Lord knows I’m a voodoo chile

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to musical artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary body of work who made an enormous impact and have a compelling life story to tell.  Some have careers that span many decades; others rocketed to stardom and then left us far too soon.  In this essay, I take a closer look at a man who is perhaps the greatest instrumental genius in rock music history — Jimi Hendrix.

***

In the late 1960s, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, John Lennon, Keith Richards — the recognized elite of British rock guitarists — all were at the peak of their game.  And they were all in agreement about one thing:  There was no one better than Jimi Hendrix.

images-76This visually arresting , flamboyantly dressed black man from the States had showed up in London in late 1966, playing the guitar left-handed, behind his back, with his teeth, with his feet, on the floor, but mostly producing an otherworldly yet beautiful sound, and nobody had ever seen or heard anything like him.  He was intriguing, shocking, even vaguely threatening.  He was, without a doubt, the real deal.

“The effect he had on English musicians – -not just guitarists, but all musicians — was just phenomenal,” said Townshend.  “I, for one, was completely floored the first time I heard him.  He was taking rock, blues, soul and jazz and mixing it with feedback and weird noises he seemed to pull out of the air.  It was completely different, so outrageous, so revolutionary…and it was spectacular.”

In the 60-year history of rock music, you can count on one hand the number of musicians who have had the earthshaking impact that Hendrix had during his all too brief time in the public spotlight.  He seemed to come out of nowhere to take first England and then the U.S. by storm, rewriting the book on what an electric guitar could sound like, both on record and in concert.  And then, four years after his arrival, he was gone, dead at 27 from a tragic “misadventure” with drugs.

Hendrix was an enigmatic figure in a number of ways.  His troubled upbringing and unstable family life in and around Seattle made it difficult for him to maintain the healthy relationships later in life he so desperately wanted.  His mother was absent for most of his childhood and died when he was 16; his father raised him halfheartedly and was a far cry from a solid role model.  Early run-ins with the law led him to enlist in the Army at 18 to avoid jail time.

Throughout his adolescence and young adulthood, however, Hendrix developed and nurtured a passion for the guitar, practicing every spare moment, and performing alone and in combos at dances, parties, clubs, road houses, every available opportunity.  Upon discharge from the Army, he headed for Nashville and performed relentlessly on the images-73“chitlin circuit” in bands fronted by Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and Curtis Knight as part of R&B and blues revues that featured stars like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke.

His desire for the limelight and the chance to grow led him to New Jersey and New York, where he assembled his own bands — “Jimmy James and the Blue Flames” — but continued to struggle until Chas Chandler, former bass player in the British blues band The Animals now interested in managing, saw him perform at Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village.  “I was looking for someone to represent, and I thought, someone must’ve already signed this guy, because he was just stunning,” Chandler recalled.  “But no one was doing anything for him, so I persuaded him to come back to London with me to audition musicians for a new group.”

In short order, Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums were selected to be in the three-man band to be known as The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  “I always liked that idea,” Hendrix wrote in his journal, “that seeing us and hearing us would be an experience.”  Word quickly spread that there was an amazing new sensation making the rounds of the Soho clubs, and the trio’s debut single, “Hey Joe,” zoomed up the charts to #4, firmly establishing Hendrix as a force to be reckoned with.  Chandler, knowing that songwriting royalties were where the money was, urged Hendrix to write his own material, but little did he know how astonishing those songs would be.

imgres-18The release of the Experience’s debut album “Are You Experienced?” in May 1967 was, in its own way, as seismic an event as the release of The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper” LP a month later.  Original material ranged from the cataclysmic “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady” to the tender “The Wind Cries Mary” and the psychedelic experiments of “Third Stone From the Sun” and the title song, and the overall effect was almost overwhelming.  You could make the case that Hendrix’s LP has more relevance today than “Pepper,” at least in terms of influence on the musical artists in the decades that have followed.

Much has been written about Hendrix’s incendiary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, where the California musical elite and many thousands of concertgoers were present for America’s first Experience with Jimi.  In hindsight, the attention-getting gimmicks — humping his amplifier, setting his guitar on fire, bashing it to pieces as he walked off stage — would come back to haunt him, as fans continued to clamor for such silliness long after Hendrix had tired of these things.  Far more importimages-72ant was the fact that the debut album, and each subsequent LP released during his lifetime, went Top Five in the US and the UK, cementing his reputation as a genuine star.

