By mid 1969, Jimi Hendrix was anxious for change. He’d spent nearly three years recording and touring with Jimi Hendrix Experience and had become the most famous black musician in the world. He wanted to take his music in a new direction, but record company and management pressure – especially from personal manager Michael Jeffrey – blocked his way.
On April 11, 1969, the Jimi Hendrix Experience began its final tour. At its opening show in North Carolina, Experience bassist Noel Redding’s side band, Fat Mattress, was the opening act, a position they’d hold on several shows during the tour. The relationship between Jimi and Noel had been tense for some time. As a result, on April 17, Jimi telephoned Billy Cox in Nashville and asked him to come to Memphis to meet with him after their concert the next night. After a long talk at the hotel, Jimi asked Billy to be on standby to join him as soon as the Experience tour ended.
It was natural that Hendrix turned to his old friend Cox. They first met in 1961 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when they were both members of the U.S. Army’s elite 101st Airborne Division. After leaving the military, they had been roommates in Nashville, where they played together in an R&B band, the King Casuals, during 1962 and ’63. They’d crossed trails a couple of times since then, such as when Jimi stopped by while on tour with Little Richard. Jimi had also invited Billy to fly to England with him just before the formation of the Experience, but Billy could not afford the ticket. At their meeting in Memphis, Billy recalled, “Jimi told me he was having trouble with Noel, so I agreed to join him.”
Life was about to get a lot more stressful for Jimi. On May 3, Jimi’s luggage was searched at Toronto International Airport, and he was arrested for heroin possession. It was widely rumored that Michael Jeffrey was responsible for “planting” the drugs as a way of increasing Jimi’s dependency on him. For the next few months, the possibility of going to prison hung over Jimi. As the tour continued, Jimi took many opportunities to play with musicians outside of the Experience, appearing at various venues with Johnny Winter, Stephen Stills, Eric Burdon, drummer Buddy Miles, and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Cassidy.
On May 26, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Fat Mattress flew to Hawaii for a series of concerts. After their final show on June 1, Noel Redding returned to England, while Jimi went to Hollywood, California, where he was joined by Billy Cox. Five days later, Jimi told interviewer Jerry Hopkins that Billy Cox would be playing bass for him in the future. Noel was apparently unaware of the upcoming change.
At a preliminary hearing in Toronto on June 19, Jimi was informed that his trial would begin on December 8, news that greatly upset him. The following day, the Jimi Hendrix Experience reunited for its final gigs – the Newport Pop Festival on June 20 and the Denver Pop Festival on June 29. Just before the Denver show, a reporter walked up to Noel Redding and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you had left this band.” Noel was visibly shaken by the news. During the show, rioting occurred between concert-goers and the police. Immediately after the performance, Redding fled to England. Thus ended the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
On July 11 Billy Cox made his first public appearance with Jimi, playing “Lover Man” on the Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson. The next morning, the new issue of Rolling Stone magazine contained the headline “Jimi Hendrix Has a Brand New Bass.” The article reported that “Hendrix has named an old Army buddy as the bass player he may soon be recording with and hinted that as soon as contracts allow, the Jimi Hendrix Experience may make the transition from trio to creative commune.” This “creative commune” would rapidly evolve into Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, the name Jimi choose for his Woodstock lineup. “It’s nothing personal against Noel,” Jimi explained in a quote reprinted in MCA’s Woodstock CD, “but we finished what we were doing with the Experience. Billy’s style of playing suits the new group better. See, Noel, he has his own group, and he’s into his own thing. I wanted the bottom to be just a little more solid. Noel’s more of a melodic player, and Billy plays more of a solid bass. We’re doing a lot of bass and guitar unison things, like a lot of rhythms and patterns.”
Years later, Billy Cox described to me his role in the new lineup: “Jimi tended to be a little more energetic with me than he was with Noel. Noel was a good bass player, but I guess Jimi felt more at home with me. It was a homecoming. He was more relaxed. My role was not to compete with Jimi, but to assist him in any way he chose. Of course, we had structure – we knew where we were going – but most of the time we just jammed. As long as it was feeling good, we’d go.”
