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Ever since he first hit the road 40 years ago, blues-rock guitar virtuoso, soulful vocalist and prolific songwriter Tinsley Ellis
has grown his worldwide audience one scorching performance at a time. Armed with blazing, every-note-matters guitar skills and scores of instantly memorable original songs, Ellis has traveled enough miles, he says, "to get to the moon and back six times." He's released 17 previous solo albums, and has earned his place at the top of the blues-rock world. When asked if he'd consider himself a "blue-collar" bluesman, Ellis, in his trademark wit, quips, "No. I'm part of the no-collar crowd." His imaginative songs tell stories of common, shared experiences in uncommon ways, all fueled by his high-octane, infectious, hard-rocking guitar playing. Live, Ellis has captivated and amazed fans in all 50 United States, as well as in Canada, all across Europe, Australia and South America. Vintage Guitar
says, "He delivers blistering blues-rock, soul romps, minor-key blues, and shuffles—and it all sounds great." The Chicago Sun-Times
says, "It's hard to overstate the raw power of his music."
Ellis considers his new album, Ice Cream In Hell
, the most raw-sounding, guitar-drenched album of his career. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ellis and his longtime co-producer Kevin McKendree (John Hiatt, Delbert McClinton), Ice Cream In Hell
is a cathartic blast of blues-rock power. Though inspired by all three Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddie), as well by Carlos Santana, Hound Dog Taylor and others, Ice Cream In Hell is pure, unadulterated Tinsley Ellis. The 11 Ellis originals range from the nod to Stax-era Albert King, Last One To Know
, to the Peter Green-flavored Everything And Everyone
to the Hound Dog Taylor-esqe romp Sit Tight Mama
before ending with the hair-raising, slow-burning ballad, Your Love's Like Heroin
. Throughout the album, Ellis' deeply emotional, lyrical guitar solos perfectly match his fervent vocals.
On Ice Cream In Hell
, says Ellis, "there's more guitar than ever." His main axe during recording was his cherry red Freddie King ES-345 reissue. One of only 200 made in 2018, it instantly became Elllis' go-to guitar. In addition, he used his 1959 Fender Stratocaster, 1967 Gibson ES-345, 1973 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe, 1983 Gibson Moderne and his 1969 Martin D-35. Rolling Stone
says Ellis 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."
In addition to his legions of fans, Ellis is also revered by his fellow guitarists, with famous friends including Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Oliver Wood, Jonny Lang, Buddy Guy, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Gov't Mule, and members of Widespread Panic calling on him to sit in and jam. He's recently toured with Alligator label mates Tommy Castro and Coco Montoya. Additionally, Ellis shared stages with late blues legends including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, Leon Russell, Son Seals, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins and many others. But no matter where or with whom he performs, Ellis always plays with grit, soul and unbridled passion.
Born in Atlanta in 1957, Ellis was raised in southern Florida. He acquired his first guitar at age seven, soon after seeing The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. He took to it instantly, developing and sharpening his skills as he grew up. Ellis discovered the blues through the back door of British Invasion bands like The Yardbirds, The Animals, Cream and The Rolling Stones as well as Southern rockers like The Allman Brothers. One night in 1972, he and a friend were listening to Al Kooper and Michael Bloomfield's Super Session
record when his friend's older brother told them if they liked that, they should really go see B.B. King, who was in town that week.
Tinsley and his friends went to the Saturday afternoon performance, sitting transfixed in the front row. When B.B. broke a string on his guitar, 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, mesmerizing Tinsley with his warmth and kindness. Tinsley's fate was now sealed; he had to become a blues guitarist. He saw Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and every other blues artist who came through town, always sitting up front, always waiting to meet the artists, take photos, and get autographs. To this day, he still has B.B.'s string.
Less than three years later, Ellis, already an accomplished teenaged musician, left Florida and moved to Atlanta. He soon joined a hard-driving local blues band, the Alley Cats. In 1981, along with veteran blues singer and harpist Chicago Bob Nelson, Tinsley formed The Heartfixers, a group that would become Atlanta's top-drawing blues band. After cutting a few Heartfixers albums for the Landslide label, Ellis was ready to head out on his own.
, Tinsley's first Alligator release, hit the unprepared public by surprise in 1988. The Chicago Tribune
said, "Tinsley Ellis torches with molten fretwork. Ellis takes classic, Southern blues-rock workouts and jolts them to new life with a torrid ax barrage." His next four releases—1989's Fanning The Flames
, 1992's Trouble Time
, 1994's Storm Warning
(his song A Quitter Never Wins
, a highlight from Storm Warning
, was recorded by Jonny Lang, selling almost two million copies), and 1997's Fire It Up
—further grew his legend as well as his audience. Features and reviews ran in Rolling Stone, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe
, and in many other national and regional publications.
In the early 2000s, Ellis released albums on Capricorn Records and on Telarc before returning to Alligator in 2005 with Live–Highwayman
, which captured the fifth-gear energy of his barn-burning live show. He followed it with two more incendiary studio releases, 2007's Moment Of Truth
and 2009's Speak No Evil
. He self-released four successful albums on his own Heartfixer label before coming back home to Alligator in 2018, releasing the fan favorite Winning Hand
. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues Chart and earned a Blues Music Award (BMA) nomination for Album Of The Year. Ellis was simultaneously nominated for a BMA for Blues Rock Artist Of The Year and for a Living Blues Readers Award for Blues Artist Of The Year. Atlanta's Stomp & Stammer
magazine went all in, saying, "Tinsley Ellis is Georgia's finest blues picker. Ellis tells great stories through well-written lyrics and heavy doses of guitar virtuosity. He captures a level of authenticity that should inspire more than just his fellow blues players. Americana artists and garage rockers could learn a thing or two from these songs."
Over the course of his career, Ellis has featured a number of guests on his solo albums. He's recorded with Peter Buck (R.E.M.), guitarist Derek Trucks (who, at age 14, made his recording debut with Tinsley) and keyboardist Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones). He in turn has made guest appearances on albums by The Allman Brothers, Gov't Mule, Colonel Bruce Hampton and others. Producers Eddy Offord (John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Yes) and even the legendary Tom Dowd (The Allman Brothers, Ray Charles) helped Ellis hone his studio sound.
"A musician never got famous staying home," says Ellis, who continues to perform over 150 nights a year. Now, with Ice Cream In Hell
, Tinsley Ellis will again hit the highway, bringing his roof-raising, road-tested music to fans wherever they may be. "I've seen it all," the Atlanta native says of his four decades on the road. "And a lot of my audience has been along for the entire time. It's not always easy. But the payoff is the music. That's the ice cream."