Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Joni Mitchell, The #24 Female Artist of the Rock Era

Editor's Note:  I will say first and foremost that Joni Mitchell is one of the all-time legends.  Her music will last, even though her hits and album sales pale by comparison to the other artists in this range.  She gets here on the basis of solid album tracks, but only ranks #24 because of the facts above.  However, when 'Inside The Rock Era' produces The Top 100 Women in Rock, leave no doubt that Joni will be ranked much higher in that one...

Roberta Anderson was born in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada.  During her early years, the family moved often as her father was a flight lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.  After the war, the family moved to Saskatchewan, to the towns of Maidstone and North Battleford.  

Roberta (or Joni as she was nicknamed) became fascinated with classical music, and studied classical piano at age six.  She contracted polio during the last major epidemic in North America in 1951.  As she lay in bed for weeks in a hospital, Anderson became interested in singing; she would do this to stay optimistic during her recovery.  

When Anderson was 11, her family moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  She loved painting and began writing poetry as well.  And she loved rock & roll, spending a lot of time in cafes with jukeboxes.  

But folk music began to come to the forefront in the late 50's, so Joni bought a ukulele and began playing it.  She then taught herself to play guitar from a Pete Seeger songbook.  But she didn't finish the book--many of the chords were impossible for her to execute because her left hand had been weakened by polio.  So Anderson came up with her own alternative tunings that allowed her to play each song.

Anderson began singing in coffeehouses in the area in 1962.  She finished high school at Aden Bowman Collegiate in Saskatoon, and then attended the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary in hopes of becoming a painter.    

Anderson was interested in painting landscapes and people, and continued to perform on weekends.  At age 19, Joni dropped out of art school, and took a job in a Calgary coffeehouse.  She played at The Depression! for three months in 1963 and began making appearances on local radio and television stations.

She moved to Toronto at age 20, and wrote her first song on the three-day train ride there.  Joni played at The Half Beat and The Village Corner in Toronto, and worked at a department store to help make ends meet.  Joni gave birth to a daughter that she had to give up for adoption because she could not afford to raise her.  The two were later reunited many years later.

In 1965, Joni performed at the folk club Penny Farthing in Toronto, where she met folk singer Chuck Mitchell of Michigan.  The two were instantly attracted to each other, and some reports have them marrying within 36 hours.  The couple moved to the United States, where Joni performed at several coffeehouses in Michigan, but they divorced in 1967.

Joni then moved to New York City, playing venues all over the East Coast.  By this time, she was singing her own songs, and was beginning to attract attention.  Other artists began recording her music, such as Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie and George Hamilton IV.  Through amazing songwriting and touring, Joni began to be recognized.  

While performing at The Gaslight South in Coconut Grove, Florida, David Crosby heard Joni sing and persuaded her to move to Los Angeles.  Crosby arranged for a record company to record her music, and Mitchell released her debut album (known as the acoustic album Song to a Seagull) in 1968.

Mitchell's second album Clouds allowed her to release her own versions of her early songs that had been recorded by others.  "Chelsea Morning" was one such song.

Mitchell won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance.  Combining her talents in both music and art, Joni included a self-portrait on the album cover.  "Both Sides Now" (titled as "Both Sides, Now"), which had become a huge hit for Collins in 1968, was also featured on Clouds.

In 1970, Mitchell released the album Ladies of the Canyon on Reprise Records.  It is on this LP that Joni began to not only blossom, but produce amazing music.  It was a sound and a depth that no one had heard before.  The album is now recognized as a masterpiece, and it contained her first hit, the environmental anthem "Big Yellow Taxi".

Mitchell's "For Free" showed her tremendous development in a short time.

"The Arrangement" is another high-quality track on Ladies of the Canyon.

She was recording music that pierced the soul, such as "Rainy Night House".

Mitchell recorded a slower version of the song "Woodstock" that she gave to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.  Isn't it fascinating that the one song which most captures the experience that was Woodstock was written by this great talent who was not there?

Word about this new talent was spreading, and these great songs helped the album go Platinum.  Another outstanding track was "Conversation".

"The Circle Game", which had also been recorded by other artists, was another highlight of this incredible album.

Mitchell was voted Top Female Performer in a Melody Maker poll.  "Morning Morgantown" too is found on this great release.

Mitchell released the album Blue that year.  Of it, Crosby said, "By the time she did Blue she was past me and rushing toward the horizon."  The album was an instant critical success and it too has become a classic.  "Carey" was the first single, but as most people know, chart numbers and singles don't begin to tell the Joni Mitchell story.

Another great track on Blue is "A Case Of You":

At the time, Mitchell was without peer, and perhaps there will never be another talent quite like her.  This is "All I Want".