The next step toward realizing Jimi’s vision of a bigger band was finding a second guitarist. Instead of bringing in one of his famous jamming friends, Jimi asked Billy to find Larry Lee, who they’d known back in Nashville. In the excellent book Jimi Hendrix: Sessions: The Complete Studio Recording Sessions, 1963-1970, co-written by Billy Cox, John McDermott, and Eddie Kramer, Billy explained: “Jimi had played both the rhythm and the lead with the Experience. He thought it might free him to concentrate on his lead playing if he had someone else playing rhythm. Larry Lee was the first and only guy considered, and Jimi gave me the assignment of finding him. In Nashville, Larry had been a sort of master to Jimi, teaching him some very important things he would need on this journey. Larry had taken Jimi by the hand and taught him a lot of things about the blues you couldn’t find in a book. That instruction helped Jimi put everything in perspective. Jimi respected Larry, and he knew that Larry knew as much about his own music as he did.” On July 14 Jimi Hendrix picked up Larry at a New York airport. The Woodstock lineup was nearly complete.
To prepare for the Woodstock gig, just a month away, Michael Jeffrey rented an eight-bedroom mansion on Tavor Hollow Road in Shokan, a village about 12 miles from the festival site and about 100 miles from New York City. Jimi, Billy, and Larry moved into the mansion. Jimi invited a young percussionist, Jerry Velez, brother of singer Martha Velez, to move in with them. They were soon joined by a second percussionist, Juma Sultan, who was renowned around the Woodstock area for his work with the Aboriginal Music Society. “Jimi had broken up the Experience and wanted to do more ethnic music,” Velez reported in Jimi Hendrix Sessions. “He wanted to try African and Afro-Cuban music with a bigger band.”
On July 17, Jimi signed a contract to headline the Woodstock festival for $18,000; he would also be paid $12,000 for appearing in the film. While this fee was considerably less than what Hendrix was paid for festivals, it was still higher than any other act at Woodstock. The musicians rehearsed for several days without a drummer.
On July 30, Jimi suddenly disappeared. He told the others at the Shokan house he was going to New York City for the day, but wound up flying to Africa to spend six days tooling around Morocco, then a hippie haven, with some friends. The move infuriated Michael Jeffrey, who was nevertheless unable to stop Jimi. In my favorite Hendrix biography, Charles Cross’ must-read Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, Deering Howe observed that this was “the best, and maybe the only, vacation Jimi ever had. Jimi had a ball. It was amazing to watch him, a black man, experience Africa. He loved the culture and the people, and he laughed more than I’d ever seen him laugh.” During a two-day layover in Paris, Jimi reportedly had a steamy affair with actress Brigitte Bardot.
On August 7, Jimi returned to upstate New York. He had just 11 days to prepare for what would be his most memorable gig. Even at this late date, though, no one was fully aware of the magnitude of the Woodstock festival. When Jimi signed his Woodstock contract, only 60,000 tickets had been sold, and its promoters predicted its size would be less than 100,000. Rumors of a much larger attendance were already beginning to swirl around the Woodstock area.
At first Jimi worked with Juma on some acoustic guitar-conga arrangement. Juma described these as “phenomenal – a sound somewhat like Wes Montgomery or Segovia, but with a Moroccan influence.” Then they moved on to electric instruments. On Sunday, August 10, Jimi and his new bandmates made their first public appearance, jamming at the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock, where Juma often performed. This was the first time Jimi is known to have used a Uni-Vibe onstage (for more details on Jimi’s setup, see http://jasobrecht.com/jimi%e2%80%99s-woodstock-setup)
Finally, a drummer was chosen. Mitch Mitchell flew in from England, and on August 14, with their Woodstock performance just four days away, Jimi began rehearsals with the full lineup of Gypsy Suns and Rainbows. In his excellent autobiography, Jimi Hendrix: Inside The Experience, Mitchell describes the scene at Shokan: “The band was grim and the house was grim. Jimi had installed Billy Cox and his lovely wife Brenda, and Larry Lee – a guitarist Jimi had known for years. He was another guy who hadn’t seen Jimi for ages and suddenly there is this whole other Hendrix to take in. Larry started putting a scarf around his head because he thought that’s what hippies did – looked very strange. A nice man and more than adequate guitar player, but did Hendrix need a rhythm guitarist?
