The Lost Year: The Story of the Final Months of Jimi Hendrix
Chandler’s departure, in turn, left Redding feeling a bit uneasy over the lack of any apparent structure in the musical approach. “Jimi couldn’t always articulate his direction clearly,” McDermott says. “He certainly couldn’t provide Noel with charts and say, ‘This is where we’re headed.’ Instead, I think he had to use jamming and repetition as a way of saying, ‘Okay, this is where we’re going to go.’ ”
Hendrix became a great believer in the collective vibe generated by recording takes with the entire band, something that was also a source of exasperation for Redding. “In the past they were building tracks,” McDermott says. “But now Jimi had the idea of saying, ‘I want to cut this live and I want to get this great feel.’ So there were a lot of retakes, which must have been tough for Noel. He’d say, ‘We just cut the song. If you don’t like the guitar, why don’t we just fix that part with an overdub?’ So I think there were some problems there philosophically as Jimi ascended to the role of producer. It wasn’t what Noel was used to and what, one could say, had brought them considerable success.”
Tensions between Hendrix and Redding came to a head when the Experience came to New York in April 1969. The bassist was onboard for three recordings at the New York Record Plant: the bluesy “Hear My Train A’ Comin’ ” and the riff-driven “Ships Passing Through the Night” and the instrumental sketch “Lullaby for Summer.” But shortly thereafter, Redding was out of the picture. For his replacement Hendrix called on his old pal Billy Cox, with whom he had formed a close musical bond during their years together on the chitlin circuit. Cox was living in Nashville when he received the invitation to join the guitarist.
“It was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received,” Cox says. “Jimi could have called anybody. The greatest bass player in the world would have taken that gig. So when Jimi told me that I was the guy, I gave him 150 percent.”
And so Cox journeyed north to New York to join his old friend at the Record Plant. The studio had opened a little over a year earlier, in March 1968, and Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland was one of the first projects recorded there. As a result, Jimi felt perhaps even more at home there than he did at Olympic. Not only was the Record Plant in New York City, Jimi’s former stomping grounds, but it was also one of the first recording studios purpose-built to have a rock-star-friendly vibe. Compared to the institutional atmosphere of older studios like Abbey Road and other record company–owned facilities, the Record Plant was like a living room. Fresh up from Nashville, Cox found himself in another world entirely.
“There were no restrictions,” he recalls. “We could play as long as we wanted to. A lot of times we’d go in at eight in the evening and come out around 11 or 12 noon the next day. We accomplished a lot, too. I understand that didn’t always happen in the past. But we got a lot done.”
“I think Jimi reached out to Billy for very simple reasons,” Kramer says. “He was a friend, a compatriot, a brother-in-arms. And I think Jimi felt he could trust Billy. He was a solid citizen, and still is. A wonderful bass player. And Jimi needed that feeling of total reliability and no games. The relationship between Billy and Jimi was a close one.”
One of the earliest tracks that Cox worked on with Hendrix was “Bleeding Heart,” a funked-up soul track that is one of Valleys of Neptune’s strongest selections and clearly shows the guitarist’s blues/R&B roots. At the start he’s heard telling the musicians, “I want this to sound like Elmore James.” One can also hear the profound influence of Buddy Guy in his fleet-footed, clean, out-of-phase Strat riffing and wickedly syncopated vocal delivery. Hendrix had explored this kind of rhythmic territory on tracks like “House Burning Down” and “Come On (Part 1)” from Electric Ladyland. But this is also very much the style of music that Hendrix and Cox would have played together on the circuit, and Cox’s nimble bass work certainly enhances the stone soul vibe.
Drums and percussion on this track were provided by Rocky Issac, Chris Grimes and Al Marks of the Cherry People, an obscure late-Sixties group that Hendrix met at the Steve Paul Scene. Located just two blocks from the Record Plant in the west forties, the Scene was one of Manhattan’s hottest rock clubs at the time, and one of Hendrix’s favorite haunts. The Scene is where Jimi had collared Steve Winwood and the Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady and convinced them to come over to the Record Plant to play on the track that became “Voodoo Child.” A similar scenario led to the recording of “Bleeding Heart,” and several other tracks.
“That’s the first session where Cox comes up to New York,” McDermott says. “He comes up, they go to the Scene and they run into this guy Al Marks, who says to Jimi, ‘You don’t know me, but we met at Monterey, and I just want to say you’re really wonderful. I’m up here now with my band from Maryland.’ And Jimi says, ‘Do you have your drummer here?’ Marks replies, ‘Oh yes, he’s right over there.’ Jimi says, ‘Come on over to the Record Plant later and we’ll have a jam session.’ So that’s how all that came together.”
“Bleeding Heart” is a glowing testimony to Hendrix’s ability to pull together a great performance with what is, in essence, a pick-up band. Cox’s ability to go with the flow was certainly a factor in Jimi’s ability to make it happen with the Cherry People and the various other ad hoc backing ensembles he cobbled together in 1969 and 1970. Unlike Redding, Cox wasn’t perturbed by the lack of premeditation or apparent structure in such proceedings. “There were no chord charts, but we were in one accord,” he says. “That’s the only way I can explain it. You have to spiritually be in one accord when you’re in the studio. Jimi knew I was that way and I could work with him.”
Hendrix’s tight musical rapport with Cox and general tendency toward a more overt R&B direction circa 1969 is further demonstrated by a reworking of “Stone Free” that’s also included on Valleys of Neptune. A very early Hendrix composition, “Stone Free” was originally recorded in 1966 as the B-side to the “Hey Joe” single, and thus it received scant exposure. However, it did get some attention in the U.S. from its inclusion on the 1969 “best-of” compilation Smash Hits. Hendrix had never been completely satisfied with the original recording and devoted quite a bit of attention to remaking “Stone Free” at the Record Plant in April 1969.
“We all knew how the original cut was,” Cox says. “But Jimi said, ‘C’mon, let’s give it a little soul, Billy!’ ”
Hendrix ups the tempo considerably, compared to the 1966 version, resulting in an Isley Brothers soul revue feel that seems almost rushed. Mitch Mitchell is on the drum kit, as he was for the original, but instead of the driving cowbell groove heard on the verses of the 1966 recording, he favors a more syncopated half-time feel, with a heavy kick drum and side-stick pattern. On the original, the killer chorus vocal line was belted out with roughshod garage band panache that seemed well-suited to the song’s mood of almost adolescent defiance. On the 1969 version, though, the chorus is delivered more as a Curtis Mayfield smooth soul falsetto refrain, with harmonies from Andy Fairweather Low and Roger Chapman of the English rock group Family.