In the 1970s, while the UK record-buying public was devouring singles by Boney M and Peters & Lee, huge talents often passed them by. Singer/songwriter Chi Coltrane was one. A major-label star on multiple continents, in Britain she was overlooked. It boiled down to missed opportunities at crucial junctures. Chi (pronounced ‘Shy’) was due to appear on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972, to promote her first album. Alas, a bit of bureaucracy insisted that for every US act appearing on a UK show, an equivalent UK artist needed to be reciprocally booked on a comparable US TV show and this arrangement wasn’t in place. Chi never got her moment at the BBC.
She didn’t look back – on mainland Europe, her soaring, spirited music and magazine-perfect face were inescapable as she scored hit after hit on both singles and album charts. Continental television couldn’t get enough of her vigorous blend of rock and soul, her take-no-prisoners piano style and her one-in-a-million, crystal-blonde beauty. Today, industry insiders frequently acknowledge her legacy. John Regna, CEO of World Entertainment Associates of America, calls Chi the “undisputed Queen of Rock”, adding, “in the 80s and 90s, there was almost no music that wasn’t influenced by Chi”. Yet mention her name to the man on the London street, and you’ll get blank looks. Fortunately, with her early catalogue now refreshed by a UK label, that looks set to change.
One of Chi’s first champions was impresario Clive Davis, who would eventually realise his vision of the perfect singing star when he oversaw Whitney Houston’s ascent. A decade before that, his passion was for upscale, piano-playing singer/songwriters. Among his earliest signings in the genre were Pamela Polland and Chi Coltrane, both of whom he brought to CBS/Columbia. Talking to me from Los Angeles, Chi recalls the day she auditioned for Davis in New York: “We’d made a demo and presented it to Columbia Records. They were very interested and flew me out to the East Coast to meet with Clive”. As soon as Chi sat at the piano to perform for Davis, he was smitten, offering her a contract before she’d even finished the first verse. “My first album came out in May of 1972 and I had a world-wide hit that year with the first release [‘Thunder And Lightning’] from that album”, she recalls.
Chi’s self-titled debut yielded several international hits, including ‘Thunder And Lightning’ (US #17, Germany #2), ‘The Wheel’ (Germany #4), You Were My Friend’, ‘Feelin’ Good’ and – most notably – ‘Go Like Elijah’, which perched at #1 on the Dutch singles chart for a triumphant month. Rather than rest on her laurels, the next year she assumed the producer’s role for her second album. Reconvening with her musicians at Trident Studios, Soho, and Mama Jo’s in Los Angeles, she created the most singular and striking of her early albums, Let It Ride. Working with Roy Halee, who had co-produced Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry, Chi also re-enlisted Paul Buckmaster, one of the best arrangers in the rock world, and hired Merry Clayton, who’d contributed so memorably to ‘Gimme Shelter’ for the Rolling Stones. Buckmaster has since gone on record to say that while working on Chi’s material, he would often have to stop because the emotions it stirred in him were so overwhelming. Let It Ride went Gold in a number of European territories and is a work of which she remains understandably proud. “By then I had made connections with some wonderful artists and musicians,” she says. “Roy did the mixing for me. He’s a great guy and a friend to this day. And I was so pleased to be able to work with people like Jimmy Keltner, Klaus Voorman and Merry Clayton”.
A decade and a half of hits, tours and television appearances followed. Under-promoted in the US and UK, Chi’s work continued to fly off the shelves in Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and – one of the biggest music markets in the world – Germany. Chi moved to Miami-based TK/Clouds (famed for its disco output) for her third album, Road To Tomorrow, and then back to CBS for 1981’s hard-edged Silk & Steel. Then it was on to Teldec/Warners for a trio of albums – Live! (1982), Ready To Roll (1983) and The Message (1986). By this time, however, she wasn’t feeling well. Nearly two decades of ceaseless touring and round-the-clock work was taking its toll. Not only did she perform almost every day, she was not one for delegating. Her albums were self-produced, self-arranged and self-written. She took an active role in the management of her career and in the day-to-day, administrative aspects of the business. Wearing that many hats for that long wore her out. She all but vanished. The pre-internet era meant that a star could disappear much more easily than today, whether or not it was her intention. Chi was so severely exhausted that she sometimes fell asleep at the wheel in busy LA traffic, so it’s safe to assume that maintaining stardom was the last thing on her mind.
The search for a remedy took well over a decade, during which time Chi felt enervated and listless – ‘asleep’, as she puts it. “Conventional medicine did nothing. Eventually, my hairdresser introduced me to a holistic doctor who told me it was to do with the adrenal glands”, says Chi. “She gave me a supplement and I took it for a year or so and then I was fine. And thank God, I’ve never had any problems since.”
Chi’s comeback has encompassed vast festivals in Austria, European concert halls and clubs. Her back-catalogue, so long under-represented in the CD era, has been dusted down and presented in remastered anthologies for Sony and V2, and – most promisingly – a newer song, ‘Yesterday, Today & Forever’ is thrilling proof that what she terms her “sleep” (1986-2007) did nothing to diminish her talents. She is working on an album and, in the meantime, two of her earlier albums (Let It Ride and Silk & Steel) are making their first digital-era appearance as part of a new package from reissue specialists BGO, along with her landmark debut. On top of that, her third album, Road To Tomorrow, was reissued in Japan last year. Speakers Corner – a luxury, all-analogue vinyl label – has done an exquisite job with its reissue of Chi’s debut. The long overdue reappraisal of her work is under way.
Chi is getting to grips with the exponential changes in the music industry that occurred during her absence. “There is much less remuneration for the artist”, she laments, while embracing the technology that she’s using in the privacy of her home studio. “It’s another world”, she says. “But there are good changes. I work with Pro-Tools. Yamaha has donated a seven-foot grand for the album and the left-hand notes just growl with power, whether it’s a ballad or a rock song. It’s perfect. I also have the Motif XF8, their top-of-the-line keyboard. But there’s nothing like the original piano. It’s a wonderful invention and it’ll always be my axe.” Looking back to her childhood as one of seven children in Wisconsin, Chi remembers ditching the other instruments she was learning in favour of the piano. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to be a jack of all trades; I want to be a master of one’.” Listening to the remastered BGO collection, it’s impossible not to conclude that she has more than realised that ambition.
Find out more about Chi Coltrane here
Buy the Chi Coltrane three-album collection from BGO here