I can’t write about Hendrix without mentioning one of the most bizarre moves in music promotion history. Following Monterey, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees had become so captivated with Hendrix that he pulled strings to get The Experience booked as the supporting act on a leg of The Monkees’ upcoming tour.  At the time, they were the most popular act in the country, selling more units than The Beatles and Stones combined, but their audience couldn’t have been more different from Hendrix’s followers.  “It was a lunatic idea, doomed from the start,” notes Mitchell.  “We typically attracted the rebels, the hippies, the runaways looking for something radical and new.  But these audiences were filled with inexperienced suburban 10-year-old girls and their parents, and they didn’t like us at all.  It was a disaster, and we were soon released from the contract.”

Hendrix, meanwhile, was interested in stretching the boundaries, exploring new territory and melding different genres and elements in his music.  As he wrote in his journals, “I liked to experiment with different instrumentation, keeping the basic trio but adding other musicians.  Iimages-75 want to create new sounds, try to transmit my dreams to the audience.  Music must always continue to expand further out, further away.  Kids listen with open minds, and I don’t want to give them the same things all the time.”

Hendrix’s next LPs — “Axis: Bold as Love” and especially the double-album opus “Electric Ladyland” — were mind-benders of the first order, both musically and lyrically.  Some critics found some of it self-indulgent and excessive, which it probably was — the 13-minute exploratory track “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” comes to mind.  But he would soon dial it back and move on to other avenues.

Engineer Eddie Kramer remembers Hendrix being captivated by the recording studio.  “He became much more involved in the mixing process.  I would show him about echo and compression, and panning and phasing, and he’d get so excited about the possibilities.  There was nothing he wouldn’t try.  To him, recording was fun.”

Hendrix often mentioned his frustration about the songs he had in his head that he couldn’t seem to translate to the guitar, and then to tape.  Nevertheless, his songwriting became more nuanced and compelling, as shown in songs like “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “Room Full of Mirrors” and the beautiful “Little Wing,” which several people have recorded since, including Sting in 1987.  “Most people remember his guitar playing, which was unforgettable, but his songwriting was surprisingly adept.  I tried performing ‘Little Wing’ in a small club and it went really well, so I recorded it as a tribute to Jimi.”

Kathy Etchingham, Hendrix’s girlfriend at the time, recalls his admiration of and devotion to the music of Bob Dylan.  “He loved Dylan’s music and always wished he could write songs of that caliber.  He used to play them around the flat, and he thought about recording “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ from the ‘John Wesley Harding’ album, but he resisted, saying it was too personal a song.  I persuaded him to take a stab at ‘All Along the Watchtower’ instead, which he did.  And he totally enjoyed playing that one.”  Hendrix’s radically different arrangement ended up being his only appearance on the US Top 40 singles chart, peaking at #20 in the fall of 1968.

images-71The Experience toured the US and Europe relentlessly in 1968 and 1969, performing savage versions of blues songs like “Red House” and “Tax Free” and more concise tracks like “I Don’t Live Today” and “Voodoo Child.”  In August of 1969, he was the highest paid rock star in the world when he appeared as the final act on the three-day extravaganza at Woodstock, where his apocalyptic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” became one of the iconic moments of the counterculture’s anti-war movement.

His restlessness led to the eventual dismissal of Redding and, later, Mitchell, replacing them with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, known as his Band of Gypsys, who played gigs in 1969 and 1970, including a memorable New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden which was recorded for the live “Band of Gypsys” LP.

