Guitarist Tinsley Ellis ready to show his ‘Winning Hand’ to Park City
Guitarist Tinsley Ellis, who will play at O.P. Rockwell March 7, is ready to show his “Winning Hand.”
“Winning Hand” is the name of his new album, which also marks his return to the Alligator Records label. And Ellis decided to get back to his guitar-driven style that made him a hit with fans.
To do that, he recorded the album with seven different guitars, including his 1959 Fender Stratocaster, his 1967 Gibson ES 345 and his 1973 Les Paul Deluxe.
But that didn’t mean he wrote the songs with the different guitars in mind.
“When I [made demo recordings of] the songs in my home studio, I listened and would think, ‘This song has a Robert Cray feel,’ so I would reach for a Strat. Or then I would think, ‘This song has a Freddie King sound to it,’ and I would play it on a hollow-bodied Gibson, or another song would have a Cream song, so I would play the Les Paul.”
The consequence of using the different guitars bled into the current tour.
“Now I’m dragging all of those guitars on the road,” he guffawed. “I’m the hotel right now looking at all seven of them.”
All the songs on the album were written by Ellis, except for ‘Dixie Lullaby,” which was originally written and played by the Leon Russell, who died in 2016.
“I wanted to do a Leon Russell song, because both the producer Kevin McKendree and I love Leon’s music and felt the great loss when he passed recently,” Ellis said. “We wanted to a song as an homage to him, and we chose ‘Dixie Lullaby.’”
Ellis selected the song because he couldn’t find anyone who had covered it.
“Joe Cocker did a lot of Leon Russell songs and The Carpenters did ‘Superstar,’” he said. “George Benson and others have done ‘Masquerade.’ And there are many covers of ‘A Song for You.’ So since I couldn’t think of any ‘Dixie Lullaby’ covers, we decided to do it. And we had a lot of fun doing this.”
Ellis made a stack of demo recordings and chose 10 that would serve as the final track list for “Winning Hand.”
“I chose the songs that really had that guitar-driven sound,” he said.
Ellis’ love for the guitar jump-started in 1964 when he saw The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“My parents and I sat in front of an old TV set to watch them, and I don’t even think it was a color TV,” he said. “They just knocked me out, so like a lot of other people, I went and got a guitar that next week.”
Ellis also decided to take some lessons.
“After a few, I released myself on my own recognizances, and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones led me back to the real thing, which is American blues and rhythm and blues,” he said. “I’m completely self taught and have stuck with that all of these years.”
Ellis still feels a rush of adrenaline each time he picks up the guitar.
“There are so many different tones and sounds and volumes you can get on it, because it’s a very expressive instrument,” he said. “When you include the string bending, the guitar sits right up there with a tenor saxophone in terms of being an instrument you can make talk and cry.”
The guitar has opened doors for collaborations and learning opportunities during Ellis’ career.
“When I sat in with the Allman Brothers Band and played with Dickey Betts 25 or 30 years ago, I found out how he does what he does on stage,” Ellis said. “I always get influenced when I play in other groups with Derek Trucks, Gov’t Mule and all the blues players like Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. And part of the payoff of being an opening act is to get called back on stage with them.”
Ellis said he is always humbled when fans tell him how much his music means to them.
“It feels great when I hear things like that, because that’s the way I felt about bands I listened to growing up,” he said. “I feel blessed that I’m able to do something that means something for someone, because music helps to take people away from their cares and woes and, hopefully, deliver them safely back from whence they came.”
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