Longtime engineer Eddie Kramer and Hendrix’s sister Janie walk EW through the highlights

By Eric Renner Brown
March 27, 2018 at 02:10 PM EDT
Chuck Boyd

Jimi Hendrix died nearly five decades ago, but live albums and sets of studio rarities have continued to trickle out steadily in the intervening years. Like 2010’s Valleys of Neptune and 2013’s People, Hell and Angels, a new collection, Both Sides of the Sky, exhumes studio work primarily from the period between the October 1968 release of his final studio album, Electric Ladyland, and his September 1970 death at age 27. Below, longtime engineer Eddie Kramer and Hendrix’s sister Janie walked EW through the project, out now.

A who’s who of musical talent

With contributions from Stephen Stills, Johnny Winter, Lonnie Youngblood, and more, Both Sides of the Sky reflects Hendrix’s “ringmaster” role in New York’s late-’60s music scene. “He was the magnet that drew everybody to him,” Kramer says. “Jimi had his special friends that he wanted to jam with, and that’s how the music was created.”

Kramer recalls the “classic scenario” that would play out after Hendrix performed at The Scene nightclub in Manhattan’s Theater District and decided to go to his preferred Record Plant studio a couple blocks away. “It would be a matter of, ‘Hey man, you want to come over to the studio? Let’s walk over,'” Kramer says. “You can just imagine Jimi Hendrix walking out of the club at midnight, big hat, feather, the strap and the case, dragging 15 or 20 people behind him, walking into the Record Plant — and stopping traffic, by the way. Quite a colorful sight to say the least!”

A return to his sideman roots

Hendrix started his career as a hired gun on the chitlin circuit for artists like the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, which Kramer describes as a “very disciplinarian” atmosphere. On Both Sides, the guitarist plays backup on tracks with lead vocals from Youngblood and Stills. “He played well with others,” notes Janie, CEO of Experience Hendrix. “It takes a lot for someone that is a star in their own right to be in a humbling position.”

“He’s not being Jimi Hendrix the superstar flashy guitar player,” Kramer explains. “He’s playing precisely what the song demanded and being a session guy. … For Jimi, this was easy, and part of his nature.”

Hendrix continued to push sonic boundaries

Invigorated by the rhythm team of bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, Hendrix delves into funk, blues, and R&B. “This was a transitional time for Jimi,” Kramer says. “Jimi was jamming, as one can imagine, an awful lot, trying to establish this new direction. The year of ’69…is this year of change and Jimi searching for this new musical direction.” Adds Janie: “People didn’t get to see what he really did have planned. Jimi kept saying, ‘I’m working on a new sound, you’ll see.’ He was trying to do something bigger.”

You’ll hear “Woodstock” like never before

Months before Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released their iconic take on the Joni Mitchell cut, Hendrix recorded it himself. Kramer recalls a spirited Stills bursting into the control room of Manhattan’s Record Plant studios with the tune and Hendrix immediately agreeing to play bass. “It’s remarkable how similar the tone and the direction of where the guitars are going [is],” Kramer says of the two versions. “Obviously, Jimi had quite a bit of an influence.”

Yes, that’s a sitar

“He didn’t use the electric sitar very much, but when he did, it was absolutely spectacular,” says Kramer. Both Sides of the Sky ends with the far-out seven-minute jam “Cherokee Mist,” which Kramer describes as “visceral…[with an] American Indian feel.” The unfinished track lacks bass guitar, but still stuns Kramer. “There’s this really spectacular feedback, wah-wah, which sounds like a trapped animal, to my brain,” he says. “When I heard it for the first time, it put the hair back up on the back of my head. The essence of the track is so strong and the feeling that it generated was so strong that you could really feel Jimi Hendrix’s Cherokee roots. You could imagine what it could’ve been had he lived to finish it.”

Hendrix’s funny side shines through

Even at 27, Hendrix was still “just a kid,” says Janie. “There was a very playful side to him,” she adds, citing silly flourishes like his allusion to the Batman theme on “Lover Man.” “I’m glad that it comes out in this album. He had a great sense of humor. It was all about teasing and having fun but never trying to make somebody feel bad. And he could take the punches, too.”

Kramer agrees, pointing out that as the pressures of fame multiplied, Hendrix sought relief in the studio. “Jimi’s refuge was the studio,” he recounts. “It was the creative nerve center for him and a happy place to be.”

Summing up Hendrix’s spirit, Kramer adds: “The guy was very down-to-earth — and extremely funny. I mean, acerbic, pointed, winds-you-up kind of humor. He’d take the piss out of all of us.”

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