Ellen McIlwaine “Honky Tonk Angel”
There’s a select coterie of artists whose voices are recognised as musical instruments in their own right, their unique vocal deliveries transcending lyrics and, without being pure, trained or operatic, tantalising the ear wordlessly like a breathy tenor sax or a sobbing Dobro. Ella Fitzgerald, Richie Havens, Tim Buckley, the late John Martyn all had this talent. Add to this rare gift an astonishing propensity for producing the deepest funk and the most soulful blues on an acoustic guitar, and you’ve got Ellen McIlwaine.
Born in 1945, Ellen grew up in Japan, the daughter of American missionaries, where she listened to AFN and learned to play New Orleans piano after Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. On the family’s return to Atlanta she switched to guitar, rapidly assimilating all the fiery Southern styles. For several years from 1966 she worked around NYC’s East Village, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Muddy, Wolf, Hardin and Hendrix. After a brief unproductive spell leading her own rock band, Fear Itself, she signed to Polydor in ’72 as a solo artist and produced her freshman album, Honky Tonk Angel.
The comparison with Richie Havens is more than appropriate here. As with the bulk of his early work, her primary mission on this album is to take familiar and unfamiliar songs by other artists and cover them in an idiosyncratic and totally individual vocal fashion, accompanied by a fluid and relentlessly rhymthic acoustic guitar. She’d develop her own songwriting on the follow-up and later albums, but here there are only two originals alongside the eight borrowed songs – but her choice is impeccable, taking in some of the finest writers of the late 60s and early 70s in a plethora of genres. She covers Isaac Hayes (“Toe Hold”), Jack Bruce (“Weird Of Hermiston”), Jimi Hendrix (“Up From The Skies”), Steve Winwood (“Can’t Find My Way Home”), Bobbie Gentry (“Ode To Billy Joe”) and Ghanaian jazz maestro Guy Warren’s “Pinebo (My Story)”, culminating with a momentous retread of the traditional “Wade In The Water”. Most of the tracks are marked by her jazzy, strident Guild guitar, chock-full of scratchy percussive flatpicking, earsplitting eleventh chords and occasional soaring slide, complementing her astonishingly confident, melismatic, androgynous vocal as she plays shamelessly with the lyrics, frequently wandering into pure scat or an ululating African dialect. By contrast the gentle “Pinebo” is a multi-tracked, stereo-separated acapella tour-de-force in Swahili, whilst her reading of the Winwood ditty is masterful and sensitive with immaculate fingerstyling. Half the album was recorded live at NYC’s Bitter End with McIlwaine’s voice and acoustic set off only by adventurous bass guitar and rattling Latin percussion, the remainder at The Record Plant with scarcely denser backing, but McIlwaine’s fretboard pyrotechnics and vocal gymnastics make the whole collection sizzle with excitement. The only sore thumb to stick out from this otherwise homogenous collection is the inexplicable inclusion of the old Kitty Wells country chestnut “(It Wasn’t God Who Made) Honky Tonk Angels”, done in a po-faced, almost caricatured Bakersfield style with full backing band including wailing pedal steel.
Ellen McIlwaine would go on to an uneven but uncompromising career, her commercial appeal blunted by her determination to make music her own way, but she continues to tour and to release albums at intervals. Honky Tonk Angel is out of print in any form as a unit but all of it can be found along with the follow-up We The People and one previously unreleased track on the excellent Chronicles compilation Up From The Skies – The Polydor Years.