Flaming-haired guitarist and slide singer Ellen McIlwaine jammed with Hendrix

Ellen McIlwaine took her musical gifts in surprising directions, defying expectations at every turn.


Ellen McIlwaine was the epitome of an adventurous spirit: fierce and independent, the flaming-haired artist took her musical gifts in surprising directions, defying expectations at every turn. As a virtuoso slide guitarist with a seismic voice, she excelled in a male dominated field, leading her bands with a daring musical style that transcended genres and cultures.

“There is a deep well of musical spirit that lives in me and that comes out when I play,” Ms. McIlwaine told interviewer Paul Corby in 2019, when she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Toronto Blues Society. . “I think a lot of people are playing with me and through me, and singing with me and through me. It is truly a mystical experience. One of those she channeled was Jimi Hendrix, a friend of their time in Greenwich Village to whom Ms McIlwaine gave credit for teaching her that what she had to say was unique. Another was Johnny Winter, from whom she learned to create her own unconventional open chords.

Her musical expression was not limited to blues, rock or funk, but relied on a strong affinity for jazz, folk, country and what has been called world music, developed while she attended an international school in Japan and grew up with families all over the world. world. Ms. McIlwaine, who was fluent in Japanese, absorbed all of these cultural influences and incorporated them into her recordings. His most recent album, 2006′s Mystical bridge, was a collaboration with Canadian tabla player Cassius Khan.

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Strong, powerful and flamboyant on stage, Ms. McIlwaine was kind, gentle and open-hearted, and easily made friends wherever she went. After getting sober in 1982, she moved to Canada, living in Montreal and Toronto before moving to Calgary a decade later. There, while pursuing her career and teaching guitar and vocals (including Arabic scales and yodeling), Ms. McIlwaine volunteered at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. For the past eight years, she has driven a school bus – as much for her love of children as for her regular income. When she died at 75 in a Calgary hospice from esophageal cancer on June 23, after being diagnosed just six weeks earlier, many mourned the loss of a revolutionary artist and generous soul .

Blues and world music legend Taj Mahal told The Globe and Mail Watching Ms. McIlwaine’s performance was a revelation for him. “She was the first contemporary musician that I heard play it all, sing it all, slide it all and do it solo on top of all that talent,” said Mr. Mahal, who appeared on Ms. McIlwaine’s show. . Spontaneous combustion album in 2000. “Several nights I watched potential guitarists sneak through the door of a club, cafe or concert hall where she was playing because they couldn’t stand the heat! “

“Ellen was way ahead of her time,” said guitarist and blues singer Sue Foley, who toured with Ms. McIlwaine and interviewed her for her upcoming guitarist book. “Everything she did musically was her own design, her slide technique, her open chords and everything she did with world music and semitones. She could let off steam and sing really well with a Multioctave range. She paved the way for me and other women. I owe her a huge debt.

Grammy-winning producer-guitarist Colin Linden calls her an inspiring artist: “Ellen was a pioneer who combined acoustic and electric sounds in a way no one had done before. And her song was the perfect companion to her game, capable of great tenderness, joy, anger and empathy.

Meanwhile, Ms. McIlwaine’s friends talk about her other qualities. “Ellen has always been a strong person and personality,” said Sharron Toews. “She was not passing judgment on everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, black or white, transgender or without arms or legs. For her, everyone was a person – she saw through all the facades. “

Ms. McIlwaine’s death came just as her career seemed to be enjoying a rebirth. She was working on her autobiography and planned to record a new album this fall. Mojo, the prestigious British music magazine, has just published a feature article on her entitled “Still Blazing Up the Bottleneck Blues”. And Montreal filmmaker Alfonso Maiorana, co-director of the award-winning film Rumble: the Indians who rocked the world, is developing a documentary about her entitled Slide goddess.

The only adopted child of Southern Presbyterians, Frances Ellen McIlwaine was born in Nashville, Tennessee on October 1, 1945. When she was two years old, her missionary parents, William and Aurine, took her to Kobe, Japan, where she lived for the next 15 years, attending the International School of the Canadian Academy. She started playing the piano at the age of five and later snared in the marching band while singing in the school choir. Ms. McIlwaine attributed listening to American Forces Network radio to her discovery of Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.

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When Mrs. McIlwaine was 11 years old, her father, who was himself born in Japan in 1893 to missionary parents, took her to a performance of Kabuki, the highly stylized classical form of Japanese dramatic dance. “I will never forget it,” she wrote on Facebook. “It was a great privilege to learn so much about old Japan.”

