Blues Icon Tinsley Ellis Talks New Album Ice Cream in Hell, Col. Bruce Hampton, John Lee Hooker, the Atlanta Blues Scene, and Seeing the Big Picture

By Max Stewart, Cover Photo by Suzanna Khorotian

Atlanta’s Tinsley Ellis is a major figure in the blues genre who has performed for audiences across the globe for over 41 years. He has played with everyone from Buddy Guy to the Allman Brothers Band. We spoke to Ellis about his latest record (Ice Cream in Hell), how he has continued to create new music for his fans during quarantine, heard some great stories about performing with Col. Bruce Hampton and John Lee Hooker, and even about hanging with The Rolling Stones with his band’s former bassist, James ‘The Evil One’ Ferguson, who tragically passed away earlier this year.

Check out Ellis’ latest record and some of his past releases on Alligator Records here!


MS: It has been great seeing you make the most of the pandemic and continue to post songs like the rock-heavy “Whiplash” on your Facebook page. It is great that you are keeping content going for your fans even in these strange days and I know it is appreciated. Is that how you are harnessing your energy while at home?

TE: Oh yeah. People are going to look back and realize the good stuff that has occurred because of this. One of the things that I have really been digging into is the ProTools studio in my basement. Every Wednesday, I post the ‘Wednesday Basement Tapes Song,’ which is the best demo I did all week. We let the fans name that, it is an homage to Bob Dylan’s basement tapes. [Check out some of those songs below.]

But earlier in the year, we got halfway through our tour to Northern California for the Ice Cream in Hell album, and then we got a call saying we had to go home. It went down so quick. I was in denial for a couple of days and then I finally told the band. I have never seen anything happen so fast.

And Sunday I always do an acoustic song, a ‘Sunday Morning Coffee Song.’ Although I am now running out of songs and am doing some reruns. So I am trying to stay busy.

I was in shock too once everything started to get cancelled, it was pretty hard to comprehend in real time.

41 years on the road, I have never seen anything like that. I started in ’79 when I graduated from Emory University. And this album was poised to do really great stuff, maybe it can be resurrected next year when the touring starts. We did 40 shows and had 40 to go that were supposed to be in the fall, and now they are rescheduled for next year. There have been a lot of tickets sold to those concerts. I am just glad I am not [an artist] starting out now.

You are a centerpiece fixture of the Atlanta blues community, you have probably watched the scene grow and evolve with a lot of kindred spirits here in town.

When I was a college student in the mid-seventies here, I was going out and hearing blues bands. I saw Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Albert Collins, the big names. And there was a local blues band here called The Alley Cats, and me and my friends would go see them. And then one of The Alley Cats, Albey Scholl – who plays up at Blind Willie’s Blues Club for The Shadows – saw me play in a band that was sort of like The Flying Burrito Brothers. He came and saw me, and like any band I have ever been in I asked to do a blues song, and after he saw that he asked me to audition for The Alley Cats. So I literally graduated from Emory one week and then the next week I was up on stage opening for my favorite local blues band and then we were opening two nights for Rory Gallagher.

Ellis’ new album, Ice Cream in Hell

And since then, I played in the Alley Cats for a couple of years until we broke up. Then I started The Heartfixers with “Chicago” Bob Nelson and we made four albums. I realized that everyone I started The Heartfixers with was gone, so I just started playing under my own name and got with Alligator Records. So it has been a very long, hard climb to the middle. You know? [Laughs]

There’s no overnight success in blues, I say. One example I like to use is one year, in 1982, we went down to Warner Robins because The Heartfixers had a PA system and John Lee Hooker didn’t. So we got to do shows with John Lee Hooker by providing the PA system. And John Lee Hooker and the Heartfixers only drew 12 people in Warner Robins, GA.

[Hooker] sent the band off the stage and he and “Chicago” Bob did a guitar and harmonica duet, which his band said that he rarely ever did. So I got to see the essence of John Lee Hooker as a solo performer. But then maybe 3 or 4 years later we opened for John Lee Hooker at Center Stage Theater in Atlanta and Beacon Theatre in New York City, and both those shows sold out. So it took the man a lifetime to build a career.

It seems unthinkable that someone of his stature who influenced so many only played for twelve people.

