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The not-so-slight return of Jimi Hendrix

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New album by Jimi Hendrix coming out

"People, Hell and Angels" tracks recorded in 1968 and 1969

Hendrix "a maverick," his longtime engineer/producer Eddie Kramer says

Despite innovations, Hendrix might have had a tough time breaking through today

Jimi Hendrix has a new album, “People, Hell and Angels,” out Tuesday.

So what, right?

Sure, the guitarist was a master, redefining the capabilities of the instrument. Yes, his songs and performances – “Purple Haze,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” the Woodstock version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – are classics.

But the guy’s been dead for almost 43 years.

Before he died, he made just three studio albums: “Are You Experienced,” “Axis: Bold as Love” and “Electric Ladyland.” (“Band of Gypsys,” a fourth album that came out just before his death in September 1970, was a live LP.) After that, thanks to various legal issues, there were dozens of albums put out in his name – compilations, studio meanderings and more bootlegs than you’ll find in a chorus line of lumberjacks. Diehards have them all.

And even if the legal details have been straightened out over the last few years – the recent releases are far more meticulous – rock music long ago moved on from Hendrix’s tie-dye era, splitting into subgenres and sub-subgenres. The guitarist himself is now generally the subject of classic rock two-for-Tuesdays and some yellowing bedroom posters: a guitar-god statue, forever frozen in the act of lighting his guitar on fire.

So could there be any interest in hearing yet another Hendrix collection?

Actually, yes.

“Somewhere,” the first single from “People, Hell and Angels,” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Singles Sales chart in mid-February. His record label expects the album to debut strongly on the Billboard 200 album chart, which means quite a few people still are willing to part with their pennies to own the latest Hendrix release.

The attraction, says Hendrix biographer Charles R. Cross, is simple: There’s just never been anybody like Hendrix.

“Jimi Hendrix stood out not just for his guitar playing, but he was a great songwriter and a tremendous vocalist,” says Cross, author of the 2005 biography “Room Full of Mirrors.” “What he created with those three studio albums was so revolutionary that you look back and those are still very innovative albums. … It was a full-meal deal with Jimi, not just one thing.”

Almost 43 years after his death, Jimi Hendrix remains the model of a guitar hero.
Courtesy Sony/Legacy
Almost 43 years after his death, Jimi Hendrix remains the model of a guitar hero.

John Covach, a music professor and director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester, adds that Hendrix’s ear – his ability to mesh feedback, backward recording and high amplification with rock’s basic musical structures – would be notable in any age.

And along with Eric Clapton, Hendrix helped invent that virtuoso we call the “guitar hero,” he adds.

“After (them), every guitar player wanted to have a solo, and guitar soloing and virtuosity (were) thought of as a central feature of rock music,” he says. “Before that, Keith Richards’ guitar solos, George Harrison’s guitar solos, Roger McGuinn’s guitar solos – (they were) not really features of the tunes.” Perhaps some instrumental artists, such as Duane Eddy or the Ventures, had a little of that touch, he says, but it wasn’t until the extended jams of Hendrix and Clapton that solos became a mainstay of rock.

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’He really did think of the big picture’

“People, Hell and Angels” features 12 songs that Hendrix recorded in 1968 and 1969, many of which were intended for the studio follow-up to “Electric Ladyland.” All of the songs are Hendrix originals with the exception of “Bleeding Heart,” an Elmore James tune, and “Mojo Man.” The musicians vary from song to song – some with fellow Experience member Mitch Mitchell, others with longtime Hendrix pals Billy Cox and Larry Lee. Stephen Stills guests on “Somewhere.”

Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s longtime engineer and producer, recalls the guitarist bringing in almost anybody he thought was interesting – especially his friends from Britain, where he’d risen to fame practically within hours of arriving in 1966.

“He knew that a lot of the English guys would be jamming around the corner from the Record Plant,” the studio in Midtown Manhattan where Hendrix often recorded. Hendrix would go to a nearby club and stay until after midnight, Kramer says, “checking out who was the cool musician or musicians who could accompany him and keep up to his standards.” The list included such notables as Steve Winwood and the Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady.

When the club jam session was over, Hendrix would invite the crew to the Record Plant. Kramer chuckles when thinking about those days: “You can imagine Jimi walking down Eighth Avenue, dragging 20 people, stopping traffic, walking into the Record Plant – he walks in, rehearses once or twice, we record it, and it’s done.”

Indeed, Hendrix always had a plan in mind, Kramer says. He wasn’t the studio doodler of legend, rambling for hours with nothing in mind.

“It’s a bit of a myth. He really did think of the big picture,” Kramer says. “You would think that those jams were loose. They were not – they were planned. I’ve seen the notes, and I remember watching Jimi write out the notes on a big legal pad – the construction of the song, where the drum breaks would occur, what the chords were, what the vibe of the track was. Even if it was a jam like ‘Voodoo Child,’ he had planned it weeks in advance.”