On March 9, Experience Hendrix LLC released Both Sides of the Sky, an ad-hoc collection of Jimi Hendrix rarities dating between 1968 and 1970 that serves as the third and final volume in a trilogy of like-minded titles that also includes 2010’s Valleys of Neptune and 2013’s People, Hell and Angels. But this latest addition feels closer in spirit to such posthumous ’70s favorites as The Cry of Love and Crash Landing in its portrayal of Jimi the searcher, working out ideas with industry peers like Stephen Stills, Johnny Winter and his old New Jersey friend Lonnie Youngblood while exploring different ways to express the blues. And when you add the contributions of both the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Band of Gypsys into this 13-song set, there are very few, if any, other sonic snapshots of these final two years in the life of Jimi that capture this period in all of its unfiltered purity.
Billboard had the opportunity to speak with producer-engineer Eddie Kramer and Experience Hendrix LLC President/CEO Janie Hendrix (both co-produced the album with John McDermott) about this final chapter of the Neptune/People/Sky saga, any plans of celebrating the forthcoming 50th anniversary of Hendrix’s masterpiece Electric Ladyland, and what this latest release says of the nature of Jimi the human as much as the icon.
There’s stuff on Both Sides of the Sky that serious Hendrix fans have been in search of for years. How did you come up with the concept for this particular release?
Janie Hendrix: When we put together the first two albums, we had put these songs aside because we knew it was going to be a trilogy. It was all about planning and taking time out to cherry pick material from these last two years of Jimi’s life, and I think we saved the best for last. It really shows the playful side of Jimi. People always ask me what was Jimi like growing up, and I tell them he was fun. He was funny, had a great sense of humor. He was a lot like my dad in that regard. And you hear a little bit of that on this album with stuff like “Lover Man,” where he included a little mix of Batman and Peter Gunn, which was the first song that he learned how to play. So in a sense, it’s a moment that brings in the roots of his beginnings. And he was a big fan of Batman. He used to chase me around the house in a big black cape singing the Batman theme (laughs).
Eddie Kramer: The title of the album, from what I can determine, came from a set of lyrics that Janie found. I think it’s a rather lovely title. It’s a labor of love, these albums we’re making. We’d been at this probably for about a year prior to it, and we took our time going through the vaults. And over the years with the past two albums Valleys of Neptune and People, Hell and Angels, stuff would come up as we were listening and while putting those albums together we were setting other tracks aside, maybe we could use this later on. We were not sure doing those records how much was really left. We started to dig deeper and deeper and we found there was enough material here where it could be something very exciting as a studio-type album where Jimi is playing live. That’s the cool thing. What emerges for me is this man, he’s standing in the studio performing live as if he was on stage, but he’s just in the studio. He used the studio as a rehearsal space, which you couldn’t really do today and that was one of the reasons we built Electric Lady because his studio bills were so huge (laughs). But thank God the tape was rolling.
His roots in the blues are as evident on a Jimi release as they’ve been since Blues with Both Sides of the Sky as well.
Janie: The roots of that are from my dad, who had a deep love for the blues. I remember he had a great 45 collection. When Jimi was growing up, there was a lot of blues played in the house. When I was growing up, he still listened to the blues but he leaned more towards jazz by that time. But Muddy Waters was a favorite of both Jimi and my dad, and was crucial to his beginning, and especially early on you could hear a lot of Muddy in his music. “Here My Train A Comin’” on this new album is I think the best version of the song he did. I think it captures what he was really trying to master.
Eddie: When you hear how tight Jimi, Buddy [Miles] and Billy [Cox] are on that version of “Mannish Boy” on here, there was this common language of the blues that’s just driving the whole thing. And it’s just amazing how in sync Jimi is with the song, playing lead plus rhythm at the same time. And he gets parts of the song where he’s just scatting a high falsetto to the exact line the guitar is playing. It’s a stunning rendition of that song, and the thing that always blows my mind is when you hear what Jimi does in the studio live, and he’s in control of the whole session, integrating himself into everything that’s going on and telegraphing his moves to the other guys in the band just by nodding his head or a blink of the eye. If I could transport you back into the studio where he’s doing this stuff, your jaw would drop to the floor. When you think about the moment that appears in Jimi’s brain, it goes right from his brain to his heart and out through his fingers and into the guitar. It was a seamless flow of musical energy, especially so when he was playing a song he loved like “Mannish Boy” or “Things That I Used To Do.”
