In 2007, Ellen McIlwaine marks her forty-second year as a professional musician!
Ellen McIlwaine’s background is diverse. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, and adopted by Southern Presbyterian missionaries, she spent fifteen years in Japan as part of a small international community attending Canadian Academy in Kobe. She began playing rock-and-roll piano at age five, listening to New Orleans-style rhythm and blues (Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair), Latino groups like Trio Los Panchos, Japanese classical and folk music, American jazz on Japanese radio; Country music and European classical music on US Armed Forces Radio. She also sang in the school and church choirs.
Returning in 1963 to North America with her parents, Ellen attended college for two years in Tennessee and then art school in Atlanta while absorbing the music of Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, BB King, Otis Span, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Bobby Blue Bland, the Isley Brothers, James Brown, the Mighty Clouds of Joy and other rhythm and blues and Gospel groups. It was here she bought her first guitar and began appearing in Atlanta clubs.
In 1966, encouraged by folk singer Patrick Sky she went to Greenwich Village, bought from Guild Guitars the “loaner” steel-stringed acoustic used by Mississippi John Hurt and Richie Havens among others during repairs, and met Richie, Dave Van Ronk and Odetta, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, etc. From the Blue Flames who backed up John Hammond she met Jimi Hendrix and they became friends, playing music together and struggling on the New York scene. After returning to Atlanta in 1967 she formed her own group, Fear Itself, moved to Woodstock, New York, and released the album Fear Itself on Dot Records in 1969.
In 1970 the group dissolved and Ellen began playing solo, recording Honky Tonk Angel in 1972 and We the People in 1973 for Polydor Records. In 1974 Polydor released a compilation, The Guitar Album of guitar players on the label: John McLaughlin, Link Wray, T Bone Walker, Rory Gallagher, Roy Buchannan, Ellen, etc. In 1975 Ellen lived in Montreal for a year and recorded The Real Ellen McIlwaine for Kot’ai/United Artists with members of the Ville Emard Blues Band on some cuts. Moving back to Atlanta, Ellen continued to tour solo sharing the bill with Laura Nyro, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Weather Report, Lily Tomlin, Taj Mahal, George Thorogood, Tom Waits, Chicago, Bruce Springsteen, and Koko Taylor, to name a few. In 1978 Ellen McIlwaine was recorded in New York with John Lee & Gerry Brown and released on United Artists. In 1979 Ellen returned to the power trio format with a new solid body electric given to her by Guild Guitars.
In 1980, her then manager Judy Keyserling financed Everybody Needs It, recorded in Chicago, featuring Jack Bruce (Cream) on bass and background vocals, Paul Wertico (Pat Metheney Band) on drums, Howard Levy on one piano cut, and released in 1982 on Blind Pig Records. Produced by Ellen, it won the 1982 NAIRD Award for Best Rock Album. By this time, Ellen had earned her legendary cult status, with her multi-cultural influences, unique style of slide guitar, playing bass lines against driving rhythms and singing lead guitar lines, along with her powerfully moving vocals and scatting acrobatics.
She toured Australia in 1980 and 1984, and in 1987 recorded Looking For Trouble in Toronto (for Stony Plain Records) where she took up residence, absorbing the reggae influences of Toots & the Maytals and various other Jamaican acts coming through Toronto, which is pleasingly apparent in her music.
In 1990 Ellen played a series of concerts with her hero Johnny Winter and continued to tour North America using regional rhythm sections (bass and drums) from Vancouver, Calgary (where she moved in ‘92), Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and Albany, New York.
In 1996 the original albums The Real Ellen McIlwaine and Everybody Needs It were re-released on one CD on Stony Plain. In 1997 her first European tour was highlighted by the recording of her live performance at the Women in (E)motion Festival in Bremen, Germany. It was released as a CD entitled Ellen McIlwaine/Women in (E)motion Festival by Tradition & Moderne Musikproduktion,(distributed by Festival in Canada) which features Randall Coryell on drums, and Leo Valvassori on bass, and contains “Howl at the Moon”, along with other new material.
Also in 1997 Ellen created a live musical score for the Tom Cone play, True Mummy, drawing on Egyptian and Lebanese traditional dance music and the inspiration of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It distilled itself into her popular original Egyptian Blues. She completed sound scores for two films, one in Germany about the history of rockets and one in Canada called Confessions of a Snake Killer, appears on the Celebration of Blues Collector Series and makes guest appearances on various other artists’ CDs.
In 1998 Honky Tonk Angel & We the People were released on one CD for Polygram Chronicles (now Universal) as Up From the Skies: The Polydor Years. The majority of her catalogue is now in print. Irish DJ David Holmes released a remix of Ellen’s rendition of the Stevie Wonder tune “Higher Ground” on his Essential Mix and in 1999 Fat Boy Slim sampled the guitar intro from the same song for his composition, “Song for Lindy”, causing some controversy but reaching a generous settlement out of court with Stony Plain and Ellen. Also in 1999 a one hour documentary on her life and musical background entitled A Slide Through Time: Ellen McIlwaine Live! was filmed and aired several times on Bravo Channel.
In November 2000, Tradition & Moderne recorded Ellen’s latest album, Spontaneous Combustion, at Seattle’s Ironwood Studios with Taj Mahal’s Rhythm Ambassadors Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums, featuring Taj himself singing on two cuts.
In April of 2001 Ellen recorded with Mondo Grosso, the Japanese Electronica group, produced by Electronica Master, Shinichi Osawa. The disc was released on Sony Music Japan and is called Don’t Let Go, which is also the title of the song Ellen wrote the lyrics and melody for, and features her vocal acrobatics. Two other cuts are included: an instrumental version of the title cut and another Osawa instrumental called “Indian Song”. In June and July 2001 Ellen toured Germany, Switzerland and Austria, opening for Taj Mahal and His Hula Blues Band returning in December with Bill Rich and Kester Smith as her own rhythm section for a tour of Germany and Switzerland.
In November 2001 she re-recorded Born Under a Bad Sign which was sent to Japan and Yukihiro Fukutomi added his electronic expertise, changing the song into a Dance-mix for Kei Kobayashi’s album, Routine, released for Soul Source on Polydor-Universal-Japan.
In February 2002 Ken Yanai of Soul Source brought Ellen, Kester and Bill to Tokyo and recorded Ellen’s new live album also for Polydor-Universal-Japan called Live at Yellow, recorded at dance club Space Lab Yellow with special guest Kayoko Kimura on saxophone. Ellen toured the dance clubs with Kei-san and Yanai-san doing a solo set between their DJ sets in four cities across Japan. It was Ellen’s first trip back since her childhood.
Ellen returned from a successful tour of New Zealand in 2003, then toured Canada and the USA for the rest of that year.
The brilliant classically-trained Indian Tabla genius Cassiius Khan has recorded Mystic Bridge with Ellen at Night Deposit Studios. In addition, Ellen appeared in the live segment of DJ Yanai San’s show in Osaka and Fukuoka in support of the release of their collaboration, Toe Hold, on Soul Source/Universal Japan.
A compilation of women guitar players put together by Patty Larkin called La Guitara: Gender-Bending Strings, featuring Ellen’s Sidu was released on Vanguard Records in 2005 and is well publicized in the US with plans for tour dates with members of the ensemble. Another compilation of women guitar players put together by Sue Foley, called Blues Guitar Women on Ruf Records featuring Ellen’s “Dead End Street” was released in 2005, and plans are in the works for possible appearances with Sue as well.