Calgary blues guitarist and legend Ellen McIlwaine dies aged 75


Blues guitarist and singer Ellen McIlwaine passed away Wednesday at the age of 75, and for Alberta’s music community, it’s the loss of a legend.

McIlwaine was known for playing nasty slide guitar, swapping licks with Jimi Hendrix and Taj Mahal, releasing numerous collaborative and solo albums, a 2019 Maple Blues Award of Excellence, and spending her final years driving a school bus. in Calgary. between performances.

And according to Holger Petersen, founder of Stony Plain Records, it all started for her in the cafes of Greenwich Village in New York City in the mid-1960s.

“This is where her reputation, I think, as a musician really started,” Petersen told the Open your eyes to Calgary Thursday.

“She signed a contract with a big record company with Polygram Records and made international releases… then signed with Universal and developed an international reputation thanks to her records.”

“Fusional music”

McIlwaine was born in Nashville in 1945, but exposure to other cultures helped shape her sound, said Petersen, who hosts Saturday night blues on CBC radio.

She grew up in Japan at the age of two and lived there listening to American rhythm and blues on the radio. These dynamic influences would reverberate through his work.

Throughout his career, McIlwaine has drawn inspiration from South Asian, West African and gospel music.

  • LISTEN | The Calgary Eyeopener remembers Ellen McIlwain.

Open your eyes to Calgary8:46Remembering Ellen McIlwaine

We hear about the life of legendary local slide guitarist Ellen McIlwaine, who passed away this week at the age of 75. 8:46

“[McIlwaine was] a pioneer of world music or fusion music. She incorporated so many different things, ”said Petersen.

“She was speaking Japanese when she first started playing guitar and slide guitar. That kind of influence came into her playing, but mostly into her singing.

“And her approach to scat singing was to sing along with Japanese words and syllables, which made her totally unique.”

Strength and nobility

McIlwaine released the album Fear itself in a group of the same name in 1968 before going solo in 1972 with Honky Tonk Angel.

While producing and performing, McIlwaine lived in New York, Montreal and Toronto before landing in Calgary in 1991.

“Before that, she had performed in various festivals in [Alberta]. And also, you know, back then there was a very active and robust Prairie music bar scene that had a lot of blues, ”Petersen said.

“And she was actively involved in that scene… being kind of a music nomad, she just found a nice home in Calgary.”

For the last nine years of her life, she also drove a school bus, a tough job Petersen said she was happy to do.

Although his last solo album, Mystic Bridge, was released in 2006, McIlwaine continued to perform at events like the opening of Calgary’s new King Eddy and at venues such as the Ironwood Stage & Grill and the Blue Chair Cafe in Edmonton. (Submitted by the Toronto Blues Society)

It’s representative of what Petersen will remember her, he said: her strength, her nobility, her attitude, how tolerant she was.

“[McIlwaine] was, really, an artist with an international profile who didn’t get much work; wasn’t getting the kind of respect she deserved, “said Petersen.

“And that was a lot of the timing, and this and that. But she had a great attitude towards life and an appreciation for the people, friends and musicians she played with.”


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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