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Judee Sill
Birth name Judith Lynn Sill
Born October 7, 1944(1944-10-07) in Oakland, California
Died November 23, 1979 (aged 35) in North Hollywood, Los Angeles, California
Genres Folk, baroque pop
Instruments guitar, piano
Labels Asylum

Judee Sill (born Judith Lynn Sill, October 7, 1944 - November 23, 1979) was an American singer and songwriter. The first artist signed to David Geffen's Asylum label, she released two albums, then worked breifly as a cartoonist[1] before dying of drug abuse in 1979.[2] Her eponymous debut album was released to major acclaim in late 1971 and was followed around eighteen months later by Heart Food. She also recorded demos for a third album in 1974, which were released with other rarities on the 2005 two-disc collection Dreams Come True.

Sill was heavily influenced by Bach's metric forms and suites, while lyrically her work drew substantially on Christian themes of rapture and redemption.



Sill's father, an importer of exotic animals for use in films, and older brother both died in separate incidents when she was young. Her mother's subsequent marriage to Tom and Jerry animator Kenneth Muse in 1952 was marked by heavy drinking, and this, combined with her rebellious nature, drove Judee away from home and into a life of crime and drug use in her teens.

Having learned her signature gospel-inflected keyboard style during her incarceration in reform school for writing bad checks, Sill kicked her heroin addiction cold turkey in jail and decided to pursue songwriting. Now a talented pianist, organist and guitarist, Sill returned to the West Coast where she encountered Graham Nash and David Crosby (touring with them for a time as their opening act) and David Geffen who offered her a contract with his nascent Asylum label. Her first success was the sale of her song "Lady-O" to The Turtles. Sill was a musician who could hear a song once and then play it on the guitar, regardless of genre. She was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Graham Nash produced the first single for her first album, "Jesus Was A Cross Maker," which was released to radio on October 1, 1971. The album Judee Sill soon followed in October 1971, released to immediate acclaim. The album featured Sill's voice in multiple overdubs, often in a four-part chorale or fugue. As well as Sill's acoustic-based arrangements, she and engineer Henry Lewy, known for his long working relationship with Joni Mitchell, created a sound incorporating elements of country, folk, and classical.

The album's music had light rock/folk-rock underpinnings of what came to be known as the "Laurel Canyon sound" associated with other female singer/songwriters such as Carole King and Mitchell, who was also signed to Asylum and had an association with David Geffen. A tour as the opening act for Nash and David Crosby exposed her to a larger audience, but her record failed to make much of an impact, despite the amount of airplay for "Jesus Was A Cross Maker." Being a self-professed perfectionist, one song could often take her a year to write, and it wasn't until late 1972 that Sill returned to record and then release her second and last album, Heart Food. It too received enthusiastic reviews upon its release in spring 1973, and found Sill incorporating more of a gospel and country influence, but did poorly commercially. Sill took over orchestrating and arranging Heart Food, with the production relying more heavily on multilayered strings and expanse, an example of which being "The Donor," which features a choral arrangement based around the chanting of "Kyrie Eleison."

Career decline and death

Unable to draw a sizeable crowd yet unhappy to play as a support act, Sill saw her fame recede following the commercial failure of Judee Sill and Heart Food, and she eventually disappeared from the music scene entirely.

Rumors abounded as to what happened to her, although it is known that she returned to her heroin addiction as well as becoming heavily involved with cocaine after a series of car accidents left her with severe back pain that required surgery. Because of her drug conviction from the 1960s, doctors were reluctant to administer morphine for Sill, driving her to return to obtaining illegal drugs. Graham Nash has said that he had been told as early as 1974 that Sill had died of an overdose. That report proved to be incorrect.

Following the car accidents and their resultant physical pain, Sill struggled with drug addiction and dropped out of the music scene, finally dying of a drug overdose, or "acute cocaine and codeine intoxication," on November 23, 1979 at her apartment on Morrison Street in North Hollywood.


Long after her death, Sill has been lauded by many musicians, including Jim O'Rourke who mixed the posthumous collection of unreleased material, Dreams Come True. Her two original albums have been reissued as a double CD with a number of live recordings and demos as bonus tracks.

Seattle-based folk group Fleet Foxes perform "Crayon Angels" at their concerts. American singer-songwriter Warren Zevon recorded "Jesus Was A Cross Maker" for his 1995 album, Mutineer. "Jesus Was A Cross Maker" was recorded in 1973 by Graham Nash's former band The Hollies, although Nash had no part in their recording. The Hollies' version appears in the opening sequence of Cameron Crowe's film Elizabethtown. Another version covered by American singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata is featured in the film's soundtrack. Gospel rocker Larry Norman covered the song but retitled it as "Sweet Silver Angels". The song was released on the Essential 2: Agitator CD.

Scottish Celtic-Soul singer Jackie Leven's 2006 album Oh What A Blow That Phantom Dealt Me! contains a song entitled "The Silver In Her Crucifix (Homage To Judee Sill)", which includes the lines: "and Judee Sill just stood there/with a gold key in her heart/and the silver in her crucifix/kept warring worlds apart/that's why I love Judee Sill.../and I know I always will."

In 1983, Chicago-based lesbian-feminist singer Ginni Clemmens released an album entitled Lopin' Along Thru the Cosmos (reissued in 1992 on the Flying Fish label) which included cover versions of "Lady-O" and "Lopin' Along Thru the Cosmos."

In 1991, English singer-songwriter Judie Tzuke released an album on Columbia called Left Hand Talking, which included a cover version of "Jesus Was A Cross Maker".

Another persistent question regards Tulips From Amsterdam, which is listed as a third album for Judee Sill in many databases and books. There is no primary evidence that such an album ever existed. Those who knew and worked with her say that they had never heard of a third album by any name, but that if such an album did exist, they would have known about it. This misinformation was widely spread by the All-Music Guide, but it predates their existence appearing in a book called New Rock Record by Terry Hounsome, published in 1981, and is still listed in a database he continues to compile and sell.

UK music journalist Sandy Robertson wrote a highly complimentary retro review of Heart Food in the rock magazine "Sounds" about a year prior to her death. Contacted by a friend who provided a contact number, he called the singer in an attempt to offer help in reviving her career. "My Scots accent was so strong and Judee sounded so stoned that there was no real communication and I gave up. My big regret is that I did not try again and I only heard of her demise long after the event. I still rate Heart Food as one of the best albums ever made and am so glad she has now been accorded the acclaim she deserves," he said in 2009.

In 2009, the independent label American Dust announced the release of Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill, featuring covers of Sill's songs done by Beth Orton, Bill Callahan, Ron Sexsmith, Daniel Rossen, Final Fantasy, Marissa Nadler and Meg Baird, among others.[3]


  • Judee Sill (LP, Asylum, 1971)
  • Heart Food (LP, Asylum, 1973)
  • Dreams Come True (2CD, Water, 2005). Includes eight studio demos for a prospective third album, various home demos and a video clip of five songs live at USC in 1973.
  • Judee Sill (CD, Rhino Handmade, 2005). Contains the original album plus original versions of two songs, seven live versions and a home demo. Edition of 5000 copies.
  • Heart Food (CD, Rhino Handmade, 2005). Contains the original album plus an outtake and eight demo versions. Edition of 5000 copies.
  • Abracadabra: The Asylum Years (2CD, Rhino, 2006). Combines Judee Sill and Heart Food with bonus tracks.
  • Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973 (CD, Troubadour, 2007). Contains solo live songs performed for the BBC, and an interview with Bob Harris.


External links

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