I recently read Albert Innauratos New York Times review of a U.S. pay TV telecast called "Divas Live". Its a wonderful review deliciously describing how the physically large Aretha Franklin let loose against the pretty, skinny warblers that pass for singers in todays pop. It was an old fashioned cutin competition and sensibly they, except for Celine Dion, backed off. She got cut the worse. There was only one Diva on that stage and Aretha let em know it! (Check out the video if you want to - its terrible except for Aretha at the end)
That review reminded me of the many great female voices in the early days of Rock. Ellen McIlwaine is one of them. She would also blast those pretenders right off the stage.
Ellen was playing in the New York clubs in 1966 as a support act for many of the greats Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf etc. Her music is routed in the Delta/Chicago Blues axis. But like many she uses it as the form on which to build new textures. In 1972 and 1973 the excellent "Honky Tonk Angel" and "We the People" were released (now reissued on 1 CD). "The Real Ellen McIlwaine" followed in 1975. Each of these albums contains a cover of a Bruce/Brown song from the "Songs for the Tailor" album. Weird of Hermiston, Never Tell Your Mother Shes Out of Tune and He the Richmond are magnificent and distinctive interpretations of difficult songs.
In 1982 Ellen organised a recording session with "one of [her] heroes", Jack Bruce. It was a meeting of eclectic, idiosyncratic talents. The result is unique and one of the best albums either of them have released.
I saw Ellen in 1982 at a theatre in Sydney. She was great the voice powering out with that wide range (no whining upper registers from her!); swapping between acoustic, electric slide, piano and solo voice. I can still visualise her standing on stage in long dress, long thick red hair and playing that battered slide guitar (actually an acoustic with a single coil pickup over the sound hole) through a small combo. The sound was incredible. I almost leapt out of my seat when said she said she had just recorded an album with Jack (a few of us applauded at the mention of his name). They actually released it in Australia soon after her tour.
In producing (yes she does that as well) this album Ellen took full advantage of Jacks talents. She sensibly let him play lead bass against her vocals (now who else would dare do that!) but kept his voice for a few backing vocals only. Her slide guitar is somewhat restrained but still potent when she lets loose. Its well worth a track by track review.
I Want Whacha Got (McIlwaine)
Slide guitar opening quickly answered by Jack. Ellen singing over a tight call and response guitar/bass line.
Say a Single Word (McIlwaine)
Vocals and piano. A beautiful song with Ellen exclaiming her independence even in love:
"Ill be damned before Ill say
All those words that it would take for you to stay"
Everybody Needs It (McIlwaine)
Full band doing a rocker on the subject of bar pickups. Jack does some backing vocals.
Come Sit Down and Tell Me (McIlwaine)
Aaaah, that slide guitar and Ellen vocalising in harmony. Classic solo McIlwaine.
Danger Zone (Curtis Mayfield)
Opens with drums and bass. Ellen joins, singing in soul/jazz mode over funky backing. Excellent drums from Paul Wertico. Voice, drums and that Jack Bruce bass guitar few could pull this off, let alone try!
Nothing Left to Be Desired (Johnny Guitar Watson)
An up tempo jazzy interpretation with Ellen double tracking guitars, one with wah-wah. Jack does a multi-tracked backing chorus. A gem.
Regretting Blues (Bruce/Power)
Her obligatory Bruce cover. Ellen on slide, playing one of Jacks typically angular blues. A tasty, too short, slide solo.
Hang On To A Dream (Tim Hardin)
Voice, piano, drums and lead bass. Jack takes a superb solo. Arguably, the definitive version of Tim Hardins finest song. It was great live, even just Ellen alone.
Cure My Blues (Browning Bryant)
Another soulful blues tinged with jazz. Her voice really stars with Jack and Ellen doing chorus background vocals.
Keep On (McIlwaine)
Unrequited love, the topic of so many songs. Ellen does it as well as the best without being maudlin. Jack and Ellen do some more background vocals with the addition of clarinet and trombone an unexpected touch.
Temptation Took Control not included due to time restrictions and it isnt missed as it was the weakest song on the album.
It is followed by the earlier 1975 release "The Real Ellen McIlwaine", which works very well. It consists of more of the solo Ellen and lots of guitar, with the slide on the opening song "Higher Ground" (StevieWonder) grabbing you straight away.
All in all a worthwhile addition to any serious collection and a must for Jack Bruce fans.