Judee Sill the Flight of an Angel - Part Three

 The Turtles Cover Judee Sill's "Lady-O" (1969)

Judee was fond of Sunday brunches with the “crew”. Generally, these drunken verbal orgies took place at the El Coyote restaurant on Beverly Blvd. 

In the early seventies the crew consisted of Tom Peltier, Lynn Blessing, myself, Linda Ronstadt, J.D. Souther, and a host of hanger-oners and personal attendants that her “highness” loved to have around her. In some odd way, she had the status of a Queen, reminding me of Queen Elizabeth the 1st. Judee would have been right at home during the Renaissance.

She would always treat those who didn’t have enough money on them which  included almost everyone at the table from time to time.  Judee also adored downtown LA on Sundays.  One of her favorite haunts was Alavera Street and the Mexican market in the plaza.  The “crew” would wander around sucking on tacos at two in the afternoon taking in the sights.  One Sunday downtown on Alavera Street, we were all walking together in two and threes and suddenly we came upon two older Mexican men who had been drinking heavily, arguing loudly, and beginning to come to blows.  From out of nowhere, Judee broke from the rest of us and ran towards the two malcontents yelling at the top of her lungs, 

“...Hey, whoa! What in the hell do you think you guys are doing, it’s Sunday for Christ’s sake, you don’t fight on his day...” and on and on.

 I expected to have to run over and save her life but the two old drunkards actually looked embarrassed as if their school teacher Ms. Sill was scolding them out for not doing their homework. 

She had this kind of magic as well as many other displays of power. Judee was invested with magical powers, being that refined intelligence coupled with an educated imagination.

 It was not unusual for her to be talking with a group of friends with her guitar nearby and start receiving a “message” from the collective consciousness of the universe.  Sounds deep, I know, but it was true.  All of a sudden she would go off in a trance and pick up the guitar and sing and play a complete new song.  At the completion, she would look at all of us who sat bewildered and she would say, 

 “...What the hell was that all about?” and start laughing and then turn serious again to try to recapture what she had just created.  She always found it again.

I too had my powers of protection for this fragile creature.  One afternoon, I went to a gig with her in LA where she was opening up solo for God knows who, I’ve forgotten, though it may have been Randy Newman.  We were being driven in a limo and some “Manny-cigar-breath” type was begging her to listen to this new guy from England who was just now becoming exposed to America, Elton John.   She was straining to be courteous but the attitude was fading fast.  I jumped in and asked the aggressive agent if Elton John knew who Judee Sill was? 
“Gee, I don’t know to be honest,” replied the agent. 

“Then why is it important for Judee to know who he is?” I retorted. 

“Maybe someday they should meet in person just like human beings, what do you think?”

The agent now realizing I was fucking up his pitch handed Judee a cassette and said “...Yea, well, have a listen some time.”

 looked over at Judee and she mouthed the words, “thank you” and gave me a big smile.

There is a good deal of conjecture after the fact as to what hindered Judee from realizing a great career.  Yes, she was erratic, and a drug user, but so was everyone else who made the big time. She sang as well if not better than her contemporaries and of course her composing skills were way above average, and actually very inspired in both lyric and harmonic facets. 

David Geffen believed in her enough to sign her before he signed any other female artist.  But then along came Joni. 

It is a well known “rumor” in Hollywood that Joni was a tad jealous of Judee.  At least Joni was somewhat intimidated by having another woman around who wrote “ethereal” music which charmed the likes of David Geffen.

According to some unnamed sources, Joni had more than a little influence on how David Geffen handled the two of them on the same label and that Joni had told Geffen that there was only room for one superstar female on Asylum records.  Who knows?  One thing for sure that influenced the decline of Judee’s career would be her car accident in the mid-seventies.

One night in LA while driving around with friends, she was rear-ended by the actor Danny Kaye: some fate.  She survived the accident but her back didn’t.  She began to have heavy lower back pains that although were buffered by drugs and pills, wouldn’t go away.  Consulting doctors decided that she needed disc surgery and this actually marked the beginning of the end.  Although the surgery was considered a success, Judee was never physically stable for the rest of her life.  The pain and the constant lack of comfort, standing or sitting caused her to become more dependent on medication for relief.

During this period Judee was living with a woman named Judy Himmel, who was a scientist and oboist.  The house located in the Wilshire district became a meeting place for all of Judee’s “followers” at the time.  She was bed-ridden yet still possessed her powers of influence and a massive sense of humor.