Returning to the United States in 1963, Ms. McIlwaine studied history at a Christian school in Tennessee, but dropped out to take art classes in Atlanta. There, she discovered the guitar and began to perform in local cafes; in 1966, folk singer Patrick Sky urged her to move to Greenwich Village. Ms. McIlwaine has landed work at Café Au Go Go six nights a week, opening for blues artists such as Muddy Waters and John Hammond. It was there that she met Mr. Hendrix, who jammed with Ms. McIlwaine during her sets; she later painted her portrait on one of her albums and covered her From the top of the sky.

After leading the blues rock band Fear Itself, Ms. McIlwaine went solo and was acclaimed for her recordings. His 1972 album Honky Tonk Angel showcased her dazzling style and showcased a fascinating version of Blind Faith’s I can’t find my way back that many critics call definitive. The following year, she goes out We the people, which included his song Underground river about Mr. Hendrix and the explosive title song, an Indian raga style workout recorded live at Carnegie Hall with Ms. McIlwaine singing scat – in Japanese, no less.

In an era when radio had freer formats, Ms. McIlwaine relied on the airwaves and toured extensively – including several dates with an unfamiliar opening by Tom Waits – and drew large audiences. When The guitar album appeared in 1974, she was the only female guitarist on a compilation that included artists like Eric Clapton, John McLaughlin, T-Bone Walker, Link Wray and Roy Buchanan. But, as Alan Niester wrote in The Globe and Mail, “with the advent of structured playlists and few risk-taking disc jockeys, it seemed to fade from the spotlight.” Ms. McIlwaine recently told Mojo: “It has always been a hindrance as well as an asset to be completely original.”

Ms. McIlwaine has always been aware of gender bias. While volunteering at the Calgary Children’s Hospital, often in the cancer ward, she met Paul Brandt, who worked there. They bonded as guitarists. She told the future Canadian country star: “Well, they call me a guitar player and I bet you are called a medic.”

Mrs. McIlwaine left for Montreal in 1975. There she recorded The real Ellen McIlwaine with the Ville Émard Blues Band and released his next album, Everyone needs it, with one of his greatest heroes, the legendary Cream bassist Jack Bruce. One evening, while performing at the Rising Sun in Montreal, Ms. McIlwaine reconnected with an old friend, singer Lisa Hartt. “I was at a low point in my life,” recalls Ms. Hartt, “and I just wanted to go out and get drunk with Ellen. But the minute I saw her, I knew it wouldn’t happen. She was absolutely radiant. It turned out that she had become sober and sober. Ellen saved my life that night by introducing me to Alcoholics Anonymous.

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During the 1980s, Ms. McIlwaine moved to Toronto and befriended guitarist Jeff Healey. She has performed with local musicians Terry Wilkins and Bucky Berger, embracing reggae music. For his next album, Look for trouble, she recruits and tours with bassist Kit Johnson, drummer Michelle Josef and percussionist Quammie Williams. Mr. Williams remembers her as a force of nature, always one with the music and good about herself. “Ellen was a towering figure,” he recalls. “She looked like a mother of 15, but embraced being a woman, with eyelashes, makeup and long painted nails, very frilly – even her amplifier had a lace covering she made. She absolutely killed on the slide guitar. She was the real deal.

In the early 2000s, Ms. McIlwaine’s music was discovered by a new generation. DJs have sampled her work, including Englishman Fatboy Slim and Japanese Kenichi Yanai, with whom she toured to Japanese dance clubs in 2002 and 2005. Meanwhile, young female artists Suzie Vinnick and Jackie Venson to acclaimed guitarists Susan Tedeschi and Jennifer Batten began to cite her as a major influence. Bebe Buckskin, a Nêhiyaw singer-songwriter from northern Alberta, simply calls her “the original badass mom.”

Ms. Toews says her close friend will be remembered as much for her immense heart as for her immense talent. “Ellen was someone who immediately connected with people from other cultures,” Ms. Toews said. “She could talk to anyone, whether they were from Nigeria or Afghanistan – she was a bridge.” Ms Toews added (Ms McIlwaine is the godmother of her son, Max Austin, now a DJ in Nelson, BC): “The kids loved Ellen and she loved them. She would have had 12 children if she hadn’t chosen music and had the money.

Holger Petersen, who released Ms. McIlwaine’s albums on her label Stony Plain, spoke to her the week before her death. “She enjoyed the life she had led so much,” said Petersen. “She was in a great place, really positive.”

Without a surviving family, Ms. McIlwaine leaves behind a large circle of friends.

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