“Also around were the two conga player, Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan, both good players in their own right, but there’s always a problem with two or more drummers or percussionists – either it works well or it gets competitive. It’s all right to have competition if you can count. If you can’t, you’re fucked. They couldn’t count. The band was a shambles. Apparently, they’d been working for about ten days when I got there, but you’d never have known. We were basically there because we were contracted to do the Woodstock festival, and I got the feeling several times during the rehearsals that Jimi realized it wasn’t working and just wanted to get the gig over and start again. It was probably the only band I’ve ever been involved with that simply did not improve over time.” “There was a lot of percussion,” Velez agrees. “I was a novice, and both Juma and I overplayed. Mitch’s style involved a lot of playing as it was, with a lot of offbeat time signatures.”
Tape recorders were brought in to record the sessions. “Jimi knew I was a recording buff,” Billy Cox explained to me. “At first we set up a Scully two-track machine, but it was just too difficult to operate and haul around. So we went to the office and got enough money to buy a Sony, which had sound-on-sound recording capabilities.” While most of the bootleg recordings of this lineup sound raggedly, there are a few gems, such as a ten-minute “Easy Blues” that reveals Larry Lee to be a sensitive accompanist and gifted jazz soloist. The two guitarists’ easy switching of rhythm and lead roles, quick unison parts, and simultaneous solos are in some ways similar to what Duane Allman and Dickey Betts explored with the fledgling Allman Brothers Band. According to Billy Cox, Lee’s choice of guitars, a Gibson ES-335, caused some friction: “I preached to Larry about getting a different guitar, but he preferred to play that 335, which was not musically compatible with where we were at musically. Consequently, it did not blend properly. I would tell him that he needed a Stratocaster, but he just didn’t listen.”
Ready or not, Jimi Hendrix’s band was scheduled to climax the three-day Woodstock festival on Sunday night. By Friday afternoon, it became clear that Woodstock, held on a dairy farm, was no ordinary festival. From their mansion 12 miles away, the musicians watched television reports as events unfolded. More than 800,000 fans attempted to make the pilgrimage by car to rural upstate New York, causing a 20-mile traffic jam in all directions. Many concert-goers abandoned their cars on the freeway and hiked in. Another 200,000 were turned away. By the time the concert opened on Friday evening with Richie Havens, fans had torn down the barriers and more than 400,000 people streamed in. Over the next two days, many musicians gave defining performances, notably Joe Cocker, Country Joe & The Fish, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain, Sly & The Family Stone, Alvin Lee with Ten Years After, and The Who.
By Sunday morning, heavy rain and garbage had turned the concert field into a swampy mess. Traveling by car from the Shokan mansion to the festival site was deemed too difficult, so organizers arranged for Jimi and his band to take a helicopter from a local airport. When the musicians arrived for their flight, they were told that the rainstorm had made it impossible for anyone to fly out. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were also stranded. Hendrix’ roadie Gerry Stickells was finally able to “borrow” someone’s truck to drive the musicians to the venue. “Stealing a pickup truck with Hendrix is one of the high points of my life,” Neil Young would later claim.
Jimi Hendrix was scheduled to close the show at 11:00 PM, but when they arrived they were told everything was hours behind schedule. Festival organizers offered to let Hendrix go on at midnight, but Michael Jeffrey insisted that Hendrix, being the headliner, should close the show. Meanwhile, Jimi was becoming ill. He’d been awake for nearly three days, and people who saw him backstage speculated that he may have been dosed with acid slipped into his water. Attendees reported seeing him laying down on a stretcher in the medical tent. “In the end, they pointed out this cottage we could shelter in – it was about three muddy fields away,” Mitch recalled. “So we squelched over there and spent the rest of the night literally freezing in there. We’re not talking fun here.”