She called me in the mid-seventies to see if I would cover a gig for her.  She was supposed to perform at the then, “Barnsdall Park Festival” that occurred every summer during the seventies.  She asked me if I would take her place and fingerpick and sing my own tunes.  It was quite a compliment indeed to have her think enough of my material and talent to take her place.  I covered the concert date for her, and on a video clip taken by Lynn Blessing’s wife at the time, you can watch me do a tribute to Sill.  I performed my own songs but I worked really hard to play one of my favorite tunes by Judee, “The Vigilante”, which, if I do say so myself, came off quite well.  I learned her guitar part, note for note.  Judee was as self-centered as any artist must be, but she shared all the warmth she had inside with others.  We took the video tape up to her room the day after my concert trying to fill her shoes.  She watched the whole set with her eyes half closed.  At the completion of the tape, she looked at me and held my hand.  With an intensity I have often seen in her eyes with others she said,

“...You deserve more than the best!”

Judee Sill is the eponymous debut album by the American singer-songwriter and musician Judee Sill. Released on September 15, 1971, it was the first album on David Geffen's Asylum label.[3] Backing musicians include John Beck and Jim Pons from The Leaves. While the majority of the album was produced by Henry Lewy, Graham Nash handled the duties for the single "Jesus Was a Cross Maker", with his production designed to aim for radio airplay.

This was one of the biggest thrills of my life. 

One day Bill Plummer called me to tell me that Judee wanted to go into the studio and record with her friends.  Marc McClure, Bill, Tom Peltier, myself, Kevin Kelly on drums, and Vicki McClure, Marc’s younger sister who is a sensational singer. Vicki McClure sang the National Anthem at the 1984 Olympics in LA.  Incredible!  

After I hung up the phone with Bill, I called Judee.  She sounded like her old self.  We joked around for awhile then got down to the essence of the project.  She was pain-free for the moment and wanted desperately to get some new songs down on tape.  I told her I would come and rehearse just the two of us to get our parts arranged.  She said in her usual mock-official voice,

“...yes indeed, you shall be my designated musical aaaaaaaranger!”

We both laughed and I headed for her house.

Memory fails me for many details of this project, but the posthumously released CD “Dreams Come True” on Runt records in 2005 tells the tale.  My guitar can be heard doubling her right hand on the piano for all her blues-gospel licks, and if I do say so myself, I played rather tastefully throughout the recording.  Inside my heart, I knew this might be the last go-around for Judee, her overall health was not that good at the time.  

It was 1974 and only a few more precious years of life were left for Judee.  We shifted in and out of each others lives until Thanksgiving day, 1979.

At the time I was married to my second wife and living in studio City.  Judee was living in a court style brick apartment complex around the corner near Lankersheim. Judee called my house late in the afternoon and said she was feeling very alone.  I didn’t hesitate to go pick her up and bring her to the house for dinner that night.  She had such a melancholy, forlorn look on her face when she got into my car.  I immediately started joking with her and telling her Lena Horne stories, for I was touring with Ms. Horne at the time.  She lightened up a little, but by the time we arrived at the house she was back into a dark mood.  All went fairly well for a couple of hours but I could sense that she was not at peace within herself.  She took me aside and asked me if I could take her back to her apartment, she had things to do.  I didn’t argue, just grabbed the car keys and headed out the door. 

The ride back was executed in total silence.  When we arrived she slowly opened the car door and gave me a brief kiss on my cheek before departing.

Lynn Blessing the the Art Johnson Trio - Tribute - For Judee

I will never forget the look on her face:  dismay, fatigue and also a peaceful acceptance of the things around her.  I watched her amble towards the door never looking back at me.  Two days later I got the call from Lynn Blessing: Judee was dead—unknown reasons, possibly a drug overdose.  What can I say?  Clarence White – Tim Buckley and now the queen of Hearts, Judee Sill.  I’m sure that her trip back to Heaven was a comfortable journey and hopefully, she resides to this day in an exalted state.


  1. Hey Art,
    I tried to email you, but your old email address is no good.
    I'm the jazz guitarist who wrote to you about Judee and Bob Harris, and you told me the story about meeting him at Lynn's and your place, with his white Strat, bugging you for tips on how to play like Hendrix!

    I've heard a bunch of recordings of him and Del, and he was quite a jazz pianist; hip feel and great lines.

    Anyway, I wanted to ask you about the documentary on Judee that you're featured in. Is it out yet? How could I see, buy or rent it?

    Hope things are cool with you,