Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1957, Ellis was raised in southern Florida. He discovered the blues through the backdoor of British Invasion bands such as the Yardbirds, the Animals, Cream, and the Rolling Stones as well as Southern rockers such as the Allman Brothers.
Already an accomplished teenaged musician, Ellis soon joined a gritty local blues band, the Alley Cats. In 1981, along with veteran blues singer and harpist Chicago Bob Nelson, Tinsley formed the Heartfixers, a group that would become Atlanta's top-drawing blue band. After cutting a few Heartfixers albums for the Landslide label, Ellis was ready to head out on his own.
Georgie Blue, Tinsley's first Alligator release, hit the unprepared public by surprise in 1988. Critics and fans quickly agreed that a new and original guitar hero had emerged.