUGH LOVE takes the listener on a musical journey from the Georgia roadhouse through the Blues juke joint and beyond.
TOUGH LOVE is the third offering from Ellis’s own label, Heartfixer Music, which he launched in 2013 with the release of the all-instrumental GET IT!, followed by 2014’s MIDNIGHT BLUE. With help from longtime veterans of Delbert McClinton’s band, including Nashville keyboard whiz Kevin McKendree (Brian Setzer), bassist Steve Mackey, and drummer Lynn Williams (John Hiatt) TOUGH LOVE combines first rate musicianship with Tinsley’s expert production guidance, surely the mark of an experienced craftsman whose lessons learned from gifted mentors Eddy Offord, Tom Dowd and company have resulted in sonically superb music.
“This album just flowed out of us in the studio, and that’s a good thing for a blues album to do,” says Ellis about the recording sessions. “Making a record is all about capturing a vibe in the studio and the vibe was great during these sessions. Each song had a different groove. We used an arsenal of vintage guitars, amps, drums and keyboards to make the songs sound more quirky. You can’t go wrong making an album for the fans, and that’s what we tried to do with Tough Love.”
The lifestyle of a traveling Blues musician can be tough to love, but through the years Ellis has thrived on it. Late nights, long drives and Spartan living conditions have been a steady diet for him since he emerged 35 years ago as a highly regarded blues guitarist, about whom Billboard magazine commented that “he sings and plays with the conviction of a man possessed.” With 17 albums and literally thousands of live performances to his credit, Ellis easily ranks as one of today’s most electrifying blues-rock guitarists and vocalists. He approaches his music with rock power and blues feeling, in the same tradition as his Deep South musical heroes Duane Allman and Freddie King and his old friends Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. Most notably, in early 2014 Tinsley shared the bill with idols James Cotton and Jody Williams and peers Bob Margolin, Kim Wilson, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds for the highly successful Blues at the Crossroads Tour, a nationwide tribute to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Highly regarded for his six string mastery, Tinsley has further developed into one of the genre’s most notable tunesmiths. From the beginning, his records were dotted with creative blues covers and strong self-penned compositions. His “A Quitter Never Wins,” from the album STORM WARNING, has become a blues standard, covered by several artists, including Jonny Lang on his double platinum seller, LIE TO ME. Consequently, TOUGH LOVE consists of all original tunes that showcase Ellis’ distinctive style and versatile ability. “I’ve never been more proud of an album than I am of TOUGH LOVE,” says Ellis.
Born in Atlanta in 1957, Tinsley first played guitar at age eight and 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 — and spent hours immersing himself into their music. 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. After the show, B.B. came out and talked with fans, further impressing Tinsley with his warmth and down-to-earth attitude. By now Tinsley’s fate was sealed; he had to become a blues guitarist. And yes, he still has that string.
An accomplished teenaged musician, Ellis joined the Alley Cats, a gritty Atlanta blues band boasting a classic blues and soul repertoire. In 1981, Tinsley formed The Heartfixers with veteran blues singer and harpist Chicago Bob Nelson, a group that would become Atlanta’s top-drawing blues band. Upon hearing LIVE AT THE MOONSHADOW (Landslide), the band’s second release, The 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 signed with Alligator Records for his solo debut, GEORGIA BLUE, an album that immediately garnered impressive notices. “It’s hard to overstate the raw power of his music,” raved The 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.
Since first hitting the national scene with GEORGIA BLUE in 1988, Ellis has toured non-stop and continues to release one critically acclaimed album after another. Tinsley’s hometown paper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, called his music “a potent, amazing trip through electric blues-rock.” Atlanta Magazine declared Ellis “the most significant blues artist to emerge from Atlanta since Blind Willie McTell.”
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. Rolling Stone said he plays “feral blues guitar…non-stop gigging has sharpened his six-string to a razor’s edge…his eloquence dazzles…he achieves pyrotechnics that rival early Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.” By then, 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, bassist Duck Dunn and keyboardist Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones) joined him in the studio. Producers Eddy Offord (John Lennon, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer) and the legendary Tom Dowd (The Allman Brothers, Ray Charles) helped Ellis hone his studio sound. Features and reviews ran in Rolling Stone, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and many other national and regional publications. 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, produced by David Z (Prince). In 2002, he signed with the Telarc label, which released 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. Recorded at a packed club just outside Chicago, the CD took Ellis’ extended soloing and powerful vocals to staggering heights. The Chicago Tribune called it “inspired, original and funky.” His return to the studio in 2007 produced MOMENT OF TRUTH, and the Tribune continued to rave, calling it “incendiary.” In 2009, he released SPEAK NO EVIL and his constant touring took him as far away as Moscow and Minsk.
Ellis has played in all 50 states, as well as Canada, Europe, Australia and South America. He has shared stages with almost every major blues star, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, Son Seals, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins and many others. Whether he’s out with his own band or sitting in with major artists like Derek Trucks, Buddy Guy, The Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule or Widespread Panic, he always digs deep and plays, as Guitar Player magazine says, “…as if his life depended on it.” With TOUGH LOVE and ongoing non-stop touring, Ellis will bring his monumental guitar work and intensely powerful vocals to rock and blues fans all over the world, letting his songs and his guitar do the talking.