Electric Ladyland: Jimi Hendrix’s fight to woo black America still shines, 50 years on
When Jimi Hendrix arrived in New York in January 1968 to start work on the album that would become Electric Ladyland, he had a major problem. He had songs, but no studio to record in.
Plus, his relationship with his manager and band was fraying.
As his bass player Noel Redding explained, Hendrix was almost oblivious to the people around him.
“I would turn up to record at six pm and he wouldn’t turn up till three am. I had better things to do.”
Hendrix had another issue that he desperately wanted to resolve. With two hit albums and a starring role at the Monterey Pop Festival the year before, he’d become the poster child for white audiences touched by the glow of psychedelia. Meanwhile, his music was pretty much ignored by black audiences.
As one Harlem DJ put it, “there was a disconnection between black America and Hendrix, and that pained him.”
For Hendrix it was especially vexing because even as he arrived in America the country was in melt-down. The war in Vietnam was one touch point, but civil rights was another. It was young versus old, black versus white.
As Hendrix prepared to move into the studio to record his new LP, Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis. In the wake of his death, African-Americans took to the streets, no longer content to politely ask for equality. Some wanted to take it through any means necessary and they were asking Hendrix whose side he was on.
A record to win over Black America
His first response was to meet up with two highly respected black DJs, TaharQa and Tunde Ra, to put him in touch with the black music scene. His second was a deal that gave him exclusive rights to the Record Plant studios, where he set about making a record that revealed the real Jimi Hendrix.
Fifty years on, thanks to a carefully compiled deluxe set of Electric Ladyland, we can get a sense of the process behind a double album as diverse as anything Hendrix would ever do.
The sprawling multi-track set reveals Hendrix’s efforts to capture the fractures within and without.
Drawing on a vast array of influences, instruments and the input of musicians from many different backgrounds, the album attempts to build a bridge between black and white.
Eddie Kramer engineered the album. Listening to it five decades on, he recently told Uncut magazine:
“It stitches together … it was almost like a concept album, a psychedelic journey with jazz, blues, R&B and funk.”
Dylan was Hendrix’s Messiah
Kramer also reveals that its creation began before Hendrix landed in America.
Hendrix had come from England to the States with at least two tracks in the bag. One was All Along the Watchtower. In many ways it was an unlikely choice. Dylan had recorded it with an acoustic guitar as a folk song.
But according to those close to Hendrix, he loved Bob Dylan.
“To Hendrix he was the Messiah,” says Kramer.
“He would keep in his bag a Bob Dylan songbook and refer to it on a daily basis.”
Looking back, it’s clear how well chosen the song was. With a graphic lyric implying darkness and dread it was the perfect metaphor for America being torn apart by war, protest and assassination.
Tapping into his roots
Dylan though would not be his only inspiration. Hendrix clearly wanted to tap into the music of his people, with an album that catalogued American black musical history.
There would be jazz influenced songs, rock and roll, and R&B tracks recorded with black back-up singers who normally worked with Aretha Franklin.
As we can now hear, Hendrix used them to great effect on the song Burning of the Midnight Lamp. Reflecting on lost love and his isolation in a world divided by race, the singers and Hendrix sound like a celestial choir that would have made any church in Harlem proud.
A legendary jam
No Hendrix album though would have been complete without his take on the blues.
After a session at a local nightclub, the guitarist retired to the studio with a group of musicians including Jack Casady from the Jefferson Airplane and Steve Winwood from Traffic. With an idea already in his head, Hendrix led them into a basic blues riff lifted from a Muddy Waters song. As it evolved, the intensity heightened. Adding words, the atmosphere in the studio became electric.
“Well I stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of my hand.”
It’s not a bad opening line to what would become Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Hendrix saw it as an ode to black power and would refer to it as the “Black Panthers’ national anthem” at his concerts (though it’s not known how the movement viewed the song).
Steve Winwood, who played organ on the track, says much of the music making was done without overt direction being given. “After the first take he didn’t tell me anything. There was very little talk, the tapes rolled.”
This was music at its best, but it was also a quick way to shatter his own band. His bass player, Noel Redding, wasn’t present for the jam and felt completely sidelined. But for Hendrix, there could be no boundaries: all he wanted was the sound in his head to be captured on record, whatever the cost.
The controversial original cover of Electric Ladyland, which Hendrix hated. (Flickr: Brian Pounders)
Sex didn’t sell
The final controversy of the album came with the choice of cover. Hendrix had asked Paul McCartney’s future wife Linda Eastman to photograph him and the Experience with a multi-racial group of kids in a park.
He loved the photo but at the last minute the record label vetoed it, choosing to replace the image with a group of naked women. Several British stores banned the lewd cover, so Hendrix’s label changed it once more, to the now-iconic red and yellow image of his face.
Is Electric Ladyland Hendrix’s masterpiece? Was it the gateway to a new form of music only he could hear? That we will never quite know because, although it was still another two years until his death, he would never release another studio LP.
Did he woo black fans?
The simple answer is no. His fan base remained steadfastly white until after his death, but one African-American was listening.
Miles Davis would later release a series of albums that didn’t hide their debt to Hendrix.
There could be no higher praise. Like Miles’, Hendrix’s music transcended race and politics.