Ellen McIlwaine was born on an unknown date in Tennesse, and was adopted and
raised by missionary parents in Japan. She grew up in an American enclave but
in a bilingual environment, having both US and Japanese playmates. Whether this
early linguistic fluency fostered a natural musical ear or vice versa is a subject
for the sociologists to debate. As an adult she used Japanese for scatsinging,
especially in her earlier work. In 1987, she put a Japanese chorus on a recorded
track ("Don't Look Down" on Looking For Trouble).
While growing up, she was attracted to the US R&B artists making waves
at the time: Rufus and Carla Thomas, Ike & Tina Turner, Fats Domino and
Professor Longhair. These filtered into her ears alongside the more staid spirituals
of her parents' choosing as she learned to play piano.
When she grew up, she moved to Atlanta for the blues music scene there, took
up guitar and hamonica and started playing circuits, ending up in New York's
Cafe a Go Go, where she shared the bill with another young guitar sensation
named Jimi Hendrix. After some time there Hendrix went to Britain to form the
Jimi Hendrix Experience and Ellen returned to Atlanta to form the group Fear
Itself with Chris Zaloom (lead gtr), Paul Album (bass), and Bill McCord (drums).
Fear Itself reflected the "underground" and "psychedelic"
blues of the time, kind of a Janis Joplin/Jefferson Airplane meld. They made
one album for Dot records, featuring more rock-oriented versions of tunes she'd
later be identified with: Crawling Kingsnake, Underground River, Born Under
a Bad Sign and Billy Gene (later Billy Jean), as well as an 8:44 version (the
mandatory Sixties "long version") of "In My Time of Dyin'".