By this time, Mitchell and Crosby had broken their romantic relationship, and Mitchell was intensely involved with Taylor.  Many of the songs on Blue express her thoughts about James, and she was devastated when Taylor ended the relationship.  This is "My Old Man".

Mitchell's deeply personal viewpoints about the world were accompanied by music written as if from another world. This is "Blue".

The album went Platinum for Joni.  Here's another great track from the LP--"California". We don't usually feature live performances in specials, but we have to make an exception for this rare footage of Joni.

Mitchell also gave us "Last Time I Saw Richard".

One of Joni's songs from the album has been covered numerous times by other artists.  Nothing like the original, though--"River"

Mitchell resumed touring, singing many songs that would appear on her next album.  She had switched companies to Asylum Records by this time.  Joni released For the Roses in 1972--the album contained the single "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio", which hit #10 in Canada, and #13 on the Easy Listening chart in the United States.

Here's another winner:  "Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire".

In 1974, Mitchell released another outstanding album, Court and Spark, in which she began infusing jazz into her music.  The album went to #1, and produced the minor hit "Raised On Robbery".

Joni's next single, "Help Me", became the only Top 10 of her career--#1 on the Adult chart and #7 overall in the United States and #6 in Canada.

"Free Man In Paris" was highly successful on the Easy Listening chart (#2), but a highly underrated #22 overall.

Joni produced Court and Spark herself, and her sound was markedly different.  "Trouble Child" is a great track from the album.

The great album was nominated for four Grammy Awards:  Album of the Year, Best Pop Female Vocalist, and Record of the Year (for "Help Me"), and Mitchell won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist for "Down To You".  Here is the stunning title song.

Mitchell toured North America and her performances drew raves from critics and fans alike.  The concerts in Los Angeles were recorded and released as the live double album Miles of Aisles, which went Gold.  

In 1975, Joni participated in concerts by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.  Mitchell released The Hissing of Summer Lawns in November.  Mitchell had by this time made a complete transformation, and her folk music fans became confused.  The album reached #4 and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

Mitchell performed as part of The Last Waltz by the Band.

The following year, Mitchell released the album Heijera, which included several collaborations with virtuoso jazz bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius.  "Coyote" was one of those.

Heijera climbed to #13 and was certified Gold within three weeks.  The title track is a major reason why.

Here's Joni and "Amelia".

Several songs on the album were written while Joni traveled cross country back to California.  This excellent track is "Refuge Of The Roads".

In 1977, Mitchell released the double album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, which also went Gold within months.  Pastorius was back to help, along with members of the jazz fusion pioneers Weather Report.  The title song is another Joni gem.

Mitchell collaborated with jazz great Charles Mingus, who died before their project was completed.  The album Mingus in 1979 was Joni's first to not go Gold since the 1960's.  Mitchell toured to promote the album, then released the two-album live album Shadows and Light.

Mitchell had completed her work with Asylum, and when her friend David Geffen (founder of Asylum) started his own Geffen Records, Joni went to Geffen with him.  The 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast did not sell well, but does contain one of Joni's best--"Chinese Cafe", combined with "Unchained Melody".

In 1983, Mitchell went on a world tour.  Mitchell released eight albums after that, but many of her fans didn't continue the journey with her.  She did capture another Grammy Award, Best Pop Album, for her 1994 release Turbulent Indigo, and was nominated for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for her 1987 album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm.

In 1995, Mitchell received the Billboard Century Award in honor of her life's work.  In 1996, Joni received the Polar Music Prize, and in 1997, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  

In the 2000's, Mitchell and artist Gilles Hebert produced the book Voices.  TNT saluted Mitchell with a celebration in New York City, in which several performers, including Elton John, James Taylor, Bryan Adams, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Krall and Richard Thompson sang Mitchell's songs.  Mitchell closed the evening with a performance of "Both Sides Now" to the accompaniment of a full orchestra.  The version was featured in the great movie Love Actually.

Joni's 2000 album Both Sides, Now won the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album and was nominated for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

In 2002, Joni received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys, and was acknowledged as "one of the most important female recording artists of the rock era" and "a powerful influence on all artists who embrace diversity, imagination and integrity."

Mitchell became just the third Canadian (after Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen) to be appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honor.  In 2004, Joni received an honorary doctorate degree in music from McGill University.  In 2007, the Canada Post featured Mitchell on a postage stamp.

In 2007, Mitchell reached #14 on the Album chart with the release Shine.  Mitchell won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Pop Performance for the track "One Week Last Summer".

To celebrate Mitchell's 70th birthday, the Luminato Festival in Toronto held a series of tribute concerts in 2013 entitled Joni:  A Portrait in Song - A Birthday Happening Live, some of which included Joni herself.

Mitchell has won eight Grammys, enjoyed one Top 10 hit and has sold eight million albums in the United States alone.

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