Though Tinsley Ellis has sung a thousand times about cheating and infidelity, truth is, he’s as loyal a lover as a man can be. His 40-year union with the blues seems to have endured because while he’s always maintained respect for the pioneers, he’s never been a tradionalist nor has he shied from bringing brass and bravura to the relationship. Now with the release of his 18th album and third on his own Heartfixer Music label, Ellis proves that the longest of love affairs yields the richest of rewards.
Tough Love stands as perhaps the finest effort of his career so far, with blues serving as the nourishing soil from which the roots of American and British rock music and the influence of Georgia musicians from Duane Allman and Ray Charles to Columbus-born Robert Cray spring forth. From the organ and horn-driven Memphis soul of “All in the Name of Love” to the house rockin’ boogie of “Midnight Ride,” the Dire Straits-like romp of “Hard Work” to the contemplative ballad “Give It Away,” this near-perfect ten-song collection is bound together by Ellis’ signature guitar work.
On the eve of the release of Tough Love, Ellis and I talked by phone about his career, his new role as record label owner and a rather unusual gig the week before. On January 24, he sang and played “Statesboro Blues” on dobro for an enthusiastic audience gathered in the marble halls of Georgia’s State Capitol as part of the 2015 Tourism, Hospitality and Arts Day program. Ellis told me it was the first time he had been to the State Capitol in 50 years since his grandfather took him there as a little boy. Knowing that, it was delightful to watch the crowd, including Governor Nathan Deal, line up to meet him and his pal Flournoy Holmes—the Atlanta artist whose album covers for the Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and more are credited with visually defining the Southern Rock movement of the 70s.
LL: I can’t tell you how many people told me how much they enjoyed your performance at the Capitol.
TE: Well, I’m happy to do it again if the opportunity ever comes up and the Governor couldn’t have been nicer to us. I really didn’t get involved in the politics of “who is who and what they do.” I was just there bringing music to people who could possibly help the arts in Georgia. [Playing music] is the best lobbying I can do.
Before we talk about your new album, let’s talk about your story. You were born in Atlanta in 1957, but then grew up in Florida, right?
I was born in Atlanta when my parents were college students. [We moved when] my dad went down to Florida to work with his dad, and later I came back here specifically because my goal was to have a rock band, a Southern blues rock band, and get with Capricorn Records. And I wanted to escape disco, which was big in south Florida (laughs).
You were 18 when you came back to Atlanta and joined the Alley Cats?
Yes…I was the kid, the young gun, and it was a six-piece band. It was really hard; there was a roadie, too, so there were seven of us on the road in one hotel room. I never forgot something that an older guy had told me, he was a meat carver at a restaurant where I worked as a busboy and he said, “Keep your band small. Have a quartet.”
After cutting his musical teeth with the Alley Cats and graduating from Emory University with a degree in history in 1979, Ellis did indeed form a quartet in 1981. The Heartfixers, which also featured veteran blues singer and harpist Chicago Bob Nelson, became local favorites, toured incessantly and recorded four well-received albums for Landslide Records, including one with Nappy Brown.
I didn’t live here at the time the Heartfixers were on the scene, but the name has always loomed large for me in the story of Atlanta music and Atlanta blues.
Yeah, we had the market cornered. You can’t throw a rock in Atlanta now without hitting a blues band, but at the time we were it. But then when Stevie Ray Vaughan came out in 1983 and everything was all about blues, we were in the right place at the right time. A few years later, I was able to parlay that into a solo career with Alligator Records.
Why did you decide to branch out on your own?
At that point, I looked around me and said, “Where did all the Heartfixers go?” Because everyone had either dropped out or fallen out, and I remembered what John Hammond had told me at one point. He said, “Why would somebody start a band and not name it after themselves?” As Machiavellian as that may be, it made a lot of sense. I got tired of taking promotional photos and then somebody would quit, and you’d have to take another band photo. Finally, you could take a picture of me and you know I don’t break up (laughs). So, I just snatched the bull by the horns and went with Alligator.
Was it an affirmation that you’d made the right decision when this iconic Chicago blues label said, “Hey, kid, come on, you’re with us?”
It definitely was. The turning point in my career was signing with Alligator Records in ’88, because all of a sudden, I was good enough to be up there playing and opening for people like Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor and Albert Collins, and then to get to jam with them when we opened…it was just a real turning point.
Ellis recorded five critically acclaimed albums for Alligator and generated consistently strong reviews with Rolling Stone comparing his “feral blues guitar” to “Beck and Clapton” and Chicago Tribune declaring that “Ellis takes classic, Southern blues-rock workouts and jolts them to new life with a torrid ax barrage.” In 1994, he released the album “Storm Warning,” which included the contributions of guitarist Oliver Wood (The Wood Brothers) and the debut of a 14-year-old slide guitarist named Derek Trucks.