In between these tours, Hendrix literally lived in studios in New York and London, amassing hundreds and hundreds of hours of tapes of alternate takes, loose jam sessions, unfinished songs and, in a few instances, completed tracks that weren’t released until many years later.  Two albums of this material — “The Cry of Love” and “Rainbow Bridge” — were released the year after his death, and the ambitious double album he’d been working on in 1970, “First Rays of the New Rising Sun,” didn’t see the light of day until 1997.  Still more high-quality recordings have continued to trickle out posthumously, most notably “Valleys of Neptune” (2010) and “People, Hell and Angels” (2013).

imgres-19An interesting, articulate, intelligent guy, Hendrix was also too naive and trusting.  Although he appeared supremely confident on stage, he was often unsure of himself in relationships and business matters, which proved to be his undoing.  He was embroiled in a number of lawsuits over contract disputes and other matters that weighed heavily on him emotionally, and he sometimes self-medicated to escape.  Even worse, the sycophants, hangers-on and questionable lady friends he surrounded himself with took advantage of his innocent “free spirit” tendencies, pushing and pulling him in all directions, often working in conflict with his best interests.

Kramer added, “By the end, the recording studio had begun to lose its magic for him.  He wanted to be taken much more seriously as a musician.  He was growing as an artist and he felt his audience wasn’t growing along with him.  It was a source of great frustration for him.”

Suffice it to say his death from asphyxiation following an ill-advised dosage of sleeping pills in September 1970 was not only avoidable but a regrettable waste of monumental talent and potential.  His journals hint at his plans for the future:  “My initial success was a step in the right direction, but it was only a step.  Now I intend to get into many other things.  In five years, I want to write some plays and some books.  I want to write mythology stories set to music, based on a planetary thing and my own imagination.  It wouldn’t be like classical music, but I’d use strings and harps, with extreme and opposite musical textures, with great contrasts.”

Although he left us some incredible recordings to enjoy (check out my picks on the Spotify playlist below), it’s clear that Jimi Hendrix had only scratched the surface.  I can’t help but wonder what kind of music he would’ve been creating in the 1970s…or the 1980s…or beyond.  Of all the rock stars who left us too soon, I think I’m most saddened about Jimi.  Imagine what he might have accomplished…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

I write the songs that make the whole world sing

Before the arrival of Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and The Beatles, singing and songwriting were considered two distinctly different talents.  Up until about 1960, you were one or the other, but not both.

Songwriters, by and large, accepted their place in the scheme of things, churning out catchy melodies and lyrics that someone else turned into hit singles.  In some cases, however, the songwriter nursed a dream of becoming a recording artist in his/her own right, even if that didn’t happen until years later.

images-70Carole King is perhaps the best example of this.  Throughout the ’60s, she and husband Gerry Goffin wrote dozens of hits made famous by others — “Up on the Roof” by the Drifters, “I’m Into Something Good” by Herman’s Hermits, “The Locomotion” by Little Eva, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day” by the Shirelles, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by The Monkees, “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin, “Hi-De-Ho” by Blood Sweat and Tears, to name just a few.

Then in 1970, King took a stab at singing, and although her debut album went unnoticed, her second was “Tapestry,” one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, and the beginning of an accomplished career as a singer.

There are some fascinating examples of hit songs from that era that were written by songwriters who hadn’t yet made their name on the charts as singers.  In the process of creating the song, the composers often recorded their own versions, either as demos or as official recordings that received little attention.  Hearing these “rough drafts” of tunes that became huge hits by others makes for great listening, as the Spotify song list at the end of this blog will demonstrate.

And here we go:

“I’m a Believer,” written by Neil Diamond.  Made famous by The Monkees (#1 in 1967)

Diamond, who went on to write 37 Top 40 hits, developed a passion for songwriting at age 15 growing up in Brooklyn.  He had his eye on a recording career, but meanwhile, he was happy to have his songs picked up by others.  In 1966, TV producer Don Kirshner, in charge of finding material for the new created-for-TV pop rock band The Monkees, came to Diamond for one of his latest, “I’m a Believer.”  Diamond recorded his own version in 1967 on his “Just for You” LP, which also included his first hits “Cherry, Cherry” and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” 

“Red Rubber Ball,” written by Paul Simon.  Made famous by The Cyrkle (#6 in 1966)

Simon had been writing his irresistible melodies and introspective lyrics since 1963, and had recorded one album with Art Garfunkel that went nowhere.  But when a producer added drums, bass and electric guitar to their acoustic recording of “The Sound of Silence,” it became a #1 hit in early 1966, and Simon and Garfunkel were off and running.  Meanwhile, he had written “Red Rubber Ball” with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers, and the short-lived band called The Cyrkle made it into a hit.  S&G played it in concert occasionally, and their live recording of it appears on the 1997 collection “Old Friends.”

