Dexterous in Life and Music: Pianist/Singer-songwriter Chi Coltrane

Chi Coltrane, an unjustly forgotten American singer/songwriter, was signed by Clive Davis in the '70s and enjoyed a prolific career in Europe. Then she disappeared.
Chi Coltrane
Chi Coltrane / Let It Ride / Silk & Steel
Beat Goes On
Coltrane has a dexterous piano style — not for her, the fey, pretty arpeggios of Blue-era Joni Mitchell or the buoyant shuffle of Laura Nyro.

Carole King, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Cat Stevens… these are some of the names that dominate discussions of the great, founding singer/songwriters who soundtracked the late ’60s, early ’70s and beyond. A bit further down the list, we might find Dory Previn, David Ackles, or Nick Drake and Sandy Denny. One name less likely to be invoked is that of Chi Coltrane, despite the fact that she emerged from the same scene at the same time and shifted albums in very decent numbers for well over a decade. This diminished profile is partly because she moved units in Europe rather than America, despite hailing from Wisconsin and being based in Los Angeles.

Chi was part of the Clive Davis/CBS machinery. A young, photogenic pianist/ singer-songwriter who’d played the clubs and bars of Chicago before making contacts in California and auditioning for Davis in New York, Chi stood apart from the Laurel Canyon crowd. Her piano playing sounded like the result of classical training, but she was in fact entirely self-taught; a childhood autodidact with an uncanny ability to master instruments quickly. She sings in what sometimes seems like European vowel sounds (her mother was German), and as much as she pulls together elements of soul, pop, rock and jazz to form her sound, she also leans heavily on the Romantic period of classical music, particularly for her ballads (“The Wheel”, “Forget Love”).

Her first album,
Chi Coltrane, came out in 1972, its three-month stay in the Billboard 200 aided by a hit single, “Thunder and Lightning”. The song remains an instantly likeable pop-soul confection, but it revealed only a small fraction of her capabilities. The album itself sounds like 11 singles, each bearing enough hooks to snare the listener with one spin. Dusty Springfield became a fan (and would go on to record Chi’s “Turn Me Around” twice). “Thunder…” reached #17 on the Hot 100, but it would turn out to be not only Chi’s first but also her last (to date) American hit.

In the UK, she struggled to get a foothold; a TV appearance in the offing fell through owing to a union rule that insisted a UK act had to be reciprocally booked on American TV. The arrangement couldn’t be put in place in time and the opportunity passed. Just as things were fizzling out for Chi in America and Britain, however, she conquered one European territory after another (as well as places further afield, including Israel). Switzerland, France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and — most crucially given its share of the marketplace — Germany all fell for her in a big way.

European television and print media had a boundless appetite for her music and image (think Brigitte Bardot without the babydoll coquetry crossed with the sweet soulful look of Michelle Phillips) and suddenly, what looked like a failed investment on Clive Davis’s part was paying off admirably. One single lifted from the debut, “Go Like Elijah”, a rousing, credible gospel anthem, and one of the few songs in pop (along with Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die”) to cast death in a positive light, nestled at the very top of the Dutch charts for a triumphant month.

For her follow-up, Chi dispensed with outside producers altogether. She wasn’t sure if she knew entirely what production entailed, but she was certain she needed to do it if she were to realise her vision. She hadn’t been completely satisfied with the way her vocals were mixed on the debut, and went for a drier, more up-front approach as she created
Let It Ride (1973) (also for CBS/Columbia) at Trident Studios in London and Mama Jo’s in LA. As with the first album, her supporting cast was of the very finest — arranger Paul Buckmaster, backing vocal powerhouses Merry Clayton and Stephanie Spruill, supporting players Ben Benay, Larry Knetchel, Klaus Voorman, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Lee Ritenour, Bobbye Hall. These were the world-class, super-session talents that feature on the credits of innumerable albums of the period. Also on the team was Roy Halee, co-producer of Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry, who helped engineer the album.

Let It Ride pretty much tanked in the US, but it outsold Chi Coltrane in Europe, quickly acquiring Gold status in a number of territories. Among its highlights are the gospel-pop of “Fly-Away Bluebird” and the enigmatic ballad “Forget Love”. The title track is a stunning contemporary spiritual, its lyric an impassioned plea to a downcast friend to find hope. The album also serves as an impressive reminder of Chi’s dexterous piano style — not for her, the fey, pretty arpeggios of Blue-era Joni Mitchell or the buoyant shuffle of Laura Nyro. Chi is closer in keyboard style to Elton John. Fittingly, the front cover captures her in a moment of trance-like communion with her keyboard, while on the back, a black-and-white shot shows her sitting on a stool, a confident but curiously impassive look on her face. Its European success makes it all the more strange that until now, Let It Ride has been out of print for decades.

