No other artist in the history of recorded music has had a legacy of posthumous releases quite like Jimi Hendrix.
The legendary guitarist, who died at 27 in September 1970, had a brief, but meteoric, career – releasing seminal albums from the period like Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and the epic, double album Electric Ladyland – and performing era-defining live sets at the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, his last major performance before his death.
But the records released in his lifetime, and those seminal performances, were only the tip of the iceberg. Hendrix left behind a wealth of studio recordings, not to mention a treasure trove of live recordings, that have led to one Holy Grail-like release after another in the years since 1970.
After a promising start – Cry of Live and Rainbow Bridge were both welcomed with open arms by a public voracious for anything Hendrix-related in the aftermath of his untimely death – Hendrix’s long-serving engineer Eddie Kramer moved on and producer Alan Douglas, well, moved in. With release after release, between 1975 and 1995, seeming to dip further and further in quality and cohesiveness, it was a welcome turn of events when the Jimi Hendrix family regained control of his vast archive.
Kramer returned to the fold, and was joined by Hendrix obsessive, the rock historian John McDermott. Tasked with undoing the damage that years of Douglas releases had done to Hendrix’s legacy was no small thing, but the pair set about the task with dogged determination. The results – both the major releases for Sony/Legacy and the fan-oriented releases for the boutique Hendrix imprint Dagger Records – have been uniformly excellent.
With the release this past spring of Both Sides of the Sky – the last in a trilogy of albums of unreleased Hendrix studio recordings – Kramer and McDermott came to what was, seemingly, the end of the two decade job they began with First Rays of the New Rising Sun in 1997. They sat down recently with Rock Cellar to reflect on that massive undertaking, and what comes next for them, and for Jimi Hendrix.
Rock Cellar: Recently, George Harrison’s estate embarked on a series of reissues that have basically tidied up his catalog, without dipping in to the vault very much. But it occurred to me that they had the benefit of looking at what had gone wrong – and right – with Jimi’s catalog, as a sort of template to follow.
John McDermott: Those albums – Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge – are great. But then Eddie stepped away and that’s when the trouble started. When Eddie came back and the family had that foundation again, things turned around.
Eddie Kramer: But then they were really in trouble, because the two of us joined forces!
Rock Cellar: What shape were things in when the family regained control of Jimi’s recordings in the 1990s?
John McDermott: I think the tough part was that the tapes were never in one place. When Alan Douglas got involved, he was looking to put his own creative stamp on things, by overdubbing musicians, which in many cases was terrible. We never we did get everything back from the previous administration, because we had probably twenty people that had been wronged in some way, who hung on to what they had. When Alan took all the tapes to Shaggy Dog Studio, he ran up a long distance phone bill and didn’t pay it. So the owner hung on to that whole bunch of tapes, and in 1995 I got a call. He said, “I heard that Jimi’s father is taking over. I’ve got some things of his here.” He had 66 multi-track tapes!
Eddie Kramer: Basically, he had the core stuff that was missing from Jimi’s library.
John McDermott: That helped us make the “purple box” in 2000. Also, Chas Chandler had an amazing cache of all the Olympic tapes. He was never going to allow them to get into Alan Douglas’ hands, so he sat on them. Chas not only had a professional relationship with Jimi, he was a friend. And so he was to us, too. He was a fascinating guy. We enjoyed him so much. And we were able to make a deal with Chas.
Well, because sadly he passed away, we made the deal with his widow, and we got everything back. So that, too, was a huge part of the “purple box.” And parts of West Coast Seattle Boy, too. We could not have made any of the records without those two things happening. It’s not possible without the Shaggy Dog tapes and the Chas Chandler tapes.
Eddie Kramer: You can’t really compare The Beatles or George Harrison, because they were so organized. Jimi’s stuff was scattered to the wind. It took 10 years…
John McDermott: It’s actually taken us 20 years, and we were just talking to somebody who reached out to us who has a couple of tapes. The Hendrix family deserves tremendous credit, because even though we’ve litigated to get back some things, if part of getting it back is to go find it and pay for it, they will pay to do it. Janie Hendrix has never said no if there’s something out there.