As dawn broke on Monday morning, the band still hadn’t played. “Having waited up all night,” Mitch wrote, “the audience seemed as groggy as we were – and it was horrible to see people packing up and leaving as we came on. Monday morning was back to the grind for a lot of people who’d come, and it couldn’t be helped.” It’s estimated that only 40,000 people were on-hand to witness Jimi’s performance. Sha Na Na, a greasy 1950s revival band, played immediately before Hendrix – not an auspicious start. Backstage, Jimi told the promoters he wanted to play a song or two on acoustic instruments, but the idea was nixed.
At 8:30 on Monday morning, the loudspeakers finally crackled “Ladies and gentlemen, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.” Hendrix, obviously tired but still the resplendent hippie superstar with his white fringed jacket, red headband, bell-bottom pants, moccasins, and white Stratocaster, corrected the announcer: “I see we meet again. Dig, we’d like to get something straight. We got tired of ‘the Experience’ and every once in a while we was blowing our minds too much, so we decided to change the whole thing around and call it Gypsy Sun and Rainbows for short. It’s nothing but a Band of Gypsys.”
As the band struggled to tune their instruments, Jimi told the audience, “Okay, give us about a minute and a half to tune up. We only had about two rehearsals, so we’ll do nothing but primary rhythm things. But, I mean, it’s a first ray of the new rising sun anyway, so we might as well start from the earth, which is rhythm, right? Can you dig that?” Unfortunately, possibly due to the cold weather, Lee was unable to get his guitar completely in tune, and Velez and Sultan were woefully under-miked.
After a flourish of blues licks, Jimi launched into his 140-minute set – the longest of his career – with “Message to Love,” with Lee ably doubling his lines and providing rhythmic support. Midway through, Hendrix began scatting in falsetto with his solo, then depressed his whammy for nice effect. The rhythm section, though, sounded hopelessly muddled near the end. Afterward, Hendrix called the song “Message to the Universe.” “I’d like to go ahead on with another slow thing, a little bit of a jam we’ve been messing around with back at the house,” he continued. “I think we’re gonna call it ‘Getting My Heart Back Together Again.” With unaccompanied blues guitar, Jimi began the masterful blues that has since come to be known as “Hear My Train A-Comin’.” Midway through, Lee took a clean-toned solo that, while competent, was swamped by Jimi’s volume. Thunderous applause followed, but then the guitarists again struggled to get in tune and deal with microphone problems. “This is so embarrassing, man,” a flustered Jimi said. “I’m sitting up here, damn, you people are looking at me too – a half a million eyes. . . . We’re very sorry for the delays but, like, we’re trying to get things together in between time. Like I said before, we’ve only jammed together a couple of times.”
With that, Jimi counted off a fast, colorful version of an Experience favorite, “Spanish Castle Magic.” The song evolved into an extended jam, with Lee following Hendrix’s savage solo with an out-of-tune solo of his own, and then the percussionists took their turn. Jimi next dug deep into his roots for his blues masterpiece, “Red House.” The tuning problems got worse. What followed was surely the most curious number of the set, “Master Mind,” an R&B song written and sung by Larry Lee. Jimi did his best Curtis Mayfield-style fills and a beautiful octave-laced solo, but the Lee’s performance was deemed so lackluster that it’s never been included on any of the official Woodstock releases, although bootlegged copies abound on the Internet. Jimi raised the energy level with a sped-up “Lover Man,” with its squealing cascades of notes and feedback. Once again, they had to retune, with Jimi telling the audience. “We’re sorry for the tune-ups between time. Well, hell, cowboys are the only ones with stay in tune anyway. We don’t want to play too loud for you, so therefore we just play quietly and very out of tune.” He dedicated the next song, “Foxey Lady,” to “the girl with the yellow underpants” in the audience. Once again, the guitars went out of tune to the point where Jimi had to ask Larry to give him an “A” note.
