The gorgeous black and white photo on the cover of the new "Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967)," shows Joni in her Detroit apartment. The singer is seated by a coffee table on which her Wollensak tape machine sits. She is playing an acoustic guitar and looking as earnest and young as a person could be.
The five-CD Rhino set that documents her earliest years as a performer was announced Thursday and will be released Oct. 30, a week before her birthday. It comprises close to six hours of unreleased audio, including her first known recording, a 1963 rendition of "House of the Rising Sun," recorded when she was 19 at the CFQC radio station in Saskatoon, where she grew up.
Also included is a recently discovered live recording of her performance at Ann Arbor's Canterbury House folk venue, from 1967. A dedicated YouTube channel and an official website (jonimitchell.com) have been launched, and there is a lengthy new interview with Joni in the liner notes, by journalist/director Cameron Crowe.
The cover photo was taken by Detroit News photographer Edwin C. Lombardo in the spring of 1966.
Chuck and Joni Mitchell play together in their apartment in the Verona building near Wayne State building in Detroit. But in the original News photo, Joni's handsome young husband, Chuck Mitchell, is also playing guitar in their living room at the Verona, 96 W. Ferry St. (at Cass), apartment #17. For the cover of the Rhino box, Chuck has been photoshopped out, along with their fireplace mantel and funky thrift store tchotchkes and furnishings.
The photo is among a series of shots that accompanied a Detroit News story about the interesting young boho folkie couple living in the Cass Corridor.
Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) is available now. Chuck, 29, had met Joni, 22, at the Penny Farthing folk club in Toronto early in 1965. They married in June. Joni joined Chuck in the fifth-floor walk up on Ferry Street, and they performed as a duo in coffeehouses across Michigan. The ChessMate in Detroit was their home club.
The photo of Joni on the cover of the box set was used with the permission of the Detroit News. (The record company, Rhino, made a generous contribution to the News' Rosa Parks Scholarship fund, as payment).
I have some history with those News photos of Joni and Chuck. I used to go admire them in the News' print photo archive, in our historic building at 615 W. Lafayette Blvd. But when I returned to the paper after the 1995-98 newspaper strike, the prints were gone. The original negatives couldn't be found, either. Such theft from our archives may seem like a minor, victimless crime, but without the negatives, it's a huge cultural loss.
When I told Chuck Mitchell about the theft during an interview, he kindly offered to send digital copies of the photos that a writer had sent him. We were grateful - if it wasn't for Chuck, the News wouldn't have those images to license. And I was able to use the photos in my 2019 book, "Joni on Joni." (Chuck declined comment on his scissoring out of the cover image).
Joni's two years in Detroit were incredibly creative. She arrived in Detroit in 1965, having written only one song. By 1967, she had a catalog of 50.
Although in the liner notes she mentions writing at the Toddle House coffee shop on the corner of Woodward and Ferry, Chuck recalled: "Joni wrote wherever she happened to be. She wrote in the apartment, she scribbled and sang when we traveled around. I always drove, Joni didn't drive. I think she learned to drive after she moved to California."
Detroiters will be amused that, in an interview in the liner notes, Joni refers to the location of the Toddle House, across from the Detroit Institute of Arts, as in a Black neighborhood, and that she was warned not to return in 1967, as racial tensions were intensifying.
Becky Tyner, widow of the late MC5 singer Rob Tyner, lived in a building on Prentice in 1967, and says the Ferry/Cass/Woodward area wasn't dangerous - with one caveat: "I wouldn't walk around Third at midnight, of course," she said. But the Toddle House was squarely located in Detroit's tony cultural center.
"The neighborhood was diverse, and very focused on art and music," Tyner said. "There were all these Cass Corridor artists living there, there was music, the Artists Workshop. We were bohemians, beatniks."
One of those songs, "I Had a King," referenced the "tenement castle" (the Verona) where Joni lived with the king who "carried me off to his country for marriage too soon" (Chuck, of course).
The lead sheets for her music were done by a moonlighting Motown staffer whom Chuck found while playing at the ChessMate, a Livernois coffeehouse where R&B and jazz artists performed late at night, after the folk music ended.
When I researched her Detroit years for my book "Joni on Joni," using Chuck's very specific physical description and with the help of several other Motown experts, I deduced that the Motown "reedman" who did the lead sheets was most likely Beans Bowles.
Detroit was key to the young Canadian performer's success. Joni not only got a green card after marrying and moving here; Chuck had a Detroit lawyer friend set up a publishing company, Gandalf (as in J.R.R. Tolkien), for her, which put her on a professional standing so that other artists could cover her songs (and she would be paid), as they so memorably did.
Those 50 songs Joni wrote in Detroit include many of her best-known and loved numbers, such as "Circle Game" and "Both Sides Now."
This Archives series on Mitchell is a long overdue and a fitting way to honor her legacy, which, she has always felt, has been overshadowed by male peers such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
Some of the new items announced today by Rhino are tantalizing. Some of the tracks are unheard original songs. Two of the never-before released performances will be released separately from the box on limited edition 180-gram vinyl.
One, "Early Joni-1963" will be adorned by a new self-portrait of Joni, her first new art work in years. The other vinyl release will be "Live at Canterbury House-1967," a 3-LP set which includes her complete performance at the club.
But many recordings she did in her two years in Detroit are missing from this first volume - some she did with Chuck Mitchell, some alone-- along with her husband's image. As a fan, as well as a Joni scholar, I can only hope those will come to market some day as well, showing how important her Detroit years were in the growth of such an iconic artist.
"Detroit was pivotal," said Canadian journalist Larry LeBlanc, who has known the singer for years. "It's where Joni could escape to, and without personal Canadian baggage, remake herself as an artist and as a young bride. Afterwards, as she has done throughout her life, she shed her Detroit skin and moved on and did not look back. I'm not surprised she hasn't released a lot of things from her time there. She cherry picked--kind of revealing herself, but never fully. As fans, we never really get a peak behind the curtain. Just what she wants us to see."
Sue Whitall is a journalist and the author of "Joni on Joni: Interviews and Encounters with Joni Mitchell."
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