B.B. King reached down as if from his perch as the king of the blues to bestow upon a little white kid from Georgia with a love of the blues.
“Ever since then,” said Tinsley Ellis, blues man lifer, “anybody who played the blues, I saw them.”
Fifty-plus years later, Ellis and his bluesy guitar beckon all to the stately Paramount Center for the Arts on Friday, Nov. 29, in Bristol, Tennessee. Fellow blues veteran Tommy Castro & the Painkillers augment the show as openers and more.
“We’re proud and happy to be on the road with Tommy Castro,” Ellis said by phone from a hotel room in Rochester, New York. “We each do a set and then we’ll jam together at the end.”
Maybe it was “Rock Me Baby” or perhaps “The Thrill is Gone.” Whichever, Ellis morphed from a kid with visions of rock ‘n’ roll to one with an undying love of the blues when he first cast eyes and ears on B.B. King.
“He was playing a lounge for a week. My dad took me and some of my friends — 13, 14 years old,” Ellis said. “He blew our minds.”
By then, Ellis had tip-toed up to the blues via an onslaught of British rock bands.
“I got in through the music of the British Invasion,” he said. “The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, but then a friend said I needed to see B.B. King.”
Like Indiana Jones thereafter, Ellis sought the blues with passion and purpose. The blues amounted to the Holy Grail, and he meant to find it within himself as best he could.
“I saw Howlin’ Wolf, man. B.B. King, Muddy Waters,” Ellis said. “I got to back up Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy; KoKo Taylor. We toured with B.B. King, just the nicest man you could ever meet. Always made time for me. When I first saw him, he broke a guitar string. He gave it to me. I’ve still got it.”
Ellis has it, alright. Bitten by the blues bug, Ellis’ career as a rock-blended blues man took significant root when he signed with Chicago’s Alligator records in 1988. From his label debut, “Georgia Blue” to his forthcoming release on Alligator, “Ice Cream in Hell,” Ellis worked from the bottom up.
“I remember the days when we had seven fellas in our motel room on the road,” Ellis said. “To be honest, we had a jug of hooch, got drunk and would pass out. You gotta do what you gotta do.”
Like us all, he’s lost and won. Unlike us all, Ellis sings about it, as on the title track of “Ice Cream in Hell.”
“The hook line goes, ‘When they serve ice cream in hell,’” Ellis said, ‘“I’m going to take you back.’ I’ll do that song in Bristol.”
Stylistically, Ellis plays like fire licks and fire smolders. When hot, pyrotechnics thrust from his fingers amid razor wire leads and throbbing rhythms. When simmering, modicums of elegance ease forth to embrace and to sooth.
That explains his résumé. He’s recorded with Peter Buck of rock’s R.E.M., appeared on albums by The Allman Brothers, and shared stages with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Awards? Ellis has more than shelves can hold.
“Man, I’m thankful for so many things,” he said. “I’m thankful to do music and nothing else. If a musician can say that, then that’s something to be thankful for.”
No man stands alone. Upon the shoulders of blues kings B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf to rock’s Duane Allman and Jeff Beck stands Tinsley Ellis, alive and sizzling.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is my birthright. Blues is my passion,” Ellis said. “It just flows out of me.”