Blues rock star Tinsley Ellis comes to ToledoWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Bartlett and Sandi Michael drove from their Windsor, Ontario, home to Detroit to see guitarist Tinsley Ellis perform at the beginning of April.
The next night they went to London, Ontario, to catch his show. The night after that they drove to Marshall, Mich., to watch him play.
And on May 6, they’ll drive down to Toledo for Ellis’ show at Club Evolution, planned by the Black Swamp Blues Society.
“Our ears might ring a little bit,” Michael said. “But we’ve never been disappointed.”
The pair has traveled as far as Arkansas to catch an Ellis gig — tallying up their count to at least 20 performances viewed. There’s something about his humble character, his crafty guitar playing and his lyrical storytelling that attracts the couple, Michael said.
“He’s one of those guys, regardless of how the business goes, he’s still out there,” he said.
Blues rock has carried Ellis from his home in Atlanta to the other end of the world and back. The 54-year-old rocker has released 12 albums since the 1980s — and his music career has kept him afloat without the help of any other income since he graduated from college. He’s weathered the shift from tapes to compact discs, from compact discs to MP3s and from record stores to the nebula of free internet downloads that plagues the music industry to this day.
How does he do it?
“We’ve always made a living going out and playing shows — everybody in blues from B.B. King going down has,” Ellis said. “If I had to wait for songwriting royalties, if I expected that to pay my way, it wouldn’t work.”
He has traveled as far as Russia and Australia to play shows. He and his bandmates “broke the blues ice” for a small venue in Belarus — the site hadn’t hosted any of the blues giants such as Eric Clapton or King. The opening act was a political puppet show, and while Ellis had no idea what they were saying, he could tell the subject had something to do with George W. Bush, he said. He and his band also played at a large stage in Moscow, where he signed a record number of autographs despite blues’ American heritage.
Having been in the music business for decades, Ellis said that the constant element of surprise keeps him going.
“You never know what’s coming next,” he said.
That was particularly exemplified when he played for a nudist colony in Michigan. The band was fully dressed.
The Beatles’ craze grabbed ahold of Ellis as a child. He saw the band on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when he was 6 years old and he started begging his parents for a guitar. He continued to draw inspiration from other British Invasion bands such as the Yardbirds, the Animals and Cream and he started taking lessons at age 7.
But the lessons didn’t last long. His winding guitar solos and catchy riffs you hear today are mostly born from self-teaching. Young Ellis and his friends slowed down records to play along with the notes at half-speed and bugged musically inclined adults they knew for tips. He also attended King and Howlin’ Wolf concerts — vital events that helped shaped his style.
After he graduated from Emory University, Ellis hopped on the road with a band called the Alley Cats and his music career took off from there.
He said he knows a lot of rock stars and they share a common bond. They don’t know how to read sheet music.
“I don’t know any rock stars that went to music school — and definitely no blues stars,” he said. “The trick is to learn to improvise and learn to play melodically and that can’t be learned in school. They can lecture all they want but you either got it or you don’t when it comes to imagination.”
And imagination will strike whenever it pleases. Ellis said there is no method to his songwriting. He and his band go through spells when he thinks, “That’s it, that’s the last song ever,” and then he’ll go through periods when he can’t stop writing.
Ellis has had to pen song ideas in some strange places. He recalled that the most inconvenient timing was on an airplane from Brussels, Belgium, to Copenhagen, Denmark. He didn’t have paper or a pen, but lines from the song “If That’s How He Loves You” started winding through his head.
He had to borrow a pen and write on the air sickness bag at his seat.
Michael said Ellis’ lyric writing particularly draws him the to artist.
“His lyrics are quite poignant — he tells stories,” he said. “It’s not just ‘my baby left me’ kind of things.”
Michael pointed to one of Ellis’ songs called “Sell My Soul to the Devil for a Dime.” The song tells the tale of a man who lost his job after 25 years of work on an assembly line. The man has nowhere to turn and has holes in his shoes, with “Nothin’ to lose, except these blues.”
Ellis sings his lyrics with a sort of grizzly croon, paired with beats that are not entirely bluesy but not entirely rock ’n’ roll. The combination makes for a sound that helps Ellis stand out, Michael said.
LaVonne Kujawa, president of the Black Swamp Blues Society, admires Ellis’ intricate guitar playing. The society has about 100 members, many of whom see Ellis as one of the biggest contemporary blues stars, she said.
Ellis has worked with the blues society before and said he can depend on the group to bring out a great crowd.
Although Ellis has played all over the world, his favorite sites to play are in America. The blues, after all, grew up out of the American South.
“People in other parts of the world love it because they can only really imitate it,” he said. “It’s our birthright to play blues and other countries can’t say that.”