Tinsley Ellis branches out from playing straight blues to rock

Daniel C. Hartman

The musical river known as the blues has many tributaries and branches.

Some of the tributaries have fed the river for a long time, and the river has branched off into many new directions.

Atlanta-based guitarist and vocalist Tinsley Ellis is both a branch and a tributary. Just don’t call him a bluesman.

“I’m a rock-and-roller who plays the blues,” Ellis says. “Calling myself a bluesman seems a disservice to the older guys who have spent a lifetime paying dues.”

Ellis has been paying his own dues on the road since the early ’80s. He and his band will be making a stop at the Maintenance Shop Saturday — his eighth performance there in 15 years.

“It’s one of my favorite places to play in the world,” Ellis says. “It’s not only me, though — many of my fellow musicians have told me they love to play there. Venues like the M-Shop and groups like the Central Iowa Blues Society, who are probably some of the best supporters of the blues around, make us want to play that stage.”

It was through rock ‘n’ roll Ellis says he learned about the relationship between rock and blues.

Growing up in south Florida, Ellis grew up listening to the “British Invasion” bands of the ’60s like the Yardbirds, the Animals and the Rolling Stones. Ellis, however, wanted to know where that sound they were playing came from. As he searched, the one name that kept coming up was King — B.B. King.

Soon, 15-year-old Ellis made his way to an all-ages show by King at a Miami Beach hotel. That was all it took.

“After that, it was blues, blues, blues,” Ellis says. “I was definitely hooked. I couldn’t get enough of that new type of music I discovered. This was B. B. before he came out with ‘The Thrill is Gone.’ This was back when he was still playing bars and other assorted venues.”

Ellis says he didn’t really learn what the blues were about until he started playing with a group of seasoned blues musicians in the late ’70s. It was through playing with those old-timers that Ellis discovered passionate guitar playing was what he really drew him to the blues.

Ellis is particularly passionate about the elder statesmen of the blues. Many of them have died and many are slowing down, he says.

“A lot of the greats have passed on,” Ellis says. “Many of them have also played there at the Maintenance Shop over the years — Muddy Waters, Albert King and Robert Collins. Unfortunately, they’re all gone now.”

Ellis says listeners need to enjoy old bluesmen like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and B.B. King while they’re alive.

“As somebody once said, ‘We need to bring them flowers while they’re alive, not when they’re dead,'” Ellis says. “Because it appears to me that they don’t make B.B. Kings anymore.”

Who: Tinsley Ellis

Where: Maintenance Shop

When: 9 p.m., Saturday

Cost: $7 students, $11 public