R.I.P. Calgary Blues Hero Ellen McIlwaine

The esteemed artist lost her battle with cancer at age 75
R.I.P. Calgary Blues Hero Ellen McIlwaine
Calgary-based blues hero and slide-guitar powerhouse Ellen McIlwaine has died. This week, her publicist confirmed she lost her battle with cancer on Wednesday (June 23). She was 75.

Born in Nashville, McIlwaine was raised in Kobe, Japan, before eventually moving to Toronto in 1987, then Montreal and later settling down in Alberta in 1991. However, she first made a name for herself in New York City's bustling Greenwich Village scene in the mid-'60s, when she became a fixture at the Cafe Au Go Go. It's here she played with Jimi Hendrix and opened for the likes of Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

In the late '60s, McIlwaine performed the short-lived psychedelic blues-rock band Fear Itself, who released their only album, a Tom Wilson-produced self-titled effort, in 1968.

This soon led McIlwaine to pursue a solo career and land a record deal with Polydor. Through the label, she released Honky Tonk Angel in 1972 and We the People in 1973.

This led McIlwaine to a prolific solo career, releasing roughly a dozen albums over the years. Thanks to her unique upbringing and roots in Japan, McIlwaine not only became known for her powerful slide-guitar work but her pioneering experiments in fusion, drawing inspirations and sounds from South Asia, West Africa and Southern gospel music.

"[McIlwaine was] very much a pioneer of world music or fusion music. She incorporated so many different things," said Holger Petersen, founder of Stony Plain Records, told CBC Radio's Calgary Eyeopener.

"She spoke Japanese when she started to play guitar and slide guitar. That kind of influence came into her playing, but especially in her singing. And her approach to scat singing was to sing in Japanese words and syllables, and that made her totally unique."

While McIlwaine lived quite the nomadic lifestyle in her earlier years, she would eventually call Calgary home in the '90s. In fact, during the last decade of her life, she also become a school bus driver in Calgary.

"[McIlwaine] was, really, an international profile artist who wasn't getting a lot of work; wasn't getting the kind of respect she deserved," Petersen said. "And it was largely timing, and this and that. But she had a great attitude about life, and an appreciation for people, for friends and for the musicians that she played with."

McIlwaine's final album was 2006's self-released Mystic Bridge, and in 2019, she was awarded the Maple Blues Lifetime Achievement Award.