Jimi Hendrix was one of the most famous Black men of his day. Yet he didn’t have a Black following. He remains, decades later, the most singularly influential rock guitarist to ever walk the earth. That includes Charley Christian, Carl Perkins, Eric Clapton and everybody else. And that still barely registers with the Black public.
Back in the ’60s with the Black Power Movement catching full fire, he was dismissed because of his crazy clothes and wild music as being “White.” This despite that he’d paid his dues as a sideman for such historic acts as the Isley Brothers, Little Richard and Curtis Knight. Richard, by the way, fired Jimi for being even more flamboyant than himself.
With Electric Ladyland (Rhino Records, DVD) comes a seldom-seen opportunity to glimpse this miraculously gifted artist and intriguing individual who single-handedly knocked the world of rock music all around the planet flat on its asterisk.
The album Electric Ladyland set tongues wagging before it was even released. Rolling Stone, before Jann Wenner turned it into a fluff journal and set founder Ralph J. Gleason spinning in his grave, leaked word that incredible heavyweights were going to put in guest appearances. Including Steve Winwood, then of Traffic, and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. It turned out to be the last release by the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Hendrix, Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums).
There would be, after the Experience broke up, solo projects Band of Gypsies with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox (bass) and, the year’s after Hendrix’s death, the thankfully salvaged outtakes and restored tracks Cry of Love, which along with the rest of Hendrix’s catalog (and supervised by Mitch Mitchell) still sells well to this very day — more than 30 years after the last original recording of his material was released.
The irony, of course, is that rock music is nothing but the blues and rock ’n’ roll with a twist on it. Hendrix, à la his stints with the Isleys, Richard and Knight, was an original rhythm & blues man. You’ll hear, in fact, hints of Curtis Mayfield in harmonies for the album’s title cut, “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland).” There’s also the cover of Albert King’s “Come On.”
He grounded his work in R&B and took off from there to exhaustively explore rock, the only genre this side of jazz that has no boundaries. So, Electric Ladyland the album contains such landmark recordings as his cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and Hendrix’s masterpiece original “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”
The documentary, done in 1997, is not state-of-the-art filming. Or directing. Okay, face it — it’s not particularly well done. For one, you get talking heads at the beginning. Some, readily recognizable — Redding and Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Others, you wouldn’t recognize if you fell over them. Like Chas Chandler, who discovered Jimi Hendrix in Greenwich Village at The Café Wha? About 20 minutes in, it occurs to someone to identify interviewees. One of which is R&B legend Buddy Miles, the other half of Band of Gypsies.
Cobbled together from fuzzy television archives, still photos and fairly lifeless interviews, this still manages to be a relevant document for even non-fans of Jimi Hendrix. Because the information is rich. For instance, who knew Aretha Franklin background vocalists Cissy Houston and her group the Sweet Inspirations sang on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”? It wasn’t in the album’s liner notes.
What’s important is that you get interviews with people who worked with Hendrix. And, well, there is the music. And insider info on how recording sessions went. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones came by and tried to play piano on “All Along the Watchtower” but couldn’t get past a few takes before that was abandoned. Truly fascinating is listening to the cut, now an enduring classic, being formed. It’ll sound like sacrilege to devotees, but wonderful a recording as “Watchtower” is, from the outtakes, he might not have got the best take down. There is some idle, off-hand riffing on guitar that has to be heard to be believed — inventive, air-tight.
Unexpected is an exposé of how ruthlessly Hendrix was abused by his management team. Mitch Mitchell says flat out that there was no regard for the musicians needing rest. They were booked at one point for a gig on the West Coast and, by the next day, had to fly to the East Coast. Signing on for shows a bus stop away at a time would’ve made sense. Greed though, willed out. Fast money, right now. To hell with how it affects the golden cow. Give him more drugs. Throw some women at him.
Roadie Neville Chesters recounts, “We did something like nine weeks worth of gigs. And in [that time] I have it in my diary that we did 19,000 miles of driving alone. That doesn’t include flying. We had maybe four or five days off.”
It’s difficult to feel sorry for someone whose day in and day out was a nonstop party of doing what he loved and getting rich at it. Well, that killed Jimi Hendrix. He died, gold-digging hanger-on at his side, in an ambulance, inhaling his vomit from having partied too much.
It’s hard to get one’s mind around the fact that Jimi Hendrix, who left an indelible mark in music history, was only 27 years old when he died. Positively frightening to imagine the contributions he would’ve made were he alive today. Witness Electric Ladyland for the legacy of a genius.
Photo courtesy of allmusic.com