Tinsley Ellis was once chatting with Gregg Allman when Allman suddenly turned to him and said, "Man, you're one song away from stardom." Ellis felt proud until later, when he realized: Well, you could say that about anybody and it'd still be true.
Ellis, the longtime heavyweight champion of the blues/rock guitar scene in Atlanta, laughs at the memory. "I'm almost glad I never had a hit record because I don't know of many blues artists that didn't have their music compromised by having a hit," he says. "Stevie Ray Vaughn is the perfect example of the exception; he didn't let them change him."
Ellis realized long ago that the career of a journeyman guitar slinger isn't so much about a hit record, but recording consistently good albums that allow him to take his music on the road. Ellis' new album, Moment of Truth, is his first studio album in three years and arguably his best work since his most-acclaimed album, 1994's Storm Warning. Not coincidently, both albums are released by the prestigious Chicago blues label Alligator Records.
The initial demo tracks for the CD were recorded in his little studio in Tucker, at a place Ellis affectionately calls his "office." He leased the room – decorated only with a futon and posters that mark his previous albums on the wall – two years ago, and it has become his sanctuary, a place where he can work away from the distractions of kids and telephone calls. "I started writing song after song and sending them to Bruce Iglauer at Alligator," he says. "And Bruce [the president of the label] was pretty brutally honest. I probably sent him 60 tunes before we had enough for an album."
Ellis' guitars were all packed up to go on the road, so he pulled out his old Les Paul Deluxe to record his demos. "I bought it in 1973, and washed dishes in a restaurant in Florida an entire summer to get that guitar," he says. "I hadn't played it in 20 years. But that guitar was so well-made that I opened the case and it was still in tune."
Ellis decided to use the Les Paul on the album, and it adds a richly raw edge to his much-lauded guitar work. It's especially evident on the album's standout cut, "Tell the Truth," a Stones-flavored rocker that features Decatur's Michelle Malone singing background.
Moment of Truth also marks the first time Ellis has taken the helm and produced his own album. He thinks he fell into something of a recording rut – even as he tried to build on the success of Storm Warning, he veered away from the very thing that had made the album successful. "I worked with a lot of musicians I didn't even know, and so much of a blues album is the vibe," he says. "That's why I recorded this one with my road band [Mike Lowry on guitar, Jeff Burch on drums and "The Evil One" on bass; augmented by keyboardist Kevin McKendree]. I wanted to do what I did with Storm Warning, and one thing we did with that record was just plug in and play."
Although Ellis got his professional start in a band at Six Flags that played "Free Bird" six times a day, he almost single-handedly revived the blues scene in Atlanta with a band he put together in 1981 called the Heartfixers. That group put Ellis on the national map as one of the rising lions of electric blues guitar.
Although he was once on the road 200 to 250 days a year, Ellis has pared back to a schedule of about 100 shows a year. Most other days, he's holed up in his office working on songs. "This is my day job," he says. "I want to be a songwriter because I can't stay on the road forever."
Ellis laughs and says he's had to suppress his inner James Taylor as he writes. "I would love to be a singer/songwriter, but it just seems that when I put the guitar out front, things go better," he says.
For now, Tinsley Ellis still celebrates his inner Freddie King. And for his fans, that is reason enough to rejoice.
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I'm pretty sure he was 19.
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