Until the mid-2000s, Judee Sill might have been called a brilliant but forgotten figure of the 1970s Los Angeles folk-rock songwriting scene. That changed with the reissue of Sill's two albums on the Asylum label, revealing a highly original talent that had begun to receive widespread critical attention. As gripping as Sill's music was her turbulent biography, which included criminal sprees, drug abuse, stints in incarceration, and a string of disastrous romantic relationships. Later songwriters, ranging from folk-rocker Shawn Colvin to alternative icon Liz Phair, expressed admiration for Sill and described her influence on their own work.
Judy Lynn Sill was born in the Studio City district in the San Fernando Valley, in Los Angeles, California, on October 7, 1944, but she spent her early childhood in Oakland. Her father operated a tavern called Bud's Bar and ran a business on the side importing exotic animals. The bar, Sill said in a Rolling Stone interview quoted by the Washington Post, was "where I started playing piano and found out I could harmonize with myself. But even back then I knew something was wrong, that I was missing out on having a normal life. It was so seedy in the bar, you know—people were always fighting and puking, there was illegal gambling, and my parents drank a lot." A crucial event in Sill's childhood was her father's death in 1952; her mother, Oneta, then married Tom and Jerry animator Kenneth Muse and moved Sill back to Los Angeles. Sill disliked Muse from the start and played destructive tricks on him.
At 15, Sill escaped tensions at home by running away with an armed robber. "I saw a lot of terrible injustice all around me, so I fell in with a bunch of hoodlums to express myself poetically," she said in an interview quoted in London's Observer. After a string of holdups, Sill's boyfriend landed in jail and Sill was sent to the Ventura School for Girls, a reform institution. Sill reaped some benefits from her nine-month stay there, furthering her keyboard skills with organ lessons and doing well in art classes. But she flaunted the authority of school administrators by singing the country music classic "The Prisoner's Song" during a school assembly, stirring applause with the lines, "If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly."
Sill enrolled at San Fernando Junior College in 1963, taking more art and music classes. She dropped out after a cross-country driving trip with two other young women in 1964, during which she fired a gun at a group of young men in a pickup truck who were tailgating their car. Getting a job at a factory that turned out mass-produced paintings for motel rooms and the like, Sill intensified her experimentation with drugs. She used LSD and heroin, which she called respectively the white peace and the dark peace. Sill's marriage (the first of two) to keyboardist Bob Harris did not divert her from this course, for he was a fellow heroin user. Developing a $150-a-day heroin habit, Sill turned once again to crime. She was arrested on forgery charges and was left in a jail cell to undergo cold-turkey detoxification. She told interviewers that she engaged in prostitution during this period.
Beginning around 1966, however, Sill avoided drug use and announced her intention to become the greatest songwriter in the world. The Los Angeles rock group the Leaves recorded her "Dead Time Bummer Blues," and she began to attract a strong following among mostly female fans as she performed at coffee houses and small but trendsetting clubs such as Arty Fatbuckle's in Hollywood. Word of Sill's talent spread among her fellow musicians, and when several members of the folk-rock group the Turtles started a publishing company called Blimp Productions, they signed Sill to a $65-a-week songwriting contract. The Turtles recorded Sill's "Lady-O" in 1969. Among the music industry figures who began to follow Sill's career was Asylum Records head David Geffen. Sill fell in love with Geffen, who did not reciprocate, but he did sign her to Asylum. Her 1971 debut, Judee Sill, was Asylum's first official release.
Sill's music was unlike that of her Los Angeles-area contemporaries. She was basically a singer-songwriter, but her songs and the arrangements of them that appeared on her recordings (some of the arrangements were the work of Harris) involved other layers of style. There were elements of country music, including a steel guitar, which worked to Sill's commercial disadvantage, as her releases competed with those of the phenomenally popular group the Eagles in the 1970s. Her classical training showed up in her use of complex four-part harmonies and large choral sections she composed herself. And there was a strong religious element in her music. Her songs did not fit the pattern of the contemporary Christian music that was just beginning to take shape as a genre, but it had strong spiritual elements. Asked about her influences, Sill named both German classical composer J.S. Bach and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and she described her own style as country-cult-baroque.
Sill never found a satisfying romantic relationship, although during this period she pursued both Geffen and songwriter J.D. Souther. She was also rumored to have had brief flings with young women she entertained at her new home in the Los Angeles foothills. Her personal and professional relationship with Geffen deteriorated, although Geffen devoted the full resources of the Asylum label to the complex production requirements of Sill's second album, Heart Food (1973). That album, co-produced by Sill, sold poorly, although classical critic Tim Page of the Washington Post later evaluated it as "an album that, in its mixture of formal adventure and searing spiritual intensity, can rank with Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and the Velvet Underground's self-titled third album."
The commercial failure of Heart Food discouraged Sill. She recorded some songs for a third album with a rumored title of Tulips from Amsterdam, eight of which resurfaced on a 2005 release called Dreams Come True that was compiled by Sill enthusiasts and issued on the Water label along with live performances and other materials. Following her split with Geffen, Sill's life went downhill. She began abusing drugs once more, and her problems worsened after an auto accident left her troubled by back pain for which doctors refused to prescribe painkillers due to her earlier arrests. The last few years of Sill's life were troubled; occasional visitors found her immersed in occult writings. Sill was found dead at her North Hollywood home on November 23, 1979; acute cocaine and codeine intoxication were given as the cause of death. By that time Sill had been almost forgotten, and many of her musician contemporaries did not learn of her death for some months. Her rediscovery in the early 2000s was partly due to the enthusiasm of musicians she influenced, including Colvin and rock songwriter Warren Zevon, and for her rich and ambitious songs; both her studio albums enjoyed successful reissues on the Rhino label, and various other Sill materials were transferred to CD.
Judee Sill, Asylum, 1971.
Heart Food, Asylum, 1973.
Dreams Come True, Water, 2005.
Complete Asylum Recordings, Asylum, 2006.
Abracadabra: The Asylum Years, 2006.
For the Record …
Born Judy Lynn Sill, October 7, 1944, in Studio City, CA; married twice; died November 23, 1979, of possible intentional drug overdose. Education: Attended San Fernando Valley Junior College; classical music training.
Began performing in Los Angeles area coffee houses and clubs; signed as songwriter to Blimp Productions publishing company, 1969; signed to Asylum label, 1971; released Judee Sill, 1971; released Heart Food, 1973.
Entertainment Weekly, November 4, 2005, p. 71.
Sing Out!, Winter 2006, p. 120.
Washington Post, December 30, 2006, p. C1.
"Judee Sill," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 27, 2007).
"The Lost Child," Observer Music Monthly,http://observer.guardian.co.uk/omm/story/0,13887,1369079,00.html (February 27, 2007).
"Remembering Judee," http://kneeling.co.uk/frames2.asp?-pages/jsill/sj_remember.asp (February 27, 2007).
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