Ellen McIlwaine's background is diverse. Born in Nashville, Tennessee and adopted by Southern Presbyterian Missionaries, she spent fifteen years in Japan as part of a small international community attending Canadian Academy in Kobe. She began playing rock & roll piano at age five, listening to New Orleans-style rhythmn & blues (Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair), Latino groups like Trio Los Panchos, Japanese classical and folk music, American jazz on Japanese radio; Country music and European classical music on US Armed Forces Radio. She also sang in the school and church choirs.
Returning in 1963 to North America with her parents, Ellen attended college for two years in Tennessee and then art school in Atlanta while absorbing the music of Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, BB King, Otis Span, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Bobbie Bland, the Isley Brothers, James Brown, the Mighty Clouds of Joy and other rhythm & blues and Gospel groups. It was here she bought her first guitar and began appearing in Atlanta clubs.
In 1966, encouraged by folk singer Patrick Sky she went to Greenwich Village, bought from Guild Guitars the "loaner" steel-stringed accoustic used by Mississippi John Hurt and Richie Havens among others during repairs, and met Richie, Dave Van Ronk and Odetta, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, etc. From the Blue Flames who backed up John Hammond she met Jimi Hendrix and they became friends, playing music together and struggling on the New York scene. After returning to Atlanta in 1967 she formed her own group, Fear Itself, moved to Woodstock, New York and released the album Fear Itself on Dot Records in 1969.
In 1970 the group dissolved and Ellen began playing solo, recording Honky Tonk Angel in 1972 and We the People in 1973 for Polydor Records. In 1974 Polydor released a compilation, The Guitar Album of guitar players on the label: John McLaughlin, Link Wray, T Bone Walker, Rory Gallagher, Roy Buchannan, Ellen, etc. In 1975 Ellen lived in Montreal for a year and recorded The Real Ellen McIlwaine for Kot'ai/United Artists with members of the Ville Emard Blues Band on some cuts. Moving back to Atlanta, Ellen continued to tour solo sharing the bill with Laura Nyro, Howlin' Wolf, Son House, Weather Report, Lily Tomlin, Taj Mahal, George Thorogood, Tom Waits, Chicago, Bruce Springsteen, Koko Taylor, etc. In 1978 Ellen McIlwaine was recorded in New York with John Lee & Gerry Brown and released on United Artists. In 1979 Ellen returned to the power trio format with a new solid body electric given to her by Guild Guitars.