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Rock & Roll Rewind: Ellen McIlwaine

c d kaplan is a Rock & Roll lifer. He’s 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.” It 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.

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 various
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 Sant 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 make 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. 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.

Observer of the Passing Scene: Pop Culture and Sports. Writer. Film Critic. Curmudgeon. Rock & Roll and Louisville Cardinal fan.

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