(CelebrityAccess) — Blues guitarist, singer, songwriter, and slide guitar virtuoso Ellen McIlwaine died on Wednesday in Alberta after a battle with cancer. She was 75.
A native of Tennessee, McIlwaine relocated to Japan with her adoptive missionary parents when she was just two and spent much of her early years listening to both American music on American Armed Forces Radio and local musical fare while growing up in an international community.
She began studying acoustic guitar while attending art school in Atlanta and later moved to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1966, where she began performing, opening for established artists such as Odetta, Richie Havens, Mississippi John Hurt, and Jim Hendrix.
In 1968, she joined a group of Greenwich Village regulars including Chris Zaloom, Steve Cook and Bill McCord to form the group Fear Itself, releasing one eponymously named album and performing at the Woodstock Sound-Outs mini-festival in 1968 before the group dissolved.
McIlwaine then ventured out on her own as a solo artist, quickly generating a cult following on the strength of her first two albums via Polydor, “Honky Tonk Angel” and “We the People.”
She also appeared as the only female artist on Polydor’s “The Guitar Album” a compilation of guitar greats on the label that included the likes of Link Wray, Rory Gallagher, John McLaughlin, Roy Buchannan.
In 1987, McIlwaine moved to Canada, eventually becoming a permanent resident but continued to record and tour regularly, including in Australia where she had built a cult following, with help from Sydney-based AM public rock radio station 2JJ (now Triple-J).
In 2006, she launched her own record label, Ellen McIlwaine Music and recorded “Mystic Bridge” a collaboration with Indian tabla drummer Cassius Khan.
She also spent several years on the road, touring as part of Patty Larkin’s La Guitara ensemble in the US Sue Foley’s Guitar Women.
Ellen performing at the Deep Roots Music Festival in 2008