“One,” written by Harry Nilsson.  Made famous by Three Dog Night (#5 in 1969)

In 1968, at a time when bands wanted to (or were expected to) write their own songs, Three Dog Night went the other way, covering songs written by others, mostly struggling young songwriters who had great material.  Singer Chuck Negron heard the unknown album “Aerial Ballet” by Nilsson, which included a track called “One,” a simple, mellow song about the loneliness felt following a romantic breakup.  The band recorded a more exuberant arrangement for their debut album, and “One” became a #5 hit in 1969, the first of 15 Top 20 singles for the trio.

“Wedding Bell Blues,” written by Laura Nyro.  Made famous by The 5th Dimension (#1 in 1969)

images-67Nyro’s original vision for “Wedding Bell Blues” was as part of a mini-suite with dramatic rhythm changes to reflect the dual themes of adoring love and frustrated lament felt by the woman who “wonders if she’ll ever see her wedding day.”  That version was turned down by her producer, but instead she recorded a more soulful arrangement and released it in 1967 on her “More Than a New Discovery” debut album.  Two years later, The 5th Dimension enjoyed a pair of hits with Nyro’s songs “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Sweet Blindness,” so they tried a third time with their rendition of “Wedding Bell Blues” (which was very similar to Nyro’s), and it went to #1.

“Leaving on a Jet Plane,” written by John Denver.  Made famous by Peter, Paul & Mary (#1 in 1969)

Denver was a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio in the mid-’60s, writing and performing songs in folk clubs.  He put together a homemade demo of a batch of his songs, including one he was then calling “Babe, I Hate to Go,” and circulated it to music industry friends. Peter, Paul & Mary were so impressed with it that they recorded it for their 1967 LP, “Album 1700,” under its new title, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”  It sat ignored for two years until PP&M, in the throes of breaking up, decided to release it as a single, and it ended up the final #1 song of the 1960s.  Denver’s own version appears on his 1969 album, “Rhymes & Reasons.”

“Mr. Tambourine Man,” written by Bob Dylan.  Made famous by The Byrds (#1 in 1965)

By 1965, Dylan was already regarded as a songwriting genius/prophet in some circles, but he hadn’t yet made a dent on the charts.  That changed when the Southern California band The Byrds used their jangly electric 12-string guitar sound and lush harmonies on a folk-rock arrangement of Dylan’s acoustic “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which rocketed to #1.  Dylan’s version, found on his “Bringing It All Back Home” LP, has a running time of 5:34 and includes four verses; The Byrds’ version is severely truncated to 2:29, using only the second of the four verses.

“Both Sides Now,” written by Joni Mitchell.  Made famous by Judy Collins (#8 in 1968).  

imgres-17Judy Collins gives credit to her friend and musician Al Kooper for introducing her to the genius of Joni Mitchell, still a relative unknown at the time.  “He knew I was in the midst of recording my ‘Wildflowers’ album, and he wanted me to hear Joni’s songs, particularly ‘Both Sides Now,'” Collins wrote in her autobiography.  “Joni’s writing was magnificent.  ‘Both Sides Now’ has everything — sweep and tenderness, specificity and breadth.  It’s a perfect jewel of a song, perhaps one of the greatest songs ever written.”  Mitchell’s version appears on her second album, “Clouds,” in 1969.

“Wichita Lineman,” written by Jimmy Webb.  Made famous by Glen Campbell (#3 in 1968)

Webb remembers driving toward the late afternoon sun one day in Oklahoma, passing endless miles of telephone poles, until he saw the silhouette of a solitary lineman atop a pole.  “He looked like the absolute picture of loneliness,” said Webb, who put himself in the lineman’s place and wrote what has been described as “the first existential country song” and “the greatest pop song ever composed.”  Glen Campbell was the first of many artists to record “Wichita Lineman,” and Webb himself finally got around to it on his 1996 album called “Ten Easy Pieces,” which also includes new arrangements of other hits he wrote like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “The Worst That Can Happen,” “Galveston” and “MacArthur Park.”

