You Say It’s Your Birthday: Joni Mitchell

The first lady of singer-songwriters, Roberta Joan Anderson, a.k.a. Joni Mitchell, turns 54

today. Her open-string guitar playing and fluctuating pitch has influenced a generation of

folk singers while her experimental work with jazz has encouraged many artists to go with

what they feel, not with what they know will earn them money. Mitchell grew up in

Saskatoon, Canada and was stricken with polio at age 9. She consoled herself during her

stays in the hospital by singing at the top of her lungs and soon began playing guitar using

a Pete Seeger instructional book as a guide. She began her career on the folk club circuit in

Canada in the early ‘60s, which is where she met and began performing with her future

husband, Chuck Mitchell. They married in 1965 after she became pregnant and gave birth

to a baby girl. Later that year, she put the child up for adoption and moved to Detroit; heading

to New York when the marriage floundered some years later.

It was in New York that she met Tom Rush, a singer who covered her “Urge For Going”

and brought her work to the attention of people like Buffy Saint-Marie and Mitchell’s hero,

Judy Collins. Mitchell was also befriended in New York by ex-Byrd David Crosby,

who convinced Reprise to sign her. It was because of Crosby’s clout that her debut album,

1968’s Song To A Seagull, appeared as Mitchell wanted it -- with sparse

accompaniment and hardly any overdubs. 1967 saw Mitchell moving to Southern

California and attracting attention from the growing community of L.A. based singer-

songwriters.

Mitchell’s recorded output from this point on is historic in its brilliance and breadth.

1969’s Clouds and 1970’s Ladies of The Canyon were both solid folk

albums, but it was in 1971 that she released her masterpiece. Blue opened the

doors for the hundreds of singer-songwriters to follow as Joni laid bare her emotions and

wrote of her painful love life and decision to not raise her child. In 1972, she moved to

more pop and jazz-like arrangements and complex production on For The Roses,

an album containing her first Top 30 hit “You Turn Me On (I’m A Radio).” Mitchell

achieved superstar status in 1974 with the Top 5 million-selling album Court and

Spark, buoyed by the hits “Help Me” and “Free Man In Paris,” a song about David

Geffen’s early career as a pop impresario.

Tom Scott’s band, the L.A. Express, accompanied Joni on this album and her live set that

was issued from her tour that year, Miles of Aisles. In 1975, she threw her fans

and critics a curve, by nearly abandoning pop for the heavily jazz-influenced avant-garde

The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Though it sold well, it signaled that Joni was

following her muse and not interested in making music for the masses. It has since been

sighted through the decades as an influence to artists of all musical genres, including the

Artist himself, and contained some African drumming that Paul Simon later explored

further on Graceland. She continued in this vein with the majestic 1976 album

Hejira, another career milestone. Heavily influenced by bassist Jaco Pastorius, the

music was spellbinding and the lyrics deeply insightful, but the free-form songs were

nothing like that of any other pop artist of the time and her fans became confused.

The stubborn Mitchell alienated her fan base further with 1979’s Mingus, a

collaboration with and tribute to late jazz great Charles Mingus. At this point, even loyal

FM programmers abandoned her and have never really come back to her. She spent the

‘80s exploring soul, synth-influenced rhythms and jazz and returned in the early ‘90s with

Night Ride Home and Turbulent Indigo, not huge-selling CDs, but returns

to the acoustic-based confessional songs of her youth. The last few years have found her in the

spotlight more than she has been in decades. She received a Grammy award for

Indigo and a Billboard Century award for her entire career. On a personal note,

she located and united with her adopted daughter. She was recently inducted into the Rock

and Roll Hall of Fame, but did not attend the ceremonies, as usual turning away from

publicity. Her next album is due in February.

Other birthdays: Mary Travers (Peter, Paul & Mary), 60; Dee Clark, 59; Johnny Rivers,

55; Nick Gilder, 46; Kevin Scott MacMichael (Cutting Crew), 46; Jellybean, 40 and Liam

O’Maonlai (Hothouse Flowers), 33.