Tuesday, April 07, 2020


If you want to dive into a deep and confusing mystery, try researching the pre-Experience recordings of Jimi Hendrix, many of which were not even thought of as finished masters and would never have seen the light of day had Hendrix not become a superstar and then passed away so young. For the most part, intrepid Hendrix researchers have tracked down and cataloged each separate and unique recording and each variation of it which found release somewhere on some dodgy rip-off LP or CD before the Hendrix estate clamped down on such releases. I’ve spent some time in the past scouring online Hendrix sessionographies and the like, which do provide some answers, but mostly give the reader a headache. Maybe it’s best that the provenance of these sessions stays a bit murky. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, every used record store would have three or four different albums of pre-Experience Hendrix sessions sitting in the racks (and there were dozens to choose from if you hit a lot of stores), and with the retitling of material and the lack of specifics on the covers, you never knew exactly what you were going to get. It probably provided the Hendrix fan of the day a bit of excitement, like a safer version of the thrill of an anonymous drug transaction or an illicit sex hookup. Or maybe like an exploitation-film double-bill at your local drive-in of two films you’ve never heard of….would they be retitled versions of something you’ve already seen, would they be an exploitatively titled release of some unreleased zero-budget dog that had been sitting on the shelf for 5-8 years and was picked up cheaply as filler for a double-bill, would they be some foreign film taking us into some exotic netherworld? Who knows….

I remember playing such an LP way back when, and a friend dropped over and asked, “what’s that you’re playing.” I said, “early Hendrix,” and when he inquired as to what exactly the material was, I replied “formless grungy R&B jamming.” That pretty much sums up most of the recordings in circulation, and I said those words with the greatest of respect. Hey, I would have salivated over some LP on a European budget-label called JIMI HENDRIX—FORMLESS GRUNGY R&B JAMMING, if only the labels had been honest enough to present the material that way. Or even better, FORMLESS GRUNGY R&B JAMMING VOLUME 5! They’d really be scraping the barrel on that one, which would make it even more delightful of a listen to someone like me.

On some of the recordings I’ve heard (not so much this album under review), Hendrix is clearly playing rhythm guitar in a group but for the release of this material he is mixed WAY up-front, which creates an odd effect. He’s mostly chording, but being the creative guy he was, he would have been bored just chording, so he kind of de-constructs the chords as he plays them, figuring that will add some nice unexpected touches to the ensemble, which it no doubt did, but when his playing is taken out of context and forced upfront, it becomes kind of odd, especially since on some tracks there was clearly a vocalist who was mixed OUT of the recording. It’s like those Beatle bootlegs where you hear ONE of the backing vocalists and maybe Paul’s bass, but nothing else. Imagine if that’s all you heard, but you’d never heard the actual song before. It would take on an odd quality, wouldn’t it? And you’d not really be able to “hear” what the original recording was like (having to rely on bleed-through on the other instruments and singers, if there was any). Take a plunge into the earlyhendrix.com website when you’ve got some time to kill—it’s fascinating, and these folks have been researching this stuff for decades. I just went back in for a few minutes to jumpstart my memory, and read some court testimony where Lonnie Youngblood admits signing Hendrix’s name to a contract, after Hendrix had died, for the production company/label run by Johnny Brantley (who produced the sessions on this CD, which feature Youngblood—see the LP pic of an earlier release of some of this material, and notice the cutout hole in the corner), so that a record could be released under Hendrix’s name after his death, and they could claim he was “signed” with them pre-Reprise/Warners. That’s just scratching the surface. There were also guitar overdubs made later by persons unknown (though not Hendrix) on some of the material on some albums. Wow!

This body of material from Brantley/Youngblood/Vidalia Productions was dipped into for many LP’s, cassettes, and later CD’s (undoubtedly 8-tracks too!). Discogs lists 21 variations on the sessions found on the CD under review, all with different running orders, different track selections, and differing track titles to some extent. Remember the dodgy “Accord” label in the early 80’s? They put out a sampling of this material under the name FREE SPIRIT (see pic), and you can get a copy of that LP for 92 cents (plus postage) on Discogs. It’s great that an album like that is not a big-ticket collectable, but actually an album you can buy for less than a dollar, something that no one wants, like an displaced animal wandering around who is not cute enough for any human to want to feed, sitting out there in the cold and the rain and staring at the “People…All going somewhere! All with their own thoughts! Their own ideas! All with their own personalities!” (to quote Ed Wood). The early Hendrix sideman material is the music equivalent of that unwanted homeless animal.