Well there is an artistic need for our work in the blues to remain confidential, but I mean that is taking it to the extreme right there. In the blues, there has to be some suffering. But the guy was in his seventies and having to put up with that.

In addition to John Lee Hooker, you have gotten to play with so many great blues musicians including Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, and Albert Collins. So beyond just music, were there any other nuggets of wisdom that these musicians instilled in you as you were getting your start?

Here’s an interesting John Lee Hooker story actually. Over by Wuxtry Records in Decatur, there was a nightclub in that strip mall called Rumors. We used to do a lot of shows there for any of the blues people that came to Atlanta. And we had already done a few shows with [Hooker] and I sort of felt like I was his buddy, but then he let me know that ‘I talk too much.’ [Laughs] And Chicago Bob, who was an older man, he let me know that you got to let the old guys do the talking, it’s about respect. And now when I sit down and chew the fat with Buddy Guy or someone like that, you have to remember that they have worked really hard and long to be the center of attention. So you got to give them the opportunity to do most of the talking. You can’t be some 23-year-old whipper snapper [laughs].

So it is a matter of apprenticeship in blues music. Well it used to be, and I hope it still is. You play with the older guys and they kind of teach you how to be and stuff like that.

I used to open for guys like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Albert Collins, and they always used to dress nicer than the audience was dressed. And added a little pizzazz to it. That’s another thing about the blues world. But I actually don’t really wear a suit when I play.

Yeah, so the little things you pick up in blues and roots music. The apprenticeship of the whole thing.

Ellis alongside Derek Trucks, Oliver Wood, Susan Tedeschi at the Fox Theatre show in Atlanta in 2017, a few months after Hampton passed away. Photo by Max Stewart

I have to ask as well about the great Col. Bruce Hampton. I was at the 2017 Fox Theater show in Atlanta with my dad a few months after he passed away on that stage for his 70th birthday (link to our review of that Tedeschi Trucks Band, Wood Brothers show where Ellis sat in). That was a heavy night.

It was heavy because me and Oliver Wood, Susan [Tedeschi], and Derek [Trucks] had just been there [a few moths prior] and played with Bruce and watched him unfortunately pass away. But his spirit was definitely there in the house that night…

Yeah, we could feel the energy from the audience. It was the most powerful musical moment I have ever seen live.

Bruce Hampton is a mystical figure in music, but someone that everyone in the scene seemed to look up to. Anything stand out as you reflect on Hampton’s influence? How did he help you evolve your craft and the way that you approach being a musician?

Definitely. In blues, you learn all the styles in playing with different people, and learn different techniques from listening to records. And Bruce Hampton just threw that all out the window for everybody here in Atlanta and he just said, ‘Be yourself.’ He definitely attracted a lot of great musicians to play with him.

I was playing with Bruce before [Hampton’s band] the Aquarium Rescue Unit, in a band called the Stained Souls. And we had a different lineup every show. I remember the first show we were at a bar in Little Five Points called The Little Five Points Pub, and that was the big place to play in the Seventies. It was the first Stained Souls show, and it was me, Bruce, and a drummer. And of course it was completely unrehearsed, so four hours of music completely unrehearsed. And I’m a nervous guy, I like things to be kind of tight.

So we go through the night, and it was before cell phones, and Bruce was a real hard guy to track down at the time. And I kept calling him all week and telling him ‘We’ve got to have a bass player.’ And he kept telling me, ‘I’m working on it, working on it.’ I kept bugging him about it all week. And the second week of The Stained Souls show, we got there and there were three bass players. [Laughs] So it went from no bass players to three bass players, and a guy on a unicycle juggling.

So it definitely bordered on performance art. When we were in college, Bruce was doing weird stuff like being a solo performer, after his days in the Hampton Grease Band. He would talk and then blow on the alto saxophone…

Yeah, I heard about this. It was pseudo-comedy right?

Well that was the thing, we didn’t know whether to laugh or not. He would get through a line and just stand. I thought it was great and I had some other friends that thought it was just terrible. They could not be converted, so he definitely drew a line in the sand.

At one point we did a performance on Georgia Public TV, we did like an hour in-studio concert. And he went really out, I mean he really went berserk. And there were wild camera angles on him, that made him look like the jolly green giant and he was playing through all of these distortion pedals. It really bordered on noise.