“Like I said before, we only ran up a few numbers,” Hendrix told the audience, “so we’d like to do this one we was jammin’ at the house. We don’t have a name for it yet. It’s an instrumental.” Credited on various releases as “Jam Back at the House” or “Beginnings,” this ambitious tune, which Mitch Mitchell claimed he wrote, is a clear forerunner of the jazz-rock fusion that would emerge in the mid 1970s. Jimi dedicated his next song, the Univibe-laced “Izabella,” to soldiers and to men who have a hard time expressing their love to a women. “I think we got about two more songs that we know,” Jimi announced afterward, and said they’d do “a slow one.” With that, Larry Lee sang a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman.” Jimi’s subtle Uni-Vibed lines and octave passage were lovely support, but like “Master Mind,” the performance was deemed unworthy of release. To turn up the heat, Jimi launched into a burning rendition of “Fire.” He introduced the next song, a 13-minute version of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)/Stepping Stone” as “a new American anthem.” While Hendrix’s extended solo was one of his Woodstock set highlights, Larry Lee’s solo was painfully out-of-tune solo.
What happened next was unprepared, unexpected, and utterly sublime – Jimi’s other-worldly version of America’s national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Everyone in the audience was familiar with the tune, which for decades had been played at the start of every major-league sporting event in the United States. But no one had ever heard a version like this. Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock “The Star Spangled Banner” is, in my opinion, the single most transcendent recording of the 1960s. As brilliantly captured in the Woodstock film, Jimi pulled out all the stops, using feedback, distortion, and whammy to sonically conjure the familiar images in the song’s lyrics – rockets and bombs going off and sirens wailing. He inserted unexpected tri-tones, making the song entirely his own. I, for one, have never heard the song again without imagining those tri-tones.
To socially aware listeners, the magnificent “The Star Spangled Banner” performance captured the spirit of war-torn America and the us-versus-them mentality of the hippie culture that had claimed Jimi as one of its leaders. As Al Aronowitz wrote in the New York Post: “It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the Sixties. You finally heard what that song was about, that you can love your country, but hate the government.” According to Mitch Mitchell’s book, even the musicians onstage did not expect the song. “We hadn’t rehearsed or planned to do ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock, but we often played it in America. It’s become associated with Woodstock, and that’s fine, but we did play it a lot. Sometimes I stuck in a few drums, sometimes not. But I did it at Woodstock to keep my hands warm.”
Jimi immediately segued into a ferocious reading of his most famous song, “Purple Haze,” followed by a five-minute solo guitar blitz called “Woodstock Improvisation.” In the slow and moody “Villanova Junction,” Jimi’s beautiful octaves paid homage to Wes Montgomery. This track provided a fabulous ending to the Woodstock documentary, but Hendrix actually had one last song to play. Called back for an encore, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows played the song that had brought the Jimi Hendrix Experience its first acclaim in England just three short years before, “Hey Joe.” (For more on this, see my blog Jimi Hendrix in London.)
With the fading of Jimi’s final note, the Woodstock festival came to its official close. Mitch Mitchell, along with several reviewers, declared the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows performance a failure. Mitchell wrote, “It was so cold and damp at that time of the morning that none of our numbers really gelled – they just turned into long jams. There were a lot of stops and starts. It was a real anti-climax. If only we could have gone on at night. There was no camaraderie when we came off – most of the others had gone. We had a long drive ahead of us and we just wanted to go home. People go on about Woodstock almost religiously, but really it was mud, no food, no toilets, and exhaustion.”
Two days after the show, Jimi paid Billy Cox, Larry Velez, and Juma Sultan $500 apiece for playing Woodstock. After a few scattered sessions over the next few weeks, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows came to its end in mid September. Billy Cox and Jimi soon joined drummer Buddy Miles to form Band of Gypsys, and Billy continued to accompany Jimi on his 1970 tours, including the performance at the Berkeley Community Theater and the performances that have been issued on DVD as Jimi Hendrix – Rainbow Bridge and Jimi Hendrix – Blue Wild Angel (Live at the Isle of Wight). In 1970, the Oscar-winning movie Woodstock,with its magnificent Hendrix footage mercifully edited for maximum impact, became a huge hit. Sadly Jimi did not live long enough to enjoy the accolades. He died on September 18, 1970.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.