The Johnny Winter cut on here is particularly exciting. How close were they, Jimi and Johnny?
Janie: They were definitely friends. Jimi didn’t really talk too much about Johnny, but after Jimi passed away Johnny would always invite my dad to shows and have him out to the house. It was a friendship he had continued with my dad. The friends that Jimi had did come around after he passed away and stayed close to our family.
Eddie: Just before I came to America in ’68, Jimi was already ensconced at the Record Plant and I was actually invited over by Tom Wilson to the studio to check it out and eventually work with Jimi there. And two blocks north from the studio was The Scene, which was run by Johnny Winter’s manager, Steve Paul. Jimi would be there jamming pretty much every night. And we’d be waiting there in the studio for him for like 11, 12 hours and then all of a sudden here comes Jimi with an entourage of like twenty people behind him, walking down 8th Ave with the hat on and dragging his guitar. You could imagine it was something that would stop traffic. But this was how casual it was; he would just walk into the Record Plant with some people and cut a couple of tracks with his friends. Johnny Winter was at that club many nights because Steve Paul managed him, and I produced Johnny’s eponymous album in ’69. You could imagine the white albino Texas blues guy and Jimi were on that stage together all the time and loved each other. They were both rooted so much in that blues heaviness.
It’s great to hear the Band of Gypsys studio material finally turn up as well. What led to these particular selections from those recordings?
Janie: They had a great understanding of the studio as a group. Together, I think they gelled well sonically. It was just that Buddy Miles wanted to be the boss and Jimi was boss, and I think that’s where their differences existed. But when they created music, it was amazing. There was a lot of soul, a lot of deep blues, so I think musically when they played together there was a great understanding. But unfortunately, there could only be one boss and one leader.
Eddie: When I look back at the history of that band and how it was all put together, look at the year of 1969 from which the majority of those sessions transpired, which was the year of change. It was a year of experimentation and change and finding a new direction in regards to where Jimi was going to go with his music. And I was building Electric Lady Studios for him, so I wasn’t available all the time. But I’d always get the phone calls from him whether he was at the Hit Factory or The Record Plant and he’d be like, “Hey man, I can’t seem to get the sound right here, could you come up?” “Okay Jimi” (laughs), and it would be about midnight and I’d just finished a session and would jump in a cab, go and see Jimi and sort out the problems and I’d be there until 3 O’clock in the morning, 4 O’clock, then I’d have to get up again and go back into the studio in the morning to work on my other projects. It was always a pleasure to hang out with him and just try and help the process along. He was searching for something, experimenting, trying different rhythm sections. And I think, for me, one of the key moments was Woodstock. There was a little tiny phrase that he used, but it became a very big thing when he said “Hey, we’re nothing but a band of gypsies.” That was the moment he let the world know that something was coming down the pike and three or four months later we had the Band of Gypsys, which was put together for his end-of-the-year concerts at the Fillmore East. His thing was the love for the blues, and each member of the Band of Gypsys had a passion for the blues. And, of course, Jimi was the King Bee on that one. And he was experimenting with pop and rock, and redefining it.
But what also makes this collection so interesting is just how much it turns the spotlight onto not only Jimi the leader but Jimi the collaborator and experimenter as well in terms of him playing different instruments like the sitar on that version of “Cherokee Mist.”
Janie: He could pretty much pick up any instrument and figure out how to get sound out of it, like the recorder in “Are You Experienced?”. Eddie would say he’d just move around the studio and if anyone left any sort of instrument or even like a cone of wax paper or whatever, he’d figure out how to make music from it.
Eddie: How the version of “Woodstock” happened was one of those wonderful times when Jimi was in the studio doing this thing, jamming and rehearsing. Then one night Stills comes in bursting with a song he just heard about Woodstock and he wanted Jimi to hear it. Jimi listened to it and loved it, picks up a bass and starts playing the song with Stills on organ, Buddy Miles on drums and Duane Hitchings. There was no formal agenda, but Stills was so excited about this new song that had been composed by Joni Mitchell. But that was the whole thing of how he would put stuff together; he’d find the right thing to play and become the session guy. Which was so cool, because he’s not being the superstar guitar player, he’s just being a session musician, helping Stills record the song because the song was more important than letting his guitar player ego take over, which some people would think that he’d do. And that comes from being on the Chitlin’ Circuit as a sideman.
