Ellen McIlwaine: Rock & Roll Repast

Posted: February 15th, 2024 | Filed under: Music, Rock & Roll Rewind | No Comments »

I’m a Rock & Roll lifer. I got stories. Lots of stories. Here’s another.

As is my tendency before I hit the hay, I was culling the interweb the other night, searching for some tuneage that would allow my head to rest more gently on the pillow.

When I came across Lake Street Dive vocalist Rachael Price’s sublime rendering of Steve Winwood’’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” The original appeared on the only album of one and done “supergroup” Blind Faith.

Listening to Ms. Price I couldn’t help but think of the first time I heard that melancholy take of a cover of the tune. By the egregiously ignored Ellen McIlwaine.

With the Mailman floating back to Louisville from Cincy on 42 early in the AM after a 70s Procol Harum show in the Queen City. We were wasted, but could find our way home, thanks to the new lane defining reflector lights along the two lane.

The version neither of us had heard beguiled us both.

Decades before the Google, it took a couple of weeks to track down whom the singer was. The DJ hadn’t IDed her.

McIlwaine’s eclectic style was informed by listening to rock & roll on Japanese radio in her youth, where she lived after being adopted by missionaries. Her releases were full of varied international influences, especially African.

Hers was a talent — singing, playing slide — that in a more just world would have vaulted her into the upper echelons of rock royalty.

It never happened.

Some personal interactions with her when she played Louisville a couple times confirmed it ate away at her.

She played a club in Saint Matthews formerly occupied by a benedictine-on-crustless-bread, ladies-who-lunch eatery called Canary Cottage. The short-lived music venue was owned by a local bookie, looking for a place to wash his money. Stompanato’s. (Named for infamous gangster Johnny Stompanato, who was stabbed to death by his lover Lana Turner’s daughter.)

McIlwaine had the facility to cover other’s tunes making them uniquely her own, as with Winwood’s song. In the same way Aretha stole Otis Redding’s “Respect,” and Hendrix turned Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” into his own.

She was a unique stylist. Yet her career never took off. She mostly played small clubs like the one here in front of sparse audiences. Later in life, some folk festivals. Her anger and frustration with her lot was apparent. There was an undercurrent of it in her chatter during sets, and in those conversations.

She knew how good she was. That she deserved more acclaim.

But it was not to be. Despite several albums and various collaborations.

I heard her twice here. Again when she opened for the Allman Brothers in Knoxville. At that show, she did an amazing cover of Kitty Wells answer to Hank Thompson, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

Such is Ellen McIlwaine’s lack of acclaim, at Wikipedia she is not mentioned among the artists who covered the Winwood tune. Nor by a member of the youtube commentariat on the Price rendering.

More’s the pity. Given her talent, Ellen McIlwaine shoulda been a star.

—c d kaplan

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