And I was over at my grandparents’ house and we were watching it on TV, and after about a minute of it [my grandma] said: ‘You’ve got to stop playing with this man, he’s going to ruin your career.’ She didn’t get it. [Laughs]

So funny stuff like that, I have a lot of Hampton stories. I will tell you one more story actually…

Hampton’s guitar case on stage at the Tedeschi Trucks Band show in 2017. Photo by Max Stewart

There were two rounds of the Stained Souls. The first was just me, Bruce, and whoever. I remember [bassist] Oteil [Burbridge] (Tedeschi Trucks Band, Allman Brothers Band, Dead & Company) made his Atlanta debut in The Stained Souls. We had never met him and he was amazing. We were opening for Adrian Bellew at The Cotton Club.

So Bruce would just bring in different people and we would just jam and that was our show. But there were times we would go out to Athens and play. I remember one night at the end of the show, Bruce sent me back to get the money, and it was not a well-attended show. And after they paid the money for the door man and the sound man, we actually owed the club $30. And when I told this to Bruce he goes, ‘Perfect!‘ He thought that was a perfect show. I wasn’t in it for the money or anything, I had the Heartfixers going, but I had to tell the other guys. So stuff like that would happen.

But then, the second round of Stained Souls was after 20 years or something, and Bruce called me up and said there was a benefit or something and I asked who was gonna play with us. Just to make sure there was a bass player, you know. And he got the Widespread Panic guys to be in the band. We ended up doing ten shows with those guys. So that was the second round. Me and Bruce, [and Widespread Panic’s] Dave Schools, Todd [Nance], JoJo [Hermann] and sometimes J.B. [John Bell], and even sometimes Count M’butu. We sold out big theatres throughout the south.

I would be Bruce’s driver and Bruce would always have to stop and he would get this massive amount of junk food. And the next day, I would look at my car and there would be a massive amount of garbage everywhere. You know sometimes you wonder at the gas station who gets a Coca-Cola that is as big as a garbage can? Bruce Hampton was that guy. He would get the Big Gulp or whatever. He would consume massive amounts of junk food and then the next day there would be garbage like ten men had been in there. Just debris, what a character. [Laughs].

He was indeed. Reflecting on the show where he passed at The Fox Theater, it is certainly tragic but almost poetic in the fact that he died at his 70th birthday party during one of the last songs, surrounded by all of these people who loved him. [John Bell, Dave Schools, Jon Fishman, Warren Haynes, Karl Denson, Jimmy Herring, Chuck Leavell, John Popper, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Brandon “TAZ” Niederauer were all in attendance.] Very Bruce in a lot of respects.

Yeah, I mean looking back, he’s such a badass that it’s amazing that he played at his own funeral basically. It was a terrible night, but looking back it may have been the best concert that I have been a part of. And then it became the worst concert, so that is a pretty heavy dynamic right there.

Photo by Ian Rawn, courtesy of Alligator Records

Not to bring up another downer, but I am sorry to hear about the passing of your longtime touring bassist, James ‘The Evil One’ Ferguson. Do any memories stand out from touring the globe with him?

Well when I hired him, his name was James Ferguson and then we played over in Europe and this Dutch girl came up to the stage and pointed to him and said, ‘You are the evil one.’ And he came up to me and said he was changing his name to ‘The Evil One.‘ [Laughs].

And I said, that is fine, but I told him to please not put that on his passport because that is not the type of name you want at the border. Yeah… he was with me a lot of years. Most of 1990-2012, so 22 years. He played with me at the Beacon Theatre opening for John Lee Hooker, we went all over the world: Australia, Europe, Russia. We swam in the Indian Ocean together there in Australia. We used to open for the Allman Brothers Band, and one time, they invited him to get up on stage and sit in and I know that was a big thrill for him.

We got to hang out with The Rolling Stones one time, and I was over there talking to [drummer] Charlie Watts, I was too nervous to hang out with the big boys. And I looked over there, and there was The Evil One engaged in a conversation with Mick Jagger. And Mick Jagger was holding court and doing what the old blues guys do, which is 99% of the talking. And I looked over there and here was this country guy from Mississippi that I found at a juke joint in the Eighties, and here he is hanging out with Mick Jagger.

