Atlanta roadmaster finds a new home

Tinsley Ellis aims for live feel in first Telarc disc

A funny thing happens each year when various media outlets (including this one) announce their annual "best of" findings: Atlanta artists who have their greatest success away from home often get overlooked. One local example is Atlanta-based jazzman Freddy Cole, brother of the late Nat King Cole, who is so busy touring Europe and Asia that some people don't realize he's a local artist. Another is Tinsley Ellis, who has spent about 200 nights a year on the road since the late 1980s, working blues festivals and clubs around the country as bandleader/guitarist/singer/songwriter of the Tinsley Ellis Band.

Perhaps it's more appropriate to think of Ellis, Cole and the like as Atlanta's music ambassadors, because it's through their roadwork that the city's musical reputation flourishes. As for reputations, Ellis' will no doubt benefit from his recent signing to Telarc Records, a Cleveland-based label with international marketing clout and a diverse catalog of classical music, jazz, blues and more. It was Ellis' roadwork, in fact, that first brought him to Telarc's attention. His signing was a business decision, not merely an artistic one.

"Here's a guy who's on the road more than half the year, an established artist with a track record," says Rob Saslow, Telarc's director of marketing. "If you work press and radio around his tour dates, then Tinsley Ellis is going to sell a lot of records for you."

Ellis' first Telarc release, Hell or High Water, is due in stores Feb. 26. He recorded the CD early last month at Stonehenge Recording Studio on the northwest side of Atlanta. The album is the first for Ellis since last year's Kingpin on Capricorn Records. Because it was released shortly before the label folded, the CD got virtually no promotional support.

Hell or High Water finds Ellis on familiar turf. It was recorded live in the studio with his touring band: guitarist Kenny Kilgore, bassist Phil Zone and drummer Scott Callison. Guests include vocalist Donna Hopkins and keyboardist Kevin McKendree. The new release "sounds like our live show, with a little bit of sweetening on top," says Ellis in a phone interview from the road. "I really like the 'live in the studio' approach."

The CD's producer, Eddy Offord (whose resume includes work with Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and 311), also produced Ellis' 1994 Alligator release, Storm Warning, and his 1986 Landslide CD, Cool on It.

Hell or High Water features all-original material, which is a first in Ellis' recording career. "I've been writing these songs over the course of about two years now, and I had a lot to choose from when we went in to record," Ellis says.

After all, he adds, why cover other people's songs when you have your own stories to tell, even if the songs you cover are those of the masters, such as Willie Dixon, Little Walter or Chuck Berry?

This is not to say that Ellis is new to songwriting. Jonny Lang recorded Ellis' "A Quitter Never Wins" for his platinum debut, Lie to Me. But the emphasis on original material, as well as Ellis' control over the recording process, should combine to give Hell or High Water a distinctly personal touch.

"I wanted to make my record and do my music, instead of making other people's records, which is what I had done for a few others," Ellis says. "This one is more like what we sound like."

For more info on Ellis, visit www.tinsleyellis.com. To learn more about Telarc Records, visit www.telarc.com.

On the beat: Guitarist Slim Fatz won the Atlanta Blues Society Challenge at Earthlink Live Oct. 21, besting seven bands for the right to compete at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis Feb. 7-9. Motor City Josh & the Big 3 finished second. Bluesolution was third.

Performing with Donnie McCormick on chicken coop and Barefoot Dave on upright bass, Fatz credits the victory to his emphasis on original material, plus the heavy blues content in his set. "I didn't expect to win," he says. "I didn't expect people to know what I was playing. I don't know any Stevie Ray Vaughan licks. Blues for me goes much further than that."

Fatz will vie for impressive prizes in Memphis, including cash, studio time, gigs at top national blues venues and promotional and booking perks.

In our thoughts: Longtime Atlanta performer and WRFG radio personality Joe "Pig Iron" Shifalo recently underwent surgery to remove a lung after being diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year. ... Michael Heller, also a longtime WRFG DJ and a doorman at Blind Willie's, is in New Orleans recovering from an extended hospitalization. ... Bryan Cole, who suffered a severe heart attack earlier this year, which led to the amputation of his right leg, is back at work producing a Donna Hopkins CD project. Tinsley Ellis will be involved in that one, as well.

Recommended viewing: PBS is airing a four-part series, American Roots Music, which features a wide variety of folk, country, blues and related roots music. Episodes 1 and 2 have already aired once. Episode 1, "When First Unto This Country," next airs on GPTV Fri., Nov. 16, at 1 a.m. (Many of us think of this as Thursday night). Episode 2, "This Land Is Your Land," airs again Fri., Nov. 23, at 1 a.m. Episodes 3 and 4, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "All My Children of the Sun," air back- to-back Mon., Nov. 19, at 10 p.m. For more info, visit www.pbs.org/ameri canrootsmusic.

Recommended reading: Blues fans ought to enjoy Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records, an examination of the Chicago blues label that brought us Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and countless others. Written by Nadine Cohodas, it focuses less on the artists and more on the label, both as a business and a cultural entity. Cohodas takes an unflinching, nonjudgmental look at the manner in which founders Leonard and Phil Chess worked with their artists and others. Fascinating stuff.

Talkin' Blues covers blues and related subjects, with an emphasis on local artists, venues and events. E-mail or send blues news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.??