Ellen McIlwaine

About Ellen McIlwaine

Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Ellen McIlwaine was a gutsy, spirited performer who played and sang a fiery brand of blues like few other female blues singers. Raised by missionaries, McIlwaine spent her first 15 years in Japan, playing piano at age five and singing in a church choir. She began listening to U.S. Armed Forces Radio in junior high school and became enamored with singers like Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Professor Longhair. McIlwaine returned to the U.S. with her parents when she was 17 and attended King College in Bristol, Tennessee and DeKalb College in Atlanta. She left college after two years and began her professional performing career in Atlanta in 1966.
Shortly after she began playing professionally, folksinger Patrick Sky heard her and encouraged her to come to New York City. Sky's manager secured her some bookings at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, and there she shared bills with Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin' Wolf. Richie Havens and Randy California taught her a few things about slide guitar, and she took it from there. She moved back to Atlanta and formed her first group, Fear Itself. With that group, she pioneered what was then a novel concept: she was both the guitar-slinging bandleader and the group's lead vocalist. A year later, the all-male backup group went with her to New York to record their self-titled debut album for Dot Records.
McIlwaine's next two recordings were Honky Tonk Angel (1972) and We the People (1973), both for Polydor. In 1975, she recorded The Real Ellen McIlwaine for Canadian label Kot'Ai. Her subsequent output was somewhat sporadic, but her performances remained spirited. Her other recordings prior to the new millennium included Ellen McIlwaine (1978) for United Artists; Everybody Needs It (1982) for the Blind Pig label; and a 1988 release on Stony Plain, Looking for Trouble. After many years in Connecticut, McIlwaine relocated to Toronto, Ontario in the late '80s, and subsequently moved to Alberta. Her recordings in the 2000s included 2001's Spontaneous Combustion, the Japanese release Live at Yellow in 2002, and 2006's adventurous change of pace Mystic Bridge, an Eastern-tinged outing featuring Cassius Khan on tablas and Linsey Wellman on sax. Ellen McIlwaine died on June 23, 2021 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada due to esophageal cancer; she was 75 years old. ~ Richard Skelly

  • HOMETOWN
    Nashville, TN
  • BORN
    October 1, 1945

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