Unhappy with how she was being handled in the US, Chi secured a release from her CBS contract and took up with boutique disco/soul label, TK/Clouds, for her third album,
Road To Tomorrow (1977). Peter Bernstein’s production took a decidedly luscious, glossy approach that serves the songs well, although the overall result is perhaps less striking than the earlier releases. It’s a ballad-rich album, punctuated by some lively up-tempo pop (“What’s Happening to Me”) here and there. Guests include Jennifer Warnes and Brian Russell (ex of Brenda).

Road to Tomorrow failed to reignite her American career, Chi focused all her attention on continental Europe. In fact, the four albums that followed were not issued in the States at all. Chi was invited back to CBS via CBS Germany, for whom she made the LA-recorded Silk & Steel (1981), a tough-spirited rock album. After this came a series of albums for Teldec/Warners — Live! (1982), Ready to Roll (1983) and, recorded in the UK, her final album to date, the synth-tinged The Message (1986). Like many albums of the period, The Message now suffers a little from its dependence on what were then au-courant studio trappings. By this point, Chi is almost entirely off the radar in America, with no promotional undertakings, and her albums only patchily available as imports.

And then she vanished. No new albums, no TV, no tours (she had been playing well over 300 shows a year since 1972), no interviews, no news. The ’90s became the noughties and still nothing. What no one could know at this point was that Chi was in the grip of terrible case of burnout. It wasn’t only the constant gigging, touring, promo and recording that had worn her out; she was also very hands-on in terms of the management, administration, and strategy of her career, effectively doing the jobs of two of three people simultaneously for a decade and a half. She was left in a state of prolonged fatigue, waking up in the morning and then being ready for bed again two hours later. Worse still, conventional medicine had no answers and she endured almost two decades of symptoms of a mysterious illness. She faded entirely from the collective cultural memory of America although in Europe, where her legacy was more significant, she was not forgotten. In fact, her status as an American singer/songwriter more popular in Europe than in her home country put her in an unusual group that includes Elliott Murphy, Lori Lieberman, and Garland Jeffreys.

Eventually, thanks to the intervention of her hairdresser who recommended a holistic practitioner, Chi was put on a supplement for a year. It worked. What she now terms her “sleep” period finally came to an end. The symptoms ceased and she re-engaged with public life. An official website sprang up and, in 2008, Chi issued a collection of her ’80s work,
Yesterday, Today & Forever. The title track is a new song — a heartrending piano ballad, with strings by Paul Buckmaster that wouldn’t have been out of place on her first album, demonstrating that her voice and talent were very much intact. A reconfigured version of the compilation then appeared on V2 in some territories and Sony in others, expanded to include material from the CBS years, with a bonus DVD of TV appearances in the ’70s. Chi performed at festivals in Austria and undertook tours of both that country and its neighbours with dates in theatres and clubs. It was at this juncture that Chi and I made contact, speaking at length over a series of long-distance telephone calls. We’ve remained in touch since then.

In the decade since coming back, Chi has familiarised herself with the changes that have taken place in the industry during her absence. She’s recording an album at her own pace in her home studio, with a seven-foot grand piano donated by Yamaha. Her catalogue, so under-represented at the height of the CD era, is gradually being refreshed and revived. UK reissue specialists BGO (Beat Goes On) have just issued
a two-disc collection, combining Chi Coltrane, Let It Ride and Silk & Steel in their entirety — in other words, the complete CBS years. It marks the first time that the latter two titles have been reissued at all (the debut appeared on CD in 1996 in a rather cheap presentation). Japan reissued Road to Tomorrow last year. Luxury, all-analogue vinyl specialists, Speakers Corner, reissued Chi’s debut in 2012. For the first time in several decades, it’s easy to acquire her work, although she has so far resisted streaming platforms. More is likely to come.

Charles Donovan is a writer and journalist from London. His work has appeared in
Sunday Times Magazine, The Evening Standard, What’s On In London, RnR Magazine, The Independent, The Sunday Telegraph, Woman & Home and more.