And, at least from this fan’s perspective, no other album showcases Jimi’s love for exploring the studio quite like Electric Ladyland, which turns 50 this year. Are there any plans to celebrate it and what are some of your memories about this period?
Janie: I can’t tell you all my secrets! (laughs). But yeah, I was young but I remember when he was working on that album and how proud he was about making it. He took part in the production of it; he wasn’t just the artist. He took his time in the studio for Electric Ladyland with Eddie and learned how to work the board. And I’m not sure many people know, but he played all the bass lines on the album and other instruments. That’s pretty amazing. I know Prince did that, where he played every instrument. But back in Jimi’s day, you were usually recording live to tape and you weren’t physically able to record two or three instruments at once.
Eddie: When I got to the U.S., Chas Chandler was in the studio with Jimi in April of ’68, and I had already started working on Electric Ladyland in December of ’67. We had already cut all the basic tracks for “All Along the Watchtower” and a bunch of other songs. And this was in the plan, in Jimi’s mind. But Chas left the project because Jimi was always bringing 15, 20 people into the studio with him from The Scene, so it was up to Jimi and I to finish the record. We did, and it was precisely what Jimi had in his head. If you look at all the drawings and everything on the album, he laid it all out: the way the album was supposed to be, the double album fold, the running order of the songs. He was very specific with his instructions about how Electric Ladyland was supposed to be. It was supposed to be a representation of who Jimi was at that moment in time: “I could play rock ‘n’ roll; I could be a pop star; I could play blues; I can be this far-out spacey guy who loves to play with psychedelia.” Everything is in there. It’s a symphonic record, I think. He wanted the freedom to express himself, and this was his album.
Regarding “All Along the Watchtower,” Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding came out two days after Christmas in 1967, so Jimi must have wanted to record that immediately upon hearing the original version of the song, right?
Eddie: Absolutely. Bob Dylan, he adored and was a hero for him. He thought that Dylan’s lyrics and the way the songs were structured was magnificent. Jimi was a master of taking somebody else’s material and making it entirely his own, and he did exactly that with “Watchtower.” I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s a picture of Jimi sitting with Mick Jagger at Madison Square Garden that I took in ’69. To Jimi’s right in the photo, there’s a TWA flight bag, and inside that flight bag he carried a huge, rolled up Bob Dylan songbook with all the songs he’d written up until that time. He studied Bob Dylan, because he was a poet and Jimi loved poetry and the way Dylan’s lyrics read as poetry. And then, of course, Jimi made the most distinctive version of “Watchtower.” It’s the version; even Bob Dylan plays Jimi Hendrix’s version in concert.
What was the story behind that one version of the Electric Ladyland jacket with the naked women?
Eddie: The story was when Jimi saw that he was pissed off. He was so insulted, because he thought it was insulting to the women and it was insulting to the image he had in mind for the album. It was not what he wanted. He was angry with the record company, because they did it without his knowledge, and that was why it was pulled. That’s not what he wanted. Jimi was a person who was conscious about the world and the universe, and he was always respectful of women very much so. He was a big champion of women’s rights in the late ’60s, which really put him ahead of the game.
You can hear a lot of Jimi’s personality on Both Sides of the Sky as well, which really adds to the listening experience.
Janie: It’s funny, here we are 50 years later and we are still listening to his music. But this was a kid in his twenties who created this music that has lasted decades. And of course there’s a lot of wisdom and genius that came with it. But he still had a boyish quality. He was the Mannish Boy (laughs). He definitely had a great sense of humor. Like when he came home, he liked to play Monopoly; he loved to be the little shoe, and he would buy up all the slum properties and gradually put motels and hotels on them. And he was out for blood; he wanted to win. He was really fun to be around. He’d make jokes at the dinner table. I was little, so I’d be sitting by his elbow and he’d say things under his breath and I would laugh, then the rest of the family would be like, ‘Well what did he say?’ And he’d look at me like ‘shhh!’ (laughs). He had a very kid-like quality about him. He was fun, and you can hear that on this album.
Eddie: Jimi’s soul was sweet and genuine, and he had such a passion for not only his music but other peoples’ music as well. If somebody was playing with soul and with fire, he wanted to be there with them. I remember going to The Scene and remember seeing Jimi standing on a table hanging from the pipes that hung below the ceiling, cheering on a band that he thought was just so cool. That was him.