“Mama Told Me Not to Come,” written by Randy Newman.  Made famous by Three Dog Night (#1 in 1970)

After an early attempt as a recording artist flopped, Newman concentrated on songwriting throughout the ’60s, and his 1966 song “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” was recorded by a dozen different singers.  That same year he wrote “Mama Told Me Not to Come” for Eric Burdon and The Animals, but it ended up an ignored album track.  Four years later, Newman released his “12 Songs” LP which included his piano-based rendition of the song, and simultaneously, Three Dog Night’s rock/funk version raced up the charts to become one of the biggest singles of the year.

“Come and Get It,” written by Paul McCartney.  Made famous by Badfinger (#7 in 1970)

McCartney wrote several songs during the Beatles years that he gave away to others, particularly Peter & Gordon (Peter Asher was his girlfriend’s brother).  In 1969, McCartney was commissioned to write songs for “The Magic Christian” soundtrack, and in the midst of the “Abbey Road” sessions, he arrived early one day and recorded a polished demo of “Come and Get It” by himself.  Badfinger was a new band signed to the Apple label, and to help jumpstart their career, he gave them “Come and Get It,” also producing it.  McCartney’s demo was finally released as a Beatles track on the Anthology 3 CD in 1996.

“Red Red Wine,” written by Neil Diamond.  Made famous by UB40 (#1 in 1988)

images-68This one has this list’s longest gestation period from composing to hit-single status.  Originally written and recorded by Diamond in 1967 on his “Just for You” LP, “Red Red Wine” was resurrected 15 years later by British pop/reggae band UB40, who released an album in 1983 of cover versions of songs by their early rock idols.  Their reggae version went to #1 in the UK but stalled at #34 here.  Five years later, “Red Red Wine” was re-released in the US and went to #1 here as well.

“Stoney End,” written by Laura Nyro.  Made famous by Barbra Streisand (#6 in 1971)

Another Nyro composition that appeared on her underrated 1967 debut “More Than a New Discovery” was this upbeat number that eventually captured the attention of producer Richard Perry.  He suggested it as a featured song for Barbra Streisand’s first album of pop-rock songs, and although she initially balked at the line “I was raised on the good book Jesus” because of her Jewish faith, it ended up being the title song when released in 1971.  She took Nyro’s song to #6, her first Top Ten hit since “People” in 1964, and the beginning of an impressive run on the charts throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s.

“Me and Bobby McGee,” written by Kris Kristofferson.  Made famous by Janis Joplin (#1 in 1971)

Kris Kristofferson was an Army brat who became an accomplished pilot, an award-winning boxer and rugby player, and a Rhodes scholar at Oxford — and he left all that behind to pursue his dreams of writing music and acting.  He found his niche in Nashville, where his songs were recorded by dozens of country stars from Johnny Cash to Ray Price, but Kristofferson’s own recordings never achieved much commercial success.  He introduced one song from his debut album “Kristofferson” to his friend Janis Joplin, who decided to record it for what would become her final album, “Pearl.”  Four months after her death, Janis’s recording of “Me and Bobby McGee” was the #1 song in the country.

“All the Young Dudes,” written by David Bowie.  Made famous by Mott the Hoople (#37 in 1972).

In 1972, Bowie’s career was only just starting to take off in the US when he heard that his friends in Mott the Hoople were about to break up because of a lack of chart success.  He offered them his song “Suffragette City” from the “Ziggy Stardust” LP, but they turned him down, so instead, Bowie sat down in a London flat across from singer Ian Hunter and wrote “All the Young Dudes” specifically for them.  It went to #3 in the UK, saving the band’s career, and it became the unofficial anthem of the glam-rock era.  Bowie recorded it himself during the “Aladdin Sane” sessions but never released it until the mid-’90s on several different compilation CD sets.

**************
images-69You might also want to check out the composer’s versions of these other hits that made my honorable mention list:

Bruce Springsteen wrote “Blinded by the Light,” “Fire,” and “Because the Night”;  Bob Marley wrote “I Shot the Sheriff”; Neil Young wrote “Lotta Love”; Leon Russell wrote “This Masquerade” and “A Song for You”;  Tom Waits wrote “Ol ’55”;  Prince wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Manic Monday”;  Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” and “All Along the Watchtower.”