David Fricke on Hendrix’s Greatest Unsung Covers
In his first Rolling Stone interview, published in March 1968, Jimi Hendrix recalled the shock and magic of the records he heard as a young man searching for his own voice on the guitar, citing Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, B.B. King and especially Muddy Waters. “I heard one of his old records when I was a little boy,” he said, “and it scared me to death, because I heard all of those sounds. Wow, what is that all about?”
Hendrix’s story as a revolutionary—on the electric guitar, as a songwriter and in the studio—can be told, in surprisingly large part, through cover versions: the songs and performances by other artists that he shook to new art on stage and record until his sudden end, at 27, in September 1970. His 1966 debut single with the Jimi Hendrix Experience (English bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell) was the folk-blues standard “Hey Joe.” The guitarist concluded the trio’s U.S. debut at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival with a literal immolation of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” Hendrix was already an obsessive Bob Dylan fan, charged by the language and electricity on 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, when he took ownership of the country-gothic apocalypse in Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” conjuring definitive fury on 1968’s Electric Ladyland.
And Hendrix always turned to his blues and R&B heroes—Waters, King, Chuck Berry and Elmore James, among others—for set-list fuel, while also having fun with the Beatles (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) and Christmas crackers (“The Little Drummer Boy”). What follows are six deep cuts from Hendrix’s life in covers. The guitarist would have turned 77 on November 27.
In the bad old days after Hendrix’s death, when his earliest recordings as an R&B sideman came in shameless torrents, mostly under false billing, this searing tour de force was authentic discovery: the guitarist in field-recording fidelity on Dec. 26, 1965, in Hackensack, N.J., sewing licks from two ’64 instrumentals by the bluesman Albert Collins (“Frosty,” “Thaw-Out”) into an open road for soloing and flash. You can hear Hendrix playing with his teeth as Knight, the last of the guitarist’s regular employers before stardom arrived, goads his charge (“Eat that guitar—eat it! Eat it!”). Hendrix carried “Driving South” over to the Experience, while Knight took the publishing for a few decades, under his real name of McNear.
“Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”
BBC Sessions (Experience Hendrix, 1998)
In October 1967, between thrashing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” at Monterey and his first studio pass at “All Along the Watchtower” the following January, Hendrix excavated this ’65 Dylan flop for a program hosted by the godfather of the U.K. electric-blues scene, Alexis Korner. The Experience blast through the tune as if Dylan had cut it for Chess Records, holding on to signatures from the Dylan 45 (the tapped-cymbal figure) while Hendrix clearly enjoys the hallucinatory wordplay. “If he needs a third eye/He just grows it,” the guitarist drawls coolly, as if he’s done just that.
South Saturn Delta (Experience Hendrix, 1997)
Miami Pop Festival (Experience Hendrix, 2013)
Hendrix encountered Hansson & Karlsson, the Swedish duo behind this turbulent blues march, in September 1967 at a Stockholm club called the Golden Circle. Organist Bo Hansson and drummer Janne Carlsson (the actual spelling) had recorded “Tax Free” for their Swedish debut, ’67’s Monument. Hendrix was so taken with its strident rhythm and expansive changes—somewhere between heavy blues and the soul-jazz swing of Jimmy Smith’s Blue Note LPs—that he taped it with the Experience in London in early 1968, reproducing the tone of Hansson’s Hammond B-3 by running his rhythm guitar through a Leslie cabinet. He added more guitar in New York that May, then put “Tax Free” on the shelf, where it stayed until the 1972 outtakes set War Heroes. But Hendrix kept jamming on the tune in concert throughout ’68—the Miami Pop version is a corker—and ’69.
“Come On (Part 1)”
Electric Ladyland (Experience Hendrix, 1968)
The other cover on Hendrix’s magnum opus was an emergency selection, recorded on the last day of mixing to fill up Ladyland’s running time. It was a 1960 single for the New Orleans guitarist Earl King, based on Louis Jordan’s 1946 jump-blues “Let the Good Times Roll,” and Hendrix knew the song by heart. He had played it the whole way forward, from his high school bands to the tail end of his R&B-bar grind (there is a version on Live at George’s Club 20). Essentially a live track with Hendrix zigzagging between frantic wah-wah and greased-treble skids, it reflects how he sounded onstage with the Experience all through 1968—the band’s hardest and final full touring year.
“Sunshine of Your Love”
Winterland (Experience Hendrix, 2011)
On Jan. 29, 1967, the Experience headlined their first major London concert at the Saville Theatre, topping a bill that included the Who, in a room full of local pop gods, among them all of Cream. The impact was immediate and immortal. Cream’s singer-bassist Jack Bruce went home that night and wrote the riff to his band’s breakthrough hit, “Sunshine of Your Love.” “It was strictly a dedication to Jimi,” Cream guitarist Eric Clapton told me later. “And then we wrote a song on top of it.”
In effect, Hendrix was performing an homage to himself when he introduced “Sunshine of Your Love” to the Experience’s set in the fall of 1968, moved by the news of Cream’s imminent breakup. Among the rousing epitaphs of the time: a scrappy souvenir from the September 14 chaos at the Hollywood Bowl, issued in 2018 with a deluxe edition of Electric Ladyland; and feral extensions from San Francisco’s Winterland on October 11 and 12. A week later, Hendrix attended Cream’s last L.A. show, surely aware that his own band was on life support; the Experience, exhausted by bickering and the road, played their last show in June 1969.
South Saturn Delta (Experience Hendrix, 1997)
Two years after his visceral redesign of “All Along the Watchtower,” Hendrix returned to its parent album, 1967’s John Wesley Harding, for this Dylan parable of false accusation and holy retribution, armored in rude, metallic guitar and hammering cowbell at his new studio, Electric Lady, with Mitchell and Band of Gypsys bassist Billy Cox. The guitarist, who worked on the song at multiple sessions in the summer of 1970, surely saw a piece of himself in the lyrics (“My trip hasn’t been a pleasant one/And my time, it isn’t long”), particularly the final getaway in the last line. But a month after mixing “Drifter’s Escape” that August, at the studio where he finally had total creative freedom, Hendrix was dead.
David Fricke writes about music for MOJO and Rolling Stone and is the host of The Writer’s Block on SiriusXM Radio.
Image: Hendrix performs at London’s Royal Albert Hall in February 1969. Photo by David Redfern/Redferns/Getty.
For more prime Hendrix listening, hear the new Songs for Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts, a 43-track document of the Band of Gypsys’ storied New Year’s Eve gigs at the New York venue. The set features music that has never before seen official release, as well as newly unedited and uncondensed versions of familiar tracks.
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