Ellen McIlwaine was the epitome of an adventurous spirit: fierce and independent, the flame-haired artist took her musical gifts in surprising directions, defying expectations at every turn. As a virtuoso slide guitarist with a seismic voice, she excelled in a male-dominated field, leading her bands with a bold musical style that transcended genre and culture.
Loud, powerful and flamboyant onstage, Ms. McIlwaine was kind, gentle and open-hearted offstage, and made friends easily wherever she went. After getting sober in 1982, she moved to Canada, living in Montreal and Toronto before settling in Calgary a decade later. There, while pursuing her career and teaching guitar and voice (including Arabic scales and yodelling), Ms. McIlwaine volunteered at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. For the past eight years, she drove a school bus – as much for her love of children as the steady income. When she died at 75 in a Calgary hospice of esophageal cancer on June 23, after a diagnosis only six weeks earlier, many mourned the loss of a revolutionary artist and generous soul.
The only adopted child of Southern Presbyterians, Frances Ellen McIlwaine was born in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 1, 1945. When she was two, her missionary parents, William and Aurine, took her to Kobe, Japan, where she lived for the next 15 years, attending the Canadian Academy international school. She started playing piano at the age of five and later snare drum in the marching band while singing in the school choir. Ms. McIlwaine credited listening to the American Forces Network radio with her discovery of Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.
With no surviving family, Ms. McIlwaine leaves behind a large circle of friends.