In the early 1990’s, there were some entrepreneurial types (the kind of people who today would be flipping houses in neighborhoods they themselves wouldn’t live in) who thought Emu ranching would be the next big thing. The Emu, a tall, awkward three-toed bird (second tallest bird, next to an ostrich), was speculated to be the next big meat source. It was low fat, full of nutrients, and considered healthier than other kinds of red meat. Briefly, you would see Emu sausage, Emu jerky, etc. at off-brand stores, and they even created Emu-based health products, like Blue Emu lotions, which you can still buy today, containing “Emu oil.” I remember seeing baseball great Johnny Bench shilling for Emu health products on TV ads. Up in Central Texas, people started large Emu ranches to raise these things for the expected huge meat market. Guess what? It didn’t happen. No one actually wanted these Emu birds, they couldn’t be sold, and some people just cut their fences down and let the gangly birds loose to run wild (I once met someone at a bar who told me that he’d raised emus once in his checkered past, and after a few rye and cokes he confessed that he abandoned his emu herd to run wild on the plains and in the hills). There was actually a problem in the late 1990’s of wild emu scavenging and causing problems in Central Texas. I even saw a few running around on rural roads back then. Those wild emu are like the Hendrix FREE SPIRIT album….you can’t give it away, but hey, give it a chance and it may be delicious. I have tried Emu smoked sausage, back when you could get it at Texas convenience stores, and it tasted fine, although you could probably put ANY meat (or even ground-up shoe leather) with those spices and oil and it would taste fine.

It’s a shame I don’t have any Emu jerky to eat while listening to ABTONE SESSION (in case anyone cares, I am eating boudin with an egg and jalapeno juice mixed into it while writing this), but the album is quite satisfying on its own. 14 tracks of somewhat-formless, grungy R&B jamming, with guitar that’s recognizably Hendrix on the first track (of course!). According to Youngblood, this material was recorded in a studio (Abtone) that had eight tracks, so it’s entirely possible that some of this material could have had two or three of the best minutes cut out of it for someone to lay down a vocal track on later (maybe that was the original plan, before Hendrix’s posthumous fame entered the picture. Having an eight-track master made it easier, after the fact, to bump up Hendrix in the mix, lower other players, add a new guitar overdub to make it more Hendrixy, remove a vocalist, etc). Something like “Soul Food” here could have been created that way….a good riff kicks in and Youngblood raps the names of Soul Food delicacies over that. There’s a long history of that food-naming in blues/R&B recording, going back to the 1920’s. Incidentally, Soul Food was issued as a single, backed with Goodbye Bessie Mae, on Cameo-Parkway’s “Fairmount” subsidiary in 1967 (see pic), the third of three singles Youngblood issued on Fairmount in 66-67. The first one doesn’t include Hendrix. The second one did include Hendrix, but is not on the album.

The first 12 tracks are from the same “Abtone Session” in June 1966. After that, there are two other tracks. One comes up a blank when I research it. The other seems to be from a 1966 single by The Dealers (see pic), on the Big Bunny label, and this track also comes from the same Youngblood/Brantley orbit. Is Hendrix on it? Even the Hendrix experts are mixed on that. However, YOU GOT IT by THE DEALERS is on You Tube, as I write this, posted as a Northern Soul track (why not!), and it’s been up there for ten years, so I’d guess it will still be up when you read this. Listen for yourself.

The good thing about all this material is that whoever is playing on it, it’s excellent anyway. If you found a 45 with this material under the name “Joe Smith” or “The Jersey Soul Agents” and never thought of Hendrix, you’d think they were great journeyman R&B workouts. That’s why I’ve always picked up any albums of this sort if the titles are new to me and the album is cheap. And we haven’t even mentioned the black-hole that is the PPX/Ed Chalpin material (I’ll save that for another write-up), most of which is great too….if it’s formless grungy R&B jams you’re looking for. I picked up this Japanese CD about ten years ago at a used bookstore in Kansas. Based on the tag, I could tell it had been sitting there for five years or more and it had been marked down three separate times. I scored it for $2----they were originally wanting $12, then $8, then $5. I’ve blasted my copy many times in those years, taken it on road trips (don’t remember if any wild emu were wandering around, though), and listened to it three times today. I really don’t care who is playing on it….it sounds great loud, and I got more than my $2 worth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great detailed dive into rarities, Bill. Jimi was, and is, a favorite. Keep 'em comin'! Cheers! Alvin Bishop