Was Jimi Hendrix Out of Control During His Final Days in the Studio? Evidence Emerges on 'People, Hell and Angels'
Was Jimi Hendrix Out of Control During His Final Days in the Studio? Evidence Emerges on 'People, Hell and Angels'
Billy Cox and Eddie Kramer discuss Jimi's last days — and People, Hell and Angels.
“Mitch had gone to England when Jimi got into the problems,” Cox recalls. “[Jimi] was threatened with a lawsuit. So it was decided that we’d do a concert album, and I said ‘Well, I’m in.’ That’s what friends do. And Buddy was around at the time.”
But the Band of Gypsys didn’t always fare as well onstage as they did at the Fillmore shows. A subsequent concert, at Madison Square Garden, was a notable disaster, the band retreating from the stage halfway through its second number, offering apologies to the crowd. This proved to be the group’s final live performance. Events like these gave rise to turn-of-the-decade feeling that Hendrix had perhaps lost it. This impression was compounded by the uneven, somewhat shambolic performance that he turned in at Woodstock with his ill-advised, under-rehearsed and unfortunately named six-piece ensemble, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. With Chandler gone, there was no one to tell Hendrix when he had a bad idea.
“I think the core band of Jimi, Mitch and Billy, were great at Woodstock,” McDermott says in defense of the guitarist and his ramshackle backing. “I think the other guys [guitarist Larry Lee, percussionists Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan] were trying, but they’d just never played something that big before, or with something that powerful. They were used to playing clubs and things like that.”
Larry Lee was another old buddy of Jimi’s who’d just come out of the Army, where he’d seen service in the Vietnam War. Lee would go on to many years of success as Al Green’s musical director and songwriter. But in 1969, he’d just begun making the uneasy transition from the killing fields to a society that had been radically remade in the wake of civil rights, the hippie scene, psychedelia, the sexual revolution and other sociocultural phenomena of the late Sixties. It was all a bit too much.
“Larry, God bless him, had just come back from Vietnam and wasn’t quite ready for the hurricane that was Hendrix’s popularity and all that went with it,” McDermott says. “Had Jimi employed him on select songs, you would have seen real value come out of his contributions.”
The two tracks on People, Hell & Angels that feature the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows lineup show them in a much better light than their Woodstock performance. Their studio recording of the ubiquitous “Izabella” is certainly tighter than the Woodstock rendition, with Lee effectively doubling Cox’s bass line much of the time and playing a supportive role overall. And those who mainly think of Larry Lee as the guy with the out-of-tune guitar and ridiculous headgear at Woodstock might be surprised to hear his artful jazzy comping on “Easy Blues,” a 12-bar jam from another one of Hendrix’s long nights at the Record Plant.
“I came up with this little riff,” Cox recalls of that impromptu recording. “I just kept playing it. I didn’t know the tape was going. Jimi looked at me and started laughing—jumped in and started jamming. We just did that to loosen up the fingers. We laughed because it was just a riff.”
“I think Jimi was really intrigued by the idea of having that second guitar, that rhythm guitar, in there,” McDermott says. “And Larry was a sympathetic figure. He wasn’t trying to out-duel Jimi or anything like that. He understood rhythm comping and things like that. And that’s one of his real benefits.”
“Larry was part of that same R&B thing as me and Jimi,” Cox adds. “He came from that time period. Jimi, at one point, felt like he needed assistance. Because a lot of times we were playing these riffs, the bass and the guitar together, but he wanted a guitar to keep doing that when he was playing solos. But he didn’t really need that. When the deal went down, he didn’t need any help.”
But what really brought an end to Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, in Cox’s view, was not musical considerations but the dictates of “the office,” by which he presumably means management. “That group had problems because the office didn’t want it to be,” Cox says. “And so it no longer was. [Management’s thinking was] ‘We started with this [three-piece power trio] formula. Stick with the formula.’ ”
In the midst of his own troubles and the search for a new, post-Experience musical direction, the legendarily generous Hendrix still had time to help out his friends. That side of him is reflected on People, Hell & Angels by two tracks where he happily played sideman to some of his old cronies. One of these recordings is a high-energy, old-school R&B track “Let Me Move You,” led by vocalist and sax player Lonnie Youngblood, with whom Hendrix had worked in the mid Sixties. Youngblood and Hendrix’s Record Plant recording of “Let Me Move You” is arguably the most outstanding track on People, Hell & Angels, an absolute scorcher.
“Just listen to what Jimi’s doing, comping under Lonnie,” McDermott says enthusiastically. “Crazy!”
The rhythm section of Hank Anderson on bass and Jimmy Mayes on drums is so unquenchably on fire that one wonders why Hendrix didn’t just draft them to be his new backing band. He’d worked with Mayes around 1966 when they were both in the touring lineup of Joey Dee and the Starlighters, a group that had scored a big hit back in 1961 with “The Peppermint Twist.”
