I was recently doing my frequent late-night habit of perusing music videos on YouTube. I’d become quite fond of videos from a couple of German live music shows–Beat Club and Musikladen–that had performances from the 1960s to the early 80s. One of the suggested videos was by an artist by the name of Chi Coltrane. As a native Chicago kid loving blues and jazz, I was immediately intrigued by the name. I have about six John Coltrane CDs in my collection, and I wondered if “Chi” meant she was from Chicago. Then I watched the video and was stunned by the power of this song and performance.
How had I not heard of Chi Coltrane? In watching this video, she seemed to be blowing record company darling Adele–winner of sixteen Grammy awards–completely out of the water.
Most people who know me know that I tend to be more knowledgeable about music than the average person. This skill, in part, began when I as a teenager around 1982 when I noticed that the ska, new wave, and synth-pop I loved that dominated early MTV were mostly missing from the calcified Top 40 radio airwaves in my home town of Chicago. (This was right before the big artists had caught the video bug and most videos were being put out by more avant-garde groups). This gap cultivated in me the habit of scraping through record and CD bins. I would listen late at night to special indie and alternative radio shows ready to press Record on the tape player at any moment. That skill certainly helped me in my brief DJ side-gig career in the 2000s and 2010s.
Part of why I hadn’t previously heard of her was that she peaked in the U.S. before I had even started listening to rock ‘n’ roll–I grew up in a classical, folk, and “easy listening” house well into my teens.
It was a bit of a challenge to find out much information about her, but what I read was even more amazing. Chi Coltrane–apparently her real name–was born in Racine in 1948. To say she had natural music talent was an understatement–by the age of 12, she had taught herself how to play eight instruments!. She could learn how to play a musical instrument within the space of an hour. By her late teens she was already playing clubs in Chicago. The manager of the Shubert Theater in Chicago discovered her, helped her procure a demo tape for Columbia Records and she was signed very quickly.
She wrote all of the songs for her debut album Chi Coltrane. “Thunder and Lightning,” ended up being her only U.S. hit–it peaked on the Billboard Charts at #17. However, a follow-up single, “Go Like Elijah,” while ignored in the U.S. tore up Europe in 1973, reaching #1 in the Netherlands. This song, a gospel-like song about death that might remind people of Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die.” Nyro recorded her own song at the unbelievable age of 17, but “Go Like Elijah” is remarkable for an artist who was 23 when she recorded it.
With the blessing of the record company, she produced her sophomore album Let It Ride herself, selecting all the session musicians and writing all but one of the songs. Despite positive reviews, Let It Ride never did well in the U.S., but it outsold her debut album in Europe, reaching gold record status in several European countries.
So one of the reasons I hadn’t heard of Chi Coltrane was that she was more popular in Europe than in the U.S., despite widespread critical acclaim in the U.S. She fell out of favor with Columbia Records, and put another her third Road To Tomorrow under the TK/Cloud label in 1977. Once gain, her album was critically acclaimed but went nowhere on the U.S. charts. Given her success in Europe, she ended up signing with CBS Germany and put out Silk and Steel in 1980. She continued to find success Europe, playing sold-out shows and toured 300 days per year. She put out three more albums in the 80s. This video from 1984 shows what she sounded like in the 80s. (The video itself is rather kitschy.)
However, this touring left her burned out mentally and physically. An illness left her with extreme chronic fatigue day in and day out until a holistic doctor in 2007 found a supplement that enabled her to get back on her feet.
What strikes me about Chi Coltrane’s career is how self-reliant she has been. The musical talent that she seemed to be born with is uncanny. In some ways, I could see her as being almost too good for the record industry. I could also imagine an interesting jam session between her and fellow multi-instrumentalist Prince in a room with different musical instruments scattered about.
I have to wonder how different her life would be if she got the accolades that Adele received. I’m not sure if it’s really worth speculating about, as Chi and Adele came into the music business at very different times and circumstances. The music industry is a cruel business, as this Cosmopolitan article about her in 1973 demonstrated. Women artists in the 1970s were treated especially horribly. This was several years before groups like The Slits and X-Ray Spex gained some fame lobbing feminist Molotov cocktails from outside the mainstream music scene.
Nevertheless, Chi Coltrane’s ability to persuade the music industry to produce her own album was remarkable given the prevalent sexism in the industry at the time She appears to be enjoying life at her own pace and on her own terms.