I remember being in college in Valdosta at that time and Derek coming through to play at JP’s and just blowing everyone away, it’s all anyone could talk about.
I’d never seen anything like that in my life. We have a lot of kids come up and they’re always touted as “the next big thing,” but only Derek Trucks has lived up to the hype. He was a seasoned player right off the bat, very rare.
After recording five albums for Alligator, you actually reached your early career goal and landed on Capricorn Records.
I got a call here at the house one day from Phil Walden saying how much he liked the album I did with Tom Dowd (Fire It Up), the final of the Alligator albums. [Walden] gave me a chance and unfortunately it was ultimately the right place, wrong time…it was a matter of months after that they sold the label. (Capricorn folded shortly after Ellis’ album, Kingpin, was released in 2000).
Next, you recorded a couple of albums on the jazz label Telarc before going back to Alligator, right?
Yes, and with hat in hand (laughs). I don’t mind saying that. And we did three nice albums and one of them was a live album and I’m so glad that I did that on Alligator. Because one thing that Bruce [Iglauer, Alligator’s founder] does so well is to capture the blue artist live, and all his acts—Koko Taylor, Lonnie Mack—they all have a career-defining live album. We did the album in a club in Chicago in 2005.
But fast forward to 2013 and you started your own label, Heartfixer Music.
I came up with a nutty idea that I wanted to do an instrumental album. A lot of people had asked me to do one because I’ve always included instrumentals in my shows and on my albums, and I took that idea to Bruce and he thought it was crazy. So I started my own label, and my own label thought it was a crazy idea, too, but we did it anyway! I’m so glad I did it because I love that album, Get It, and it did well enough for me to want to do this recording label thing more.
So what does a person who starts his own label do? In expanding your creative role from artist to entrepreneur, you raise the money to record it, handle everything from artwork to securing distribution, basically everything?
Very much so. And I knew it would be all those things, but I had no idea it would be so time-consuming. I found myself taking a lot of trips to the post office! But I like it, it’s very fulfilling. The hardest one to do was the first one, but with the second one, Midnight Blue, it was easier, because I knew what to do. I had a timetable in place and could just enjoy it. Now some record label shows interest in me and I go, “ehhhhh.” I think it’s more important to have a good agent than a good record label at this point, and I’ve got that, so for the first time in my career, I’m not thinking about getting the big record deal.
I’m sure running your own label is difficult, but it must be rewarding as well.
It has been rewarding in every way. Financially, obviously, and creatively…and it definitely gives me enough rope to hang myself with.
That brings us up to Tough Love. You’ve been playing the blues for decades now, but this album feels fresh and new and full of roots, rock and soul influences.
Somebody said they liked the album because every song was different than the one before and I think that’s nice. If you’re Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, you can afford to have every song sound about the same and still have it sound great. Well, not me. I think about the legacy of Georgia music, for instance, with the Allman Brothers. I wouldn’t know how to describe in one phrase what they do, because there’s blues and jazz and country and certainly psychedelia. So maybe that’s just part of the Georgia rock band sound—combining all the indigenous genres of the state.
Yet with all the styles you hit in Tough Love, the songs fit together seamlessly.
The connecting thread would probably be the guitar playing because I don’t really change the style of my playing from song to song. I just change the backdrop for it. So, Southern rock or blues or whatever else, the guitar playing doesn’t change. The setting of it does, the way it’s framed.
Tell me about the musicians who are on this record with you.
It’s basically the core that Delbert McClinton has recorded with for a number of years. Kevin McKendree on keyboards, who has played on every album I’ve done since the album I made with Tom Dowd in 1996. He’s a constant in my career and his playing suits me to a “T.” He helps record and master in his Nashville studio too. Lynn Williams has been Delbert’s drummer for a number of years, he’s played with John Hiatt, too, and he’s just got that kind of greasy drum feel that I like. And the new guy, the first time I’ve recorded with him, is Steve Mackey on bass. He’s another Nashville fixture who plays with Delbert and other country and blues artists. These guys are sort of like a glove I can slip my hand into.
There are a lot of great studio musicians up in Nashville.
Yes, but by the same token, while I love going up there and making records, I’m never going to leave Georgia. A lot of my friends have gone up there and have done great…but if all the good musicians move to Nashville, what’s that going to leave? Bad musicians? And so, I’m staying. I’m proud of the roots and I love playing here. Atlanta’s got everything and Georgia’s got soul. I don’t want to leave that behind.
I love hearing you say that.
Well, it’s not that they don’t have soul up there. But we’re talking red clay soul here. I want to be around people like Outkast. I want that to rub off on me.
Home page photo of Tinsley Ellis by Ian Rawn.