Sunday, December 7, 2014

Joni Mitchell, The #33 Artist of the Seventies*

Roberta Anderson studied classical piano at age 6.  Two years later, she contracted polio during the 1951 epidemic in Canada, prior to Jonas Salk's discovery of the polio vaccine, and Anderson was at risk of not walking again.

Anderson recovered, and her family settled in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.    She became interested in art, and was quite talented at it.  Roberta loved rock and roll, but as she said, the music went through a dull, or "vanilla period", as she calls it, and folk music filled the void.  That music is what inspired her to sing, and to buy an instrument.

In 1957, she bought a ukulele in 1957, then taught herself how to play guitar out of a Pete Seeger songbook.   As the polio had weakened her left hand, she had to come up with alternative tunings that allowed her to play the songs.   Roberta began singing in small clubs in Western Canada, before busking in the streets of Toronto.

Anderson finished high school at Aden Bowman Collegiate, then took art classes at Saskatoon Technical Collegiate.  Wanting to pursue a career in art, she attended the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary. 

In 1965, Anderson moved to the U.S. and began touring.  Several folk singers took notice of her and covered her songs, leading to a recording contract with Reprise Records in 1968.  She initially sang to help pay bills, but then at age 19, dropped out of school and continued to play at a Calgary coffeehouse.

By now, Anderson had changed her stage name to Joni Mitchell, and she released her debut album in 1968.  The following year, she released the album Clouds, which contained many of her songs that other artists had already recorded.

In 1970, Mitchell won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance for her Clouds album.  Gaining momentum, Mitchell released the album Ladies of the Canyon.  "Big Yellow Taxi" reached #6 in Australia, and was highly underrated everywhere else (#67 in the United States).  On this one, the Aussies are the only ones that got it right. 

Ladies of the Canyon received considerable airplay on album stations, leading to Joni's first Gold certification.  It is now classified by nearly every music expert as a classic, containing songs like "Rainy Night House".

Mitchell had achieved songwriting depth that few in history had ever accomplished, as evidenced by "The Arrangement".

The album quickly went Platinum, representing sales of over one million units.  Another great track on Ladies of the Canyon is "Conversation".

We want to feature another track from the album during the special.  Joni's voice hits another dimension, almost sounding like it is from heaven, on "For Free".

The following year, she sang backup vocals on James Taylor's song "You've Got A Friend".  Mitchell then released her fourth album, Blue.  The single "Carey" reached #27 in Canada, but is a fan favorite.

Blue received praise from critics, her peers, and fans who were quickly discovering a major talent.  The title song is another gem.

Blue also contained the Top Track* "The Last Time I Saw Richard".

Many of Joni's great songs were sung to her rolling piano accompaniment.  This one, which has been covered many times, is "River".

Joni's album reached the Top 20 in the U.S., but landed in the British Top 3.  Another highlight of this amazing album is "A Case Of You".

Blue went to #9 on the Album chart, and went Platinum.  Joni also delivered this great song--"California".

Mitchell returned to the stage to present many songs that would appear on her next album.  In 1972, Joni released For the Roses.  The single "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio" hit #10 in Canada, and #13 on the Adult chart and #25 overall in the U.S.

The album reached #11 in the U.S., became Joni's fourth consecutive Gold release, and was highly praised by critics.  In 1974, Mitchell began to experiment with jazz and jazz fusion.  She proceeded to release her most critically acclaimed album, Court and Spark.  The rocker "Raised On Robbery" led the way.

Mitchell strove for a specific sound on the album, and she produced it herself.  The single "Help Me" became Mitchell's biggest hit, landing at #1 on the Adult chart and #7 overall in the United States, and #6 in Canada.

Court and Spark went to #2 in the U.S. on the Album chart.  The single "Free Man In Paris" hit #2 among Adults and #22 overall in the U.S. and #16 in Canada.  

Mitchell took to the road to begin a tour, receiving rave reviews throughout the United States and Canada.  Court and Spark went Double Platinum, thanks to songs such as the title track.

Mitchell earned four Grammy nominations:  Album of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Court and Spark, Record of the Year (for "Help Me"), and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist (for "Down To You"), the latter of which she won.

A series of shows at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles were recorded for the live album Miles of Aisles, which went Gold.

Joni's experimentation continued, with her interests now diverging from the folk and pop of her roots towards more complex, jazz-inspired pieces.  In 1975, Mitchell released the album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, yet another Gold release.  The album went to #4, and gave Joni another Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.  The top track on the album was "In France They Kiss On Main Street".

Mitchell toured with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and performed with The Band, later documented in The Last Waltz.  Mitchell released the album Heijira in 1976, her seventh consecutive Gold studio album.  One of her best career songs is "Refuge Of The Roads".

Another solid track on the album is "Amelia".

In 1977, Mitchell released the double album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, which went to #25 and went Gold within three months.  The title track led the way.

Mitchell then worked with jazz musician Charles Mingus on the album Mingus, which reached #17 on the Album chart.  It was another experimental album that became Joni's first album since the 1960's to sell less than half a million copies.

However, Joni continued to record on her terms, releasing seven more albums, the latest being Shine in 2007.

In 1995, Mitchell received the Century Award from Billboard.  The following year, Joni earned the Polar Music Prize.  In 1997, Mitchell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  In 2002, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys, with the citation  "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". 

The same year, Mitchell was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honour for a civilian in Canada.  McGill University awarded an honorary doctorate in music to Mitchell in 2004.  In 2007, Canada Post featured Joni on a postage stamp.

Mitchell sold over seven million albums in the U.S. alone.  She only had eight "hits" in the Seventies, but as you can tell from her Songbook above, "hits" don't even begin to tell the Joni Mitchell story.

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