“Yes, you could have seen Hendrix in a little club with Joey Dee in ’66,” McDermott says. “And then, six months later, he’s doing ‘Hey Joe’ and he’s a star in England. The time frame is amazing.”
And once Hendrix shifted operations from the Record Plant to his own brand new studio, Electric Lady, in mid 1970, one of the first projects he undertook was to overdub some hot guitar on “Mojo Man,” a track by the singing duo of Arthur and Albert Allen, a.k.a. the Allen twins. The two were old friends of Jimi’s and were recording at the time as the Ghetto Fighters. Like “Let Me Move You,” the tune offers eloquent testimony that Hendrix’s abilities as an accompanist and supporting player had been by no means diminished by his massive stardom.
Electric Lady was to have been Hendrix’s salvation—artistically, financially and otherwise. “The idea was, ‘Hey we’re going to stop paying the Record Plant a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year. Now we’re gonna have our own place,’” McDermott says.
“For almost a year and a half prior, Jimi had had no supervision. So a lot of time went into experimentation," Kramer says. “But as soon as Electric Lady was finished, he came in and it was like, ‘Wow, this is my place!’ The amount of work we accomplished in just four months—from May through August—was amazing.”
Today an institution on 8th Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, Electric Lady had previously been a venue called the Generation Club, which Hendrix had planned to purchase and turn into another hip Manhattan nightspot. “But Eddie Kramer was the guy who came in and said, ‘Hey, don’t just have a little night club with a recording studio. We’ll make this the best recording studio in the world!’ ” McDermott says. “Eddie explained it to Jimi, and Jimi said, ‘Okay, I trust this guy. We’ll do it.’ ”
While Hendrix had paid for the Record Plant sessions out of his own pocket, had had to take a loan from his record label to float Electric Lady, deepening his obligation to Warner/Reprise and giving the company additional leverage when it came to his forthcoming, vexatious and long overdue album. One reason why Gary Kellgren, rather than Eddie Kramer, had engineered many of the Record Plant sessions in 1969 is that Kramer was downtown getting Electric Lady together much of the time. And while Hendrix’s Record Plant sessions may have seemed like one long party out of bounds, the guitarist allegedly knew exactly where the gold lay among the mountains of tapes he’d piled up there in mid 1969.
“Eddie Kramer told me that one of the first things they did when Electric Lady opened in May of ’70, even before they actually recorded anything, was that he and Jimi went through all the tapes that they had pulled over from the Record Plant,” McDermott says. “And that Jimi knew exactly which ones he wanted to play. He was like, ‘Hey, listen to this one. I want you to hear this song.’ And it would be ‘Roomful of Mirrors’ from November 1969. ‘Ezy Ryder’ was another one. And they started to figure, ‘Okay, we’ll put a fuzz bass on this, and I’ll overdub some guitar…’ And then there were other songs where they said, ‘Our new studio sounds so good, let’s just recut this one.’ ”
Of course Hendrix never got a chance to do any of that. By July he was back on the road, playing a troubled tour of Europe with Cox and Mitchell. Cox flipped out on acid; not everybody shared Hendrix’s legendary ability to eat loads of LSD and still be more or less functional. The group was booed in Germany. “I’ve been dead a long time,” Hendrix said, all too prophetically, at the end of a bad night onstage in Denmark. A few days later, on September 18, he died in London.
There is clear evidence that Hendrix knew he was in trouble musically. “When he went to England, he looked up Chas Chandler about three days before he died,” Kramer says. “And he talked to Chas about getting the old team together. I could see why he was frustrated. I’ve always maintained that what he needed was a year off—a time away from touring and the pressures of the record company and management, a time to think about where he wanted to go.”
But had he lived and even been able to take some time off, would Hendrix, producing himself for the first time, have been able to pull a coherent album from the sprawling mass of variant takes and alternate lineups he’d accumulated during the year and a half prior?
“At one point, he made notes about making it a three-album set,” McDermott says, “which was pretty ambitious. It was around the time when Electric Lady opened. People, Hell & Angels was one of the tentative titles he’d written down, so it comes out of that period. He knew he had this bounty of material and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll make a three-album set,’ when he had Reprise banging on his door for just a single album.”
McDermott is certain that, had Hendrix lived, he would have finished the sprawling album, if only because of his financial obligations. “He had to pay back Warner Bros. for the loan he’d taken to build Electric Lady, and had made his first payment in August prior to his death,” he says. “And with the pressure of having to deliver the Band of Gypsys album to settle that litigation, I think you would have seen Jimi pull the record together. Now would he have been able to keep it a double, much less a triple? Who knows? Management and the record label might have said, ‘Hey, we need 10 songs and we need them now.’ Or Jimi may have said, ‘Give me a month and we’ll have the rest done.’ He made a lot of progress prior to his leaving for Europe. It’s certainly possible that they could have had something, if not for the fourth quarter of 1970, then the first quarter of the following year.”
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