Obituary: Ellen McIlwaine, Slide Guitarist (75)

“If I had a nickel for every up-and-coming young, white, male guitar player I’ve opened for over the last 41 years,” Ms. McIlwaine told The Record in 2006, “I’d be really rich.”

29 June 2021 | Neil Genzlinger | New York Times

In the mid-1960s Ellen McIlwaine spent about a month playing in New York with a fellow guitarist whose musical tastes she shared, an undiscovered talent named Jimi Hendrix. They made an unusual pair — a white woman working on her slide-guitar skills and a Black guy developing his own flamboyant style. It was going pretty well, and she thought about formalizing the partnership.

“I talked to my manager about Hendrix,” Ms. McIlwaine recalled almost 30 years later in an interview with The Calgary Herald, “and wanting to get a group together, and he said: ‘Oh, I know who that is. He’s Black. You don’t want him in your group.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want you for my manager.’”

That was the music scene at the time — bubbling with talent and experimentation, yet also still hindered by misguided ideas about who should be allowed to become a star.

“People back then thought like that,” Ms. McIlwaine said. “They’d even say things to me like, ‘Ellen, you can’t play the guitar because nobody will be able to look at your body while you sing.’”

Ellen McIlwaine in performance in Chicago in 1980. Her music, shaped by a wide range of influences, was highly regarded by music critics and guitar aficionados, but hit records proved elusive. Credit…Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Hendrix soon went to England and broke out of that box. Ms. McIlwaine became a dazzling slide guitarist and recorded a string of albums but never quite achieved the fame of female guitarists and singers like Bonnie Raitt and Chrissie Hynde, who were just a few years younger.

Ms. McIlwaine died on June 23 in Calgary, Alberta, where she had lived for years. She was 75.

The cause was esophageal cancer, her friend Sharron Toews said.

An international upbringing grounded Ms. McIlwaine in a wide array of musical influences, and her live shows put them all on display — sometimes she would sing a blues number in Japanese. Music critics and guitar aficionados appreciated her, but hits proved elusive.

“Ellen was wasted on the boomers,” Ms. Toews said in a phone interview. “She should have come out 20 years later, because the millennials would have been blown away by someone of her talent.”

Ms. McIlwaine said she started playing her signature slide guitar after seeing the guitarist Randy California, later of the band Spirit, at a club in New York and being struck by his unusual technique: He’d break the neck off a wine bottle and use it as a slide.

“I thought, Well, I can do that,” she told The Record of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, in 2006.

In the group Fear Itself, which played a brand of psychedelic blues and released a self-titled album in 1968, she was the rare female guitarist fronting an otherwise male band. But the band broke up after a few years, and in 1972 she released the first in a string of solo albums, “Honky Tonk Angel.”

The next year John Rockwell, reviewing her performance at Kenny’s Castaways in Manhattan for The New York Times, conveyed the range of her material, a mix of covers and original songs.

“Her voice is a big, well‐trained, controlled pop soprano that seems equally at home in country, blues, gospel, rock, Latin and folk idioms,” he wrote, “and her guitar playing sounds as confidently virtuosic as anyone you might hear.”

“What makes Miss McIlwaine so extraordinary,” he added, “is the way she manages to fuse all her influences into something unique.”

Her most recent album, “Mystic Bridge,” a collaboration with the tabla virtuoso Cassius Khan, was released in 2006 on her own label, Ellen McIlwaine Music (“just so nobody gets confused about whose music it is,” as she told The Calgary Herald that year).

“I’m tired of being on labels,” she said, having been frustrated at times with the limitations placed on what she recorded. “It’s people with temporary jobs making permanent decisions about your career.”

Frances Ellen McIlwaine was born on Oct. 1, 1945, in Nashville and adopted as a baby by William and Aurine (Wilkens) McIlwaine. They were Methodist missionaries, and soon the family had relocated to Kobe, Japan, where she attended a Canadian international school.

“We had 200 students, kindergarten to grade 12, and 28 nationalities,” she told the Canadian newspaper chain Postmedia in 2019. “So I was exposed to world music before it was called world music.”

Her parents got a piano when she was young, and by 5 she was playing it.

“They played hymns for prayers on it every morning,” she told The Record, “and I played rock ’n’ roll every afternoon when they were gone.”

Ms. McIlwaine would sometimes babysit for younger children at the school.

“We’d be riding our tricycles around in the auditorium,” Jane Moorhead, one of those charges, said in a phone interview, “and she’d be banging out ‘Blueberry Hill’ on the piano. She was an awful lot of fun to have as a babysitter.”

Ms. McIlwaine earned her high school diploma at the school and returned to the United States in 1963.

“When we came back to the United States and I started college in Tennessee, the only piano was in the boys’ dorm,” she said, “so I borrowed a guitar that belonged to somebody, and I liked it.”

She dropped out of college and tried art school in Atlanta, playing in clubs while studying. The singer and songwriter Patrick Sky saw her there and advised her to go to Greenwich Village, which she did, meeting Hendrix and others who were part of the music scene there.

Richie Havens was something of a mentor as she refined her guitar playing; once when she complained to him that she couldn’t play all the notes he could with his larger hands, he encouraged her to find her own way. She developed unusual tunings for her guitar and a powerhouse vocal style that, as one writer put it, “is strong enough to strip paint at 10 paces.”

Ms. McIlwaine lived in Woodstock, N.Y., for a time, as well as in Connecticut, but eventually settled in Canada, where she was better known than she was in the United States. Her other albums included “We the People” (1973); “Everybody Needs It” (1982), on which Jack Bruce of Cream played bass; and “Looking for Trouble” (1987).

No immediate family members survive.

Though Ms. McIlwaine continued to perform until becoming ill, for the last eight or nine years she had also driven a school bus to support herself, Ms. Toews said, something she enjoyed doing because she loved children. But she might not have needed that money had things been different during her prime.

“If I had a nickel for every up-and-coming young, white, male guitar player I’ve opened for over the last 41 years,” Ms. McIlwaine told The Record in 2006, “I’d be really rich.”


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