Joni Mitchell might have eventually become associated with the legendary Laurel Canyon explosion of singers and songwriters in the early ’70s, singing of the excesses of L.A. most prominently throughout Court and Spark, but her upbringing was the farthest thing from the glitz and glam of Hollywood.
Born in Alberta, Canada, Mitchell and her family eventually settled in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where her father owned a corner shop. Her area of Saskatoon was filled with open plains and little interaction with others.
It was a desolate and depressingly dull area of the province, as far as Mitchell was concerned. There was little excitement, and the fast-growing trends of rock and roll rarely found their way up to her part of Canada at a snail’s pace. It was clear she would not be able to achieve her dreams standing still.
However, an exception came when Ray Charles brought his uniquely energetic mix of rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock and roll to the Great White North. “Ray Charles played my hometown when I was 13. I bought a tube of rhinestone studs from Woolworth’s and stuck ’em down the seams of my jeans for the occasion, and off we went to hear Ray play,” Mitchell explains in the liner notes to her Artist’s Choice collection, where she chose ‘Lonely Avenue’ as one of her most impactful songs.
“This was my first live music concert, and to my amazement and frustration, we just had to sit there – no standing up – no dancing in the aisles!” Mitchell groused. “Rock ‘n’ roll had quickly turned into a spectator sport. ‘What’d I Say?’ was Ray’s hit then, but this one – a slow dance – was the thriller for me. The emotion was so genuine – unusually so.”
You can hear the effect that ‘Lonely Avenue’ had on Mitchell’s piano ballads like ‘Blue’ and her later jazzy period. It’s a ballad filled with a remarkably open sense of sadness, and the stark nature of Charles’ feelings almost work as a precursor to the honesty and poignant writing that Mitchell would make a signature of her own style.