On May 11, 1970, the triple album commemorating the Woodstock Festival, held in August 1969, appeared in stores and quickly became a global phenomenon, climbing to the top of the American charts. The album closed with a medley of the performance of its top star, Jimi Hendrix. The left-handed guitarist was still one of the biggest stars on the planet, but he had not released a studio album since the classic Electric Ladyland appeared on October 16, 1968, which had also hit the top of the US charts.
At a time when most groups and bands were still releasing two albums, and a few singles, a year, Hendrix's musical vacuum was disturbing. In 1969 he had not released anything, in a year in which Led Zeppelin released two albums, the Beatles recorded another two and John Foferty's Creedence Clearwater Revival, three. But Jimi hadn't stopped; it's true that he had gone through a period of creative drought, but after the dissolution of the Experience, in April 1969, Hendrix had begun to recover his form, along with his friend Billy Cox, who replaced Noel Redding on bass, as could be seen in his mythical performance at Woodstock.
Hendrix was still the highest paid musician in the world but was not happy with his image as a Rock God, at a time when black music seemed to go in a different path with James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone leading the funk revolution. Jimi wanted ‘his people’ to respect him so he changed the drummer as well, signing up Buddy Miles to create the Band Of Gypsys. Together with this trio he decided to record a live album, with original material, but he didn't use all the new material he had, saving many songs for the continuation of Electric Ladyland.
But the album, called the same as the band, was a success, not in vain Hendrix was still the best rock guitarist in the world, as you could see in Machine Gun, but he also knew that he was much more than that and had more and more confidence in his voice and his compositions. His chemistry with Cox was excellent and together with Miles he started to get closer to the R&B and soul of his beginnings. But after one not particularly brilliant performance, he decided to put an end to that band. His manager was trying to get him back with the Experience but Hendrix understood Cox much better than Redding, both personally and musically. However, he had no problem playing with Mitch Mitchell again, and so recovered the trio format.
All this was happening at the same time as he was opening his brand new recording studio, Electric Lady, located in New York's Greenwich Village. The first recording he made there showed that Hendrix had recovered the magic. With Eddie Kramer, his trusted engineer, at his side, Hendrix recorded Night Bird Flying, an incredible song in which he even recorded four different guitar parts, a true demonstration of why he is considered the best of all time. When in basketball we talk about why Jordan or Lebron are the best, and we don't put Harden or Carmelo at the same level, it's because Jordan and Lebron were the best on both sides of the court, offense and defense. When we talk about Jimi Hendrix as the best guitarist of all times, it's not only because as a soloist he was unrivaled, revolutionized the sound of the guitar and had an extraordinary technique and intuition, but also because as a rhythm guitarist he was simply unbeatable.
What Night Bird Flying also demonstrated was the difficulty of playing that song live, since on stage Hendrix could not be split several times to achieve the same effect. Another from the early batch of songs they recorded, was a song that Hendrix had composed it just after finishing Axis: Bold As Love, the second album by the Experience, but it would find its definitive form on Electric Lady. This was Angel, another of the great ballads of his career and, in a way, the successor to Little Wing.
In the same sessions in which Angel was recorded, in the summer of 1970, Freedom and Dolly Dagger, his two closest approaches to funk rock and black music, were completed. George Clinton and his Funkadelic were sure to be listening. Freedom was pure funk and Hendrix was once again demonstrating his mastery of rhythm guitar with his beloved '68 Black Strat, the Black Beauty that had become his favorite guitar. For the latter song, if we take into account Hendrix’s live performances, he left aside his Black Beauty, to use a Flying V. Another great song with a black flavor, in this case more soul, was Drifting, a heartfelt tribute to one of his greatest influences, Curtis Mayfield.
Evidently Hendrix was inspired, the band had chemistry and Kramer was bringing out the best sound. But the guitarist had to abandon the recordings when he started the European part of his tour. Being the world's most sought-after musician involved this kind of thing, and Hendrix had to leave for England to headline the Isle of Wight Festival in front of half a million people. He would never return to Electric Lady, nor would he return to the US, as he died on September 18th in London.
After his death, posthumous albums began to appear with several of the songs he had left recorded, The Cry Of Love and Rainbow Bridge in 1971, War Heroes in 1972, but none seemed to correspond with Hendrix's desire to release a new double album called First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. It wasn't until 1997, when the guitarist's family finally obtained the rights to his work, that an attempt was made to make a rough attempt at what could have been a new master work.
The work was entrusted to a reliable source, the engineer Eddie Kramer, who rescued songs from previous sessions, like the notable Room Full Of Mirrors and Ezy Ryder, with Buddy Miles still on drums. The latter is one of Hendrix’s most powerful songs, with one of his most recognizable combinations, the Strat and the Marshall with the UniVibe.
The only problem I see with this remarkable collection is that the songs are poorly distributed, the first eight songs are classic Hendrix, at the level of the mythical first three albums with the Experience, but the latter is weaker with inclusions such as Beginnings, an instrumental that I doubt that Hendrix himself would have used. Even so, on side B there are interesting tracks such as Hey Baby (New Rising Sun) and Earth Blues, with the Ronettes as backing singers.
That's the bad thing about this type of album, you never know the First Rays Hendrix would have given us, had he been able