Jimi Hendrix's Fearless Masterpiece 'Electric Ladyland' Turns 50

Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Jimi Hendrix perform Sept. 15, 1968 in Sacramento, Calif. 

When Jimi Hendrix released his third album Electric Ladyland 50 years ago today (Oct. 16, 1968), it was the proudest achievement of his young career -- an album he created from the deepest caverns of his own mind.

"The album was precisely what Jimi had in his head," reveals his longtime engineer Eddie Kramer. "You look at all the drawings and the way he laid out the way the whole album was supposed to be, the running order of the songs. He was very specific in how he wanted Electric Ladyland to look. He wanted it to be a representation of who he was at that moment in time."

At a hair above 75 minutes long over four LP sides, Electric Ladyland was a psychedelic journey through the blues, Britpop, Bob Dylan and everything in between. With guests like Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna, Traffic's Dave Mason and Steve Winwood, Brian Jones, Al Kooper and others floating through the studio, the communal atmosphere the guitarist and Kramer nurtured might have caused the guitarist's manager Chas Chandler to walk out the door, but it helped earn Hendrix is first and only No. 1 album on the Billboard 200.

Ladyland's fearless sense of adventure cemented his place in pop history as the foremost pioneer of hard rock guitar in the late '60s, and showcased his growth as a prominent singer-songwriter in his own right through the infectious majesty of "Crosstown Traffic," "Burning of the Midnight Lamp," the indomitable "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and his game-changing version of "All Along the Watchtower," conspired by Hendrix mere days after Dylan's post-electric masterpiece John Wesley Harding arrived in stores in late December 1967. It would be the Jimi Hendrix Experience's sole top 40 hit in the U.S., peaking at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

"Jimi adored Bob Dylan," Kramer tells Billboard. "He was a hero to him in the way Dylan would write his lyrics and song structures. Jimi was a master at taking somebody's material and making it entirely his own. There's a photograph of Jimi and Mick Jagger hanging out at Madison Square Garden that I took in '69. And to Jimi's right there's a flight bag, where he carried a huge rolled-up Bob Dylan songbook. That's how deeply he studied his music."

If there was one aspect of the LP, however, that proved problematic, it was the cover art. In its 50 years, the album would see no less than five different covers, most commonly the yellow and red heat sensor closeup of Jimi's face based on a photo shot by legendary English lensman Karl Ferris. Yet the one that drew the most controversy, and fueled the ire of Hendrix himself, was the U.K. edition of Ladyland. Track Records released the album overseas with a photograph of 19 naked women, which caused the record to get banned from stores in several markets.

"When Jimi saw that he was pissed off," explains Kramer. "He was personally insulted, he thought it was insulting to the women, and it was insulting to the image he had in mind for the record. Jimi was a respectful man. He was conscious of the universe and was always a champion of women and women's rights. He was ahead of the game in support of the movement."

At long last, the cover image Hendrix wanted for Electric Ladyland will adorn the upcoming deluxe edition (out Nov. 9) from Legacy RecordingsA photograph shot by Linda Eastman (the future Mrs. Paul McCartney) of Jimi, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell hanging out with a group of children on the Alice In Wonderland statue in New York's Central Park. And for the first time in a half-century, this watershed epic of guitar rock will finally be experienced the way its creator had always intended for it to be.

"Hendrix was a highly sensitive and emotionally intelligent artist," describes Naomi "Nai Palm" Saalfield, lead singer of Australian art-R&B group Hiatus Kaiyote, who covered "Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland)" on her 2017 solo debut Needle Paw. "The attention to detail and effortless expression of not only his playing on this recording, but the production quality is timeless. You can only reach such a level of mastery through having an ego death. It is the only way to truly resound with people's empathy throughout the ages. Hendrix did this so eloquently and naturally."