Singer, songwriter and slide guitarist Ellen McIlwaine, who rose to notability in the late 1960s and made a number of solo albums from the early 70s onwards, died on June 23 at a hospice center in her adopted home of Calgary, Alberta. She was 75.
McIlwaine was born in Nashville in 1945 but raised by adoptive missionary parents in an international community in Kobe, Japan, then got her musical start in Atlanta. She was influenced by the R&B of New Orleans, classical music from Europe, traditional country and numerous international genres.
As her website describes it, “her high energy rhythm & blues, along with Middle Eastern laments, Indian, Pakistani & West African influences and a capella gospel numbers all drive her amazing slide guitar and vocal acrobatics to make for a dynamic show.”
She began to figure on the Greenwich Village scene in 1966, playing with a then little-known Jimi Hendrix, before his move to the UK that became the catalyst in his career. Hendrix “left an impression on me,” she told Beetle in 1972. “We played together at the Go-Go in New York and I watched him make sounds on his guitar and I learned to use the guitar as a voice. I think I got that from him.”
In her time in New York, she also got to know Odetta, Richie Havens, and Mississippi John Hurt. McIlwaine then moved back to Atlanta and, most unusually for the time, became the frontwoman with a women-led psychedelic rock band, Fear Itself.
The group’s only album, a self-titled set produced by the widely-travelled Tom Wilson, was released on Dot Records in 1968. McIlwaine subsequently began a solo career, signing to Polydor, for whom she released Honky Tonk Angel in 1972 and We The People the following year.
The first of those was a half-live, half-studio disc, with in-concert versions of Jack Bruce and Pete Brown’s “Weird of Hermiston” and her old friend Hendrix’s “Up From The Skies”; studio cuts included a cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” and two of her own songs. This and We The People were reissued in a 1993 dual release as Up From The Skies: The Polydor Years.
She recorded as an independent artist from 1975’s The Real Ellen McIlwaine onwards, forming a particular following in Australia, where an eponymous album charted in 1978. In 2008 she toured in America with Patty Larkin’s La Guitara ensemble, then in 2009 and 2010 in Canada with Sue Foley’s Guitar Women.
McIlwaine appeared most recently on the album Live in Gray Creek in 2010. In 2013, she appeared in the Hendrix documentary Hear My Train A Comin, and in recent years had been working on her autobiography.
“I think it’s terrible that no one will take a female guitar player seriously,” McIlwaine told Sounds in 1974. “A woman playing guitar is just not done. You know why? Because a guitar is in front of you and it covers up your middle, which is what a lot of people want to see. Even the record companies figure you can always dispose of the guitar and wiggle in front of a band.
“As a performer,” she added, “I have to get an energy going between me and the audience. I just keep playing, I let the feeling pull me until it stops.”