Rock Cellar: Tell me why you’ve done a trilogy of albums, rather than a big, sprawling box set of unreleased studio recordings.
Eddie Kramer: Well, I think it’s a focus. When you look at People, Hell and Angels, there was a thought process that went into that. It was very carefully curated. Janie and John and I would listen and discuss and really think about what we were trying to accomplish with each album. And in the process of putting together that album, or the previous album, there were times when we would say, “Not so much for now. Let’s put it away in our little bank.”
And we kept doing that, because we would keep coming across things that didn’t fit the thought process that was going into that particular album. And this was exciting, because we knew in the back of our heads that this little pile was growing, and that there were really three very distinct albums there. And it seemed like the first two albums were building blocks to get to this point, because we knew that these tracks on Both Sides of the Sky were going to be perfect for a quote-unquote studio album that would reflect this period in 1969 where Jimi is jamming and using the studios.
And thank God the tape was running, because you hear him perform live in the studio, and there’s something quite visceral that goes on.
Rock Cellar: You’ve told me on other occasions that he loved being in the studio.
Eddie Kramer: It was his second home. He was the best version of himself. He was focused. He was — I have used this phrase so many times — laser concentrated. And you could see and feel and hear exactly that as soon as he started playing the tune, running it down with the guys. There was that thousand-mile stare. You could feel where he was going. And he wouldn’t stop until he got there. So that was a pleasure of these recordings.
And the other part of this album, which I think is tremendous, is that John found some more stuff with Jimi’s friends — the guys who he loved to hang out with, and who he loved to just be in the studio with, and have fun with and it shows on the record. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a lot of laughs.
Rock Cellar: They all bring out the best in each other. It’s also like playing tennis with a great tennis player: They’re playing with Jimi Hendrix, so they’re bringing their A-game. But I think it’s amazing that you’ve found so much material by somebody who was only active such a short amount of time.
Eddie Kramer: Four years is everything, that condensed period of time is where all of this bloody music comes from! I get this question virtually every interview, asking if we’ve been holding it back. We haven’t been holding it back. No! We just hadn’t gotten to it yet!
Rock Cellar: Did your experience working on First Rays and the subsequent releases give you a deeper knowledge of the catalog and what was there in the vault that made you think you might want to revisit that album or even do another version of Blues?
Eddie Kramer: I don’t think so. I would say the only thing that would be different would be from a technological standpoint. My way of working has evolved over the years, and right now, if I find anything it’s far easier for me to get in there and refine it, just like we did on this record. And it’s exciting even more so now than it was 10 years ago — aside all the emotional parts of discovering it — it is now possible for me to do more restoration work.
Rock Cellar: I think what’s interesting to me is that this is by no means scraping the bottom of the barrel. But now that you’re here, how do you see the future? You’ve set a very high bar.
John McDermott: Well, it’s not like we have to go forward. I’ve said it before, but, you know, Jimi’s catalog does what it does, and everybody gets excited about it, they love it, and that’s great, and we share that passion, because we love his music.
But I have played many things to Eddie, and he’s said, “John, it’s cool, but I don’t think it’s something we want to release.” And it’s always good to get that reaction. So what I think makes us different is that, for all of my research, I wasn’t there. Eddie was there. And he sets the bar. So just because I find something exciting, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to translate into something that has comes out into the marketplace.
With the Dagger label, that’s for the super hardcore fan, if there’s something that we really like. But we’re not under any pressure from the Hendrix family, or from Sony, or from anybody to do it. But we’re excited about these recordings. We feel they’re great. Like when we found the Miami festival film and sound, or Atlanta, we had to share that with people.
Eddie Kramer: So wait till whatever the next release is going to be and let’s talk. Because it’s probably going to be a live release, because we have significant amount of live stuff and I’ve actually mixed some of it; some of it filmed, too. There’s so much a great live footage, but whether it’s synced up or not is another story. But that’s the next iteration of what’s going to happen.
And along the way we might find something else!