Artist: Tinsley Ellis
Album: Red Clay Soul
Label: Heartfixer/ Landslide
Release Date: 06/03/2016
Early in his career Tinsley Ellis was known primarily as a fiery blues-rock guitarist and while that fire still burns, today Ellis continues to evolve as one of the best writers and vocalists in blues. “I’ve been in the business of music for over 40 years now,” Ellis stresses. “I’ve been passed around like a joint from label to label, from booking agency to booking agency, from manager to manager, and from producer to producer, so I’ve learned a lot. Knowing what works in the music business can be very valuable, but knowing what doesn’t work in the music business is priceless. Things are changing fast in the music business, and it’s adapt or die.” Ellis has his own independent label, Heartfixer, named after the Albert King tune, “Heartfixin’ Business” and this is the fourth release on the label. His 2015 release, Tough Love, was arguably the best of his storied career and is a tough act to follow. So, Ellis kept some of the same elements in place for this project, retaining master keyboardist and co-producer Kevin McKendree; and the rhythm section of bassist Steve Mackey and drummer Lynn Williams. The sessions were once again done in Nashville.
Ellis, of course, is based in Atlanta and as the title suggests, he draws on the wealth of talent from his home state. “Georgia is where the Blues has got Soul,” Ellis offers. “From the gospel inspired Ray Charles, to the R&B of James Brown and Otis Redding, to the rock n roll of Little Richard, to the blues rock of the Allman Brothers Band, all these acts have one thing in common. They all have the sound of Georgia and down here we call that sound red clay soul.”
Ellis begins with the rousing “All I Think About” featuring string bending notes and the punch piano and swirling organ of McKendree. “Givin’ You Up” finds the band in a soulful groove for a tune co-penned by Oliver Wood who contributes on guitar and vocals. The tune reminds me a bit of sessions Duane Allman did with R&B singers like Wilson Pickett and Johnny Jenkins. “Calllin’” slows it down and Wendy Moten provides vocal counterpoint to Ellis. As the album unfolds, Ellis continues to mix the tempos, continuing the R&B in “Anything But Go,” delivering some slow sensual blues in “Hungry Woman Blues” and alternately stomping, boogey-ing, or in the case of “Party of One” offering a Fender Rhodes driven ballad. You clearly hear the influence of southern rock and the Allmans in several places, but the instrumental, “Estero Noche” with Lynn Williams’ percussion touches resembles Santana. His leads are clean, stinging, and despite the elongated notes, they are mostly economical throughout.
With the bar set high, Ellis matches Tough Love. If you moved away from Ellis after his Alligator years, it’s time that you revisit his work. His partnership with McKendree remains strong now on all four Heartfixer releases. To use his word, he has not only adapted. He’s one of the most complete blues artists we have right now.
– Jim Hynes