So a lot of good memories. And yeah, he got sick and we had been in touch, not as often as I wanted to be, but he had not been playing with me at the moment. And the cancer took him pretty quick. I made a Facebook post about it and it was the most liked and viewed post I have had in social media history. So the fans remember him and remember him well. Thank you for mentioning that, it is a sad thing.

He had retired from playing music and his job was he worked at a Harley place. He worked on nothing but the old motorcycles, no computer stuff, just the old bikes. Putting together bikes. So the real deal, a biker and blues bass player.

I saw a picture that he had a Grateful Dead gas tank.

Oh yeah, he was an old Deadhead too. He had the Grateful Dead logo airbrushed on his motorcycle gas tank and when he was cremated they put his ashes in the gas tank.

But it is sad, and I wish I had a chance to play with him again. But one week they were calling me to tell me he was sick, and the next week they were calling from Memphis to tell me he had passed away. There is gonna be more of those coming up too. I am no spring chicken myself, I am in my sixties. I cannot believe that, I don’t feel sixty. I feel forty or something.

I am a big supporter of the Atlanta music scene and want to see younger musicians and live venues thrive, although that is very tough at this time. Any advice for younger blues musicians trying to make it in 2020?

If there is anything I have learned in 41 years on the road, it is patience. Patience is not something that when you are twenty and starting out, a word you want to hear. You want shit now. I have the ability to step back and look at the big picture, but when you are just starting out that is an impossible task. The big picture does not exist because you are just trying to get a booking agent, or record contract, or something to have some kind of momentum to hang a career off of. It would be a terrible time to be starting out right now.

We do think it is going to come back. We have got all of our shows moved to next spring. So really it is stuff I do not have control over, but I am doing stuff I do have control over by making music.

There’s a lot of stuff happening, as well. Like years ago, record companies would never let you release some music. Your songs were supposed to be ‘a secret’ and would launch to the public only when the album comes out. But now, you can go ahead and put it out there.

It has never been better for the listener, there are sources like YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and you can listen for free as long as you are willing to listen to the weird commercials every once in a while. And just for pennies a day, you can listen without the commercials so it has never been better for the listener.

As for the artist though, I guess it is nice to know there are a lot of mediums to get your content out there. Vinyl has been making a comeback for sure. I am 31 and a lot of friends in my age range are getting into buying records because they like the tangibility aspect of it in a cloud-based society. It is good to supplement streaming services by purchasing music from the artist directly.

Think you will package some of these songs you have written during quarantine?

We want to get back on the road to continue promotion of Ice Cream in Hell. At some point, I have already written 50 songs, so it is going to be hard to whittle them down. I write them and send them to my producer and record company, and they send back their critique. So I keep count of what everybody is liking and what I am liking because that counts too. Call me well-prepared for sure. And I am hoping at some point to do an all-acoustic album.

I did an all-instrumental album in 2013 with Get It. So another specialty-type album I want to do is one with nothing but acoustic instruments.

Photo by Regan Kelly, courtesy of Alligator Records

Sounds like some exciting releases on the horizon to look forward to. I am sure being signed to the legendary Alligator Records must have its advantages.

It’s great. Pretty much everyone in blues has recorded or been involved in recording for Alligator Records. Everybody from B.B. King to Stevie Ray Vaughan, to the rest of us. When I was in college, collecting records, listening to vinyl, I would have never thought I would be signed to Alligator Records. You had to be a blues guy from Chicago, but now they’ve got all types of people.

Like you mentioned earlier, now is a difficult time, but there will be some great art that will come out of this. The impact will be significant.

It is nice to see you and some of the other Atlanta blues musicians make the most of this time, like Danny ‘Mudcat’ Dudeck, while you weather the storm and continue to post music for the fans.

Mudcat is my favorite blues artist in Atlanta. I mean, that guy does more for the old blues guys than anyone I have ever known in my life. Like some of the bands like Canned Heat in the Sixties. Mudcat is awesome, we had him open our album release show in January of this year. I do as much with him as I can. He’s a saint.

Yes, in retrospect it will lead to some great art. Going through it now, it is pretty awful. There is going to be technological advances and people are writing music.

But unfortunately, there will be a weeding out and there will be people that will drop out. I saw a blues musician from a Grammy-nominated band announce his departure from music. I’m not gonna be him. I am able to look at the big picture.


Purchase some of Tinsley Ellis’ music here or check out his Facebook to keep up with all the new tunes he is writing!

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