For this week’s Classic Clip I’d like to travel some fifty years back in time and briefly turn the spotlight on one of L.A.’s finest and most overlooked songwriters of the era as well as one of the most tragic stories. Judee Sill was a native of the West Coast metropolis who’s childhood was spent on the edge of the entertainment industry with her birth father Milford Sill an importer of exotic animals for the use in films while her stepfather, Kenneth Muse, was an animator for those cartoon icons ‘Tom & Jerry’. By all accounts her teenage years were not a happy period which quickly found her mixing with the wrong crowd culminating in her arrest for a series of armed robberies and a nine month sentence at a reform school. A drug dependency already lay at the heart of Sills’ problematic lifestyle and would continue to be for the remainder of her days, resulting in her being jailed for a string of narcotic and forgery offences whilst still in her early twenties.
However, there was another side to Sill, with a voice like an angel, a poets soul and a talent for writing songs that had a unique timeless quality about them. Graham Nash and David Crosby were among the first to recognise her talent and arranged for Sill to tour with them as opening act. This brought her to the attention of David Geffen who promptly signed her to his newly formed Asylum label for which Sill would record two albums ‘Judee Sill’ in 1971 and its follow up ‘Heart Food’ released in 1973. Unfortunately sales for both album were poor, despite each being littered with songs that have gone on to be covered by a myriad of different artists during the next fifty years, which led to Sill and Geffen publicly failing out and inevitably leading to the end of their association. Sill did start to work on a third album with Michael Nesmith, but her increased dependancy on heroin would see her become less reliable and less focussed so that there was no further releases before her untimely death in the autumn of 1979 at the age of just 35.
The ‘Clip’ below, ‘The Kiss’, comes from the ever dependable Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973 while Sill was in the UK to promote her sophomore album and fully captures both her stunning vocals as well as her undoubted skill as a songwriter that had she’d been dealt a better hand, and if life had been just little bit kinder would surely have seen her up there with the likes of Janis Ian, Carole King and yes even Joni Mitchell, championing the right for female songwriters to sit at the top table. Nick Lowe was to go on record as saying that Sill’s song ‘Jesus Was A Cross Maker’ was an influence on his own ‘Peace Love and Understanding‘ whilst her songs have been covered by such diverse act as, The Hollies, Cass Elliot, Judie Tzuke, Shawn Colvin, Warren Zevon and even Bonnie “Prince” Billy. In addition Laura Veirs’ song ‘Song For Judee’ was direct tribute to the singer as was Aaron Lee Tasjan’s ‘Judee Was A Punk’.
Thanks for that . There’s a great album Judee Sill Live in London, The BBC Recordings 1972 – 1973 with an interesting essay by Michael Saltzman .
Glad you enjoyed it Pete, and many thanks for the heads up with the Live in London recording. I will definitely try to check that out and give it a listen.
Remember her supporting Roy Harper in manchester. Yes very under valued. Thank you for the post.
Glad you enjoyed the post John. That concert in Manchester must have been something special. Definitely one I would have loved to witness.