Was Jimi Hendrix Out of Control During His Final Days in the Studio? Evidence Emerges on 'People, Hell and Angels'
But that too was a sign of the changing times. The business and aesthetics of rock music were in the midst of a revolutionary transition. Where the music industry had once viewed rock music as a passing, cash-in-quick teenage fad, more-enlightened entrepreneurs were starting to realize that rock held enormous long-range business potential, not to mention all the excitement that comes with the forging of a bold new art form.
So in a sense, Hendrix had landed in the right place at the right time when he got off the plane in New York. Two gentlemen named Chris Stone and Gary Kellgren had joined forces to create a new kind of recording studio on West 44th Street. Stone was an MBA marketing wiz connected with the Revlon cosmetics empire at the time. Kellgren was one of the best engineers in New York, noted for his pioneering work with eight-track recording and tape-based effects like flanging and phasing.
While the best recording studios had historically been cold, antiseptic, lab-like environments attached to record labels like EMI or Columbia, Stone and Kellgren hit on the idea of building an independent state-of-the-art recording studio situated in a comfortable, hip living room–style environment. Along with Frank Zappa, Hendrix was one of their first and best clients, paying a handsome hourly rate to hang out, jam and party with friends, experiment with musical ideas, strive for master recordings and generally make the Record Plant his midtown pied–à–terre.
“Oh, Chris and Gary loved Jimi,” McDermott says with a laugh. “At the end of the day it was like, ‘Just keep stacking those tapes up, fellas. Let him be in there as long as he wants to.’ Because they’d be able to say, ‘Hey, we got the top guy at our facility.’ And the bills always got paid. It wasn’t like they had to chase someone to get paid. Jimi paid his bills.”
This is the somewhat amazing part. The recording funds weren’t coming from Hendrix’s record label, Reprise, recoupable against future album sales in the usual music manner. Instead, Jimi was footing the bill himself.
“It never went through the record company,” McDermott confirms. “It drove his management and his accountant crazy, but the bills went to his management company, and they paid for all those sessions.”
For Hendrix, the investment seemed well worth it. Before he hit it big, he toiled for years as a studio guitarist, playing budget, nail-it-in-one-take R&B sessions. Hendrix relished the idea of having the hippest new studio in America as his atelier and all-around bachelor pad. He’d also started to assemble his New York team. Kramer was shipped over from England, where he’d distinguished himself as an engineer at London’s celebrated Olympic Studios. Stone has vivid memories of Kramer alighting from the car sent to pick him up at the airport, decked out in a cape. And when Kramer wasn’t around, Kellgren’s world-class studio engineering chops were at Jimi’s disposal.
Even before setting up shop at the Record Plant, Hendrix had shown a marked tendency to view recording studios as party spaces, and the guest list was pretty wide open. “The hangers-on became a problem,” Kramer says. “They became a problem for Chas, and certainly for me. Sessions would be tough, because Jimi couldn’t say no to his buddies. He’d have invited the street sweeper and the cleaning lady and the record company president with him.”
But now, with Chandler out of the picture and the Experience on the skids, some of Jimi’s buddies started to make it out of the party room and into the band. Some of them earned their keep in that capacity better than others. With Redding’s imminent departure from the scene, Hendrix called on Billy Cox, an old friend from the guitarist’s days in the Army and a musical colleague who’d played many a chitlin circuit gig with the guitarist in the early Sixties. Cox had deep experience backing greats like Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Slim Harpo, Freddie King, Gatemouth Brown, Rufus and Carla Thomas and many others on stages, recording and TV studios. He was also solid as both a musician and a personality.
“Jimi Hendrix and I were musical confidants when he began his musical career,” the bassist says. “And I was his musical confidant till the end.”
Cox began by recording with Hendrix and Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, but soon another drummer entered the picture. Buddy Miles came from the same R&B roots as Hendrix and Cox, and had gone on to be a larger-than-life figure in rock music, a voluble, volatile veteran of the Electric Flag with guitar hero Mike Bloomfield and his own Buddy Miles Express. The Hendrix, Cox and Miles trio would soon be known to history as the Band of Gypsys.
“We were all the same age, and we had all come up under the R&B influence,” Cox says. “I mean Buddy was with Wilson Pickett, and I played behind Pickett when he came to Nashville. So we all played the same kind of music and had a lot in common.”
One of Cox’s many musical virtues was his ability to mesh equally well with both Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles. “Mitch was more soul influenced from a jazz perspective,” Cox explains. “And Buddy was a hard-hitting rock and roller. But both of them were good, and I had no problem playing with either one. I came out of the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia scene, and I was familiar with a lot of the jazz artists from there. I tried to play a little jazz years before, and I liked Mitch’s influence. And then with Buddy, you had the R&B, blues, gutbucket hard rock thing, and I liked that also. That was part of my DNA.”
In that light, it’s interesting to compare one of People, Hell and Angels’ standout tracks—the Hendrix standard “Hear My Train a Comin’ ” laid down with the Cox/Miles rhythm section in May 1969—with a version by the Experience just a month earlier. While the two recordings are very close in arrangement and tempo, Hendrix clearly sounds more relaxed with Cox and Miles and tears off a blindingly brilliant guitar solo. He’s one of the few guitarists on earth who’s amazing even when he’s noodling in the studio at four in the morning. The People, Hell and Angels set packs quite a few solo guitar epiphanies, albeit cast as diamonds in the rough among unfinished tracks.
“What’s so cool about Jimi is you can hear how excited he gets when there’s a dialed-in player or players on the track,” McDermott says. “It lifts him to a different place. You can hear it when you listen to ‘Voodoo Child’ on Ladyland, and you can hear it with Billy and Buddy on ‘Hear My Train.’ Whenever he feels like the people with him are locked in, he can soar.”
Fans of the Band of Gypsys’ one official recording, the highly regarded, self-titled live album from Fillmore East, will be especially interested in People, Hell & Angels, which contains no fewer than four studio recordings by the short-lived trio.
“When Jimi went to Billy, he didn’t say, ‘You’re gonna replace Noel,’ ” McDermott recounts. “He said, ‘Come up and help me.’ And when Billy first came in April of ’69, it was really about making good on some of these songs that Jimi had struggled on with Noel. Noel was a tremendous musician and deserves a lot of credit, but I think there was something with Billy. In all the turbulence of Hendrix’s life, it was important for him to have a steadying friend, who would understand his desire to work on demos over and over again until he felt he had it, whereas Noel was hoping to get it in one or two takes and move on. I think that kind of philosophical difference really was critically important.
“And as for Mitch Mitchell versus Buddy Miles,” McDermott continues, “I think Mitch was Jimi’s guy, but he did realize that Buddy brought something special for certain songs that was almost part of his personality. That thump and that excitement was different from Mitch, but it certainly fits a song like ‘Earth Blues’ [another frequently recorded Hendrix composition, performed with the Cox/Miles rhythm section on People, Hell and Angels]. You hear it. When you compare that with the version that has Mitch on drums, it’s markedly different. The R&B funk vibe is there. It becomes a different song.”