In 1972, sitting in the front row at a B.B. King concert at the Marco Polo Hotel in Miami, 15-year-old Tinsley Ellis was smitten by the cool magic of the blues. When King broke a string, he handed it to Ellis, replaced it with a new one while still singing a verse, and then nonchalantly hit the next lick.
“That was the first concert I ever saw,” Ellis says, allowing that he still has the string. “After the show, B.B. came out and met all the kids in the lobby. He was like Santa Claus. He signed pictures and hugged us and it was a big warm-fuzzy.”
Just shy of 56, Ellis has been playing the guitar for nearly 50 years and, following in the footsteps of King, playing the blues and traveling the world from Chicago to Moscow over the course of a performing and recording career that’s spanned four decades.
Reflecting on the rarity of his longevity in the notoriously tough music business, Ellis mixes modesty and humor, explaining that it all adds up to hard work and paying dues.
“I’ve gone about as far in the blues world as you can go,” he says. “I’m grandfathered in, almost literally. What’s the percentage of talent to elbow grease? I don’t know the exact percentage, but I guarantee that elbow grease is the bigger portion.
“And I do know if you go into it looking for fame and fortune, you will certainly fail. But if you go into it saying, I want to have a career, then you’ve got a chance.”
Currently, Ellis, who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two children, is touring behind a new self-produced album, “Get It!,” that he’ll offer a taste of at a May 4 show at Variety Playhouse.
A guitar hero who calls his music blues-rock in deference to his African-American idols, Ellis is known for his fiery fret work, soulful vocals and exuberant stage presence. But he wasn’t imbued with that spirit by a midnight meeting at the crossroads, or even inspired by scratchy old 78-records.
“I blame it all on the Beatles,” Ellis says. “The Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan’ in 1964. It blew my mind, the twang and all, and I begged my parents for a guitar. That’s a very common story. But it led me to the other groups, like the Zombies, the Animals and the Yardbirds.”
Ellis remembers his first guitar, a cheap rental, as “a piece of crap.” But after he took a few lessons, his parents figured he was going to stick with it, and they bought him a better guitar. The rest is a pretty good story.
At Atlanta blues mecca Northside Tavern on a recent Saturday night, Ellis had one of his favorite guitars, a vintage ’59 Fender Stratocaster, swathed in a gig bag, and slung over his shoulder.
It’s the guitar he started out playing in the ’80s band, the Heartfixers, with his friend and mentor, Chicago Bob Nelson. The night was a tribute to Nelson, a beloved Atlanta singer and harmonica player, who died in January.
Ellis paid his respects by getting up on stage and digging deep into a couple of Muddy Waters songs, “Long Distance Call” and “Walkin’ Through The Park,” that Nelson did with the Heartfixers. Working with the Atlanta band, the Breeze Kings, he conjured the legacy of Waters and Nelson, bending notes that animated the audience to nod and sway, transfixed by blues power.
“Here was a real Chicago bluesman who had played with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, James Cotton and John Lee Hooker,” Ellis remembers thinking the first time he met Nelson. “All these men knew him and would let him sit in when they came to Atlanta. I knew I wanted to be in a band with him.”
Nelson was a legend, though he wasn’t really famous. And neither is Ellis. But just as typing Justin or Kim into a Google search immediately begets Bieber or Kardashian, typing Tinsley begets Ellis.
Standing in front of Northside’s ragged cinder block and burglar bar facade before his performance, Ellis was bathed in the glare of street lights and surrounded by fans. Men wanted to shake his hand and talk about when they saw him play with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Women wanted to have their picture taken giving him a big hug.
Growing up in Hollywood, Fla., Ellis got his first gig when he was seven, playing “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles and “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone” by the Monkees at his grade school talent show.
“It was me and a guy with a snare drum,” he says. “I’ll bet it sounded horrendous. After, the teacher said I was horribly out of tune. So that started my love for out of tune music, which led me to blues.”
In 1975, Ellis came to Atlanta, where he was born in 1957, to attend Emory at Oxford and escape the South Florida disco craze. By then, he was becoming an accomplished musician and he had the idea of getting back to his family’s Georgia roots by joining up with the flourishing Southern rock scene.
“I was going to come back and get with Capricorn Records,” Ellis says. “It was the big dream. Of course, I get here and the label folds, and then disco followed me up here.”
