Local music legend Ellen McIlwaine passed away today at the age of 75. McIlwaine earned the nickname the “Goddess of Slide” for her slide guitar skills. She was an innovator, and a true original. McIlwaine’s journey through life was an unusual and colourful one; likewise, her abilities as a musician were captivating and unique.
Born in Nashville, she grew up in Japan, where her adoptive parents were missionaries. Listening to Japanese radio growing up in the 1950s, she fell in love with R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll records. When she moved back to the States as a young adult, she bought a guitar, taught herself to play, and dedicated her life to music. Early in her career, she made a profound musical connection with a pre-fame Jimi Hendrix, playing with him in the mid-’60s Greenwich Village music scene. She would eventually move to Canada in the late ’80s, where she made Calgary her home for the last three decades of her life.
Like Hendrix, Ellen McIlwaine had an entirely personal, revolutionary approach to playing guitar. Her style made ample and flamboyant use of the slide, unusual tunings, and rapid arpeggios and slide hammer-ons. Similarly, her powerful vocal style swooped across a considerable range, and was often coloured by scat-singing, yodels, and unusual harmonies.
She had an extremely diverse set of musical abilities and interests, ranging across blues, jazz, rock, folk, funk, and various strains of world music. She was equally at home in a power trio setting, playing in a solo acoustic format, or collaborating with the likes of tabla master Cassius Khan, blues titan Taj Mahal and Cream bassist Jack Bruce. Yet no matter the context, her own distinctive musicality always shone through.
With a body of recorded work spanning from the 1960s through the 2010s, Ellen McIlwaine won a legion of fans across the globe, with strong followings in far-flung places like Japan and Australia. Among her discography, you’ll find titles released or reissued by Stony Plain Records, which is based in her own province of Alberta, and run by her great friend, Holger Petersen.
A hugely influential musical visionary, a champion of women’s voices in the male-dominated music industry, a relentless innovator, a builder of connections between musical worlds, and a true Alberta treasure.
In her final interview with CKUA’s Holger Petersen, Ellen reflected on her more than four decade career. She spoke about her musical upbringing in Japan, her early exposure to the R&B scene, her first gig in New York, her friendship and and work with Jimi Hendrix and Taj Mahal, and much more. You can listen to the full interview, above.