He ended up playing in bands in Underground Atlanta and at Six Flags Over Georgia. “Any kind of music from bluegrass to Southern rock,” he says. “But I’d always get to do ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ or another B.B. song because I was the blues guy in whatever band I was in.”
After graduating from Emory in 1979, he toured with an Atlanta blues band, the Alley Cats, that included future Fabulous Thunderbirds bassist Preston Hubbard. In 1981, Ellis and Nelson formed the Heartfixers, a band that soon became an Atlanta fixture, often performing four or five sets a night, six days a week at the Moonshadow Saloon.
The Heartfixers were “discovered” one night by Atlanta blues documentarian George Mitchell, who was working part-time as the A&R man for a small jazz label, Southland Records, and heard the band rehearsing in a Little Five Points storefront.
“My first take was that this is some good-sounding Chicago-style blues,” Mitchell recalls. “I’d been looking for old-time musicians to record, but I got excited by what I heard.”
It was that classic question, “Would you like to make a record.” And the classic answer, “Yes,” Mitchell and Ellis agreed. So they went to Tomas Velenti’s Caribeso studio, a few doors down in Little Five Points.
“It was right out of ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?,’ ” Ellis says. “We had George Mitchell, who was the producer. We had George Buck, an older blind man, who owned the label. And we had a two-track tape machine. No overdubs. Live in the studio.
“They sent out and got bottles of brown liquor and beer, got us all liquored up, and recorded us at the cost of $105. It sounds like it. But it doesn’t sound that much different than albums I’ve made for over $100,000.”
Ellis made those more expensive recordings after he parted ways with Chicago Bob and later signed with Chicago’s iconic blues label, Alligator Records, under his own name.
“It was a pretty big deal to get with Alligator,” Ellis says. “Alligator allowed me to become somebody who could play anywhere, because I had their logo.
Beginning with his Alligator debut, “Georgia Blue,” in 1988, he pretty much toured nonstop, refining and elevating his electric blues-rock guitar style and learning to be the singer and front man over a string of albums for Alligator and other labels.
Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer was an Ellis fan before he signed him and has remained a friend.
“Tinsley knew what you had to put in a song to give it real emotional weight,” Iglauer says. “He wasn’t just a guitar hero. He could play fast and flashy, but he didn’t choose to do that all the time. He was determined to write or find good songs, sing them with all his heart and soul, and play solos that fit the words. That’s what real blues artists do.”
Influenced by the Vietnam War and the topical music of the time, Ellis wrote his first song, “I Don’t Want to Go to War and I Want to Be Free,” when he was 10-years-old. He started getting serious about writing blues songs in 1986, with the final Heartfixers album, “Cool On It.”
“A Quitter Never Wins,” by far the best-selling song Ellis has ever written, appeared on the 1994 album, “Storm Warning,” and was recorded by Jonny Lang on his 1997 album, “Lie To Me.”
“That sold a couple of million copies,” Ellis says. “I’ve got my platinum album to prove it. I do ‘A Quitter Never Wins’ every night. And Jonny Lang does it every night, which is nice of him.”
That was a major peak in a career with its fair share of valleys, Ellis says. After 9/11, things went way down in the valley for a while, with the convention business tanking, and clubs and bars closing. While he was still getting bookings, the big crowds just weren’t showing up, especially on weeknights. With his earnings down by as much as 30 percent, Ellis briefly entertained the notion of quitting the road.
“One day in 2003, I went and got a newspaper and I looked at the want ads, and I couldn’t find a single thing to do,” Ellis says. “The only thing I thought I might be able to do is something in heating and air conditioning, because I heard it paid well.”
Instead, Ellis decided to strip-down his business model, become his own manager, and sign with a new booking agent. And then things got a little better. He launched his own label, Heartfixer, to release “Get It!,” the kind of all-instrumental blues set he’d always wanted to record.
And recently, he did a major theater tour as part of a Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf tribute concert, billed as “Muddy & The Wolf,” with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, featuring Kim Wilson, James Cotton, Jody Williams and Bob Margolin.
“I was on a tour where I was the kid again for the first time in many years,” Ellis says. “It was such an amazing experience, I’m glad I didn’t get into the heating and air conditioning business.”
Tinsley Ellis. 8:30 p.m. May 4, $17.50 advance, $20 day of show. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. N.E., Atlanta, 404-524-7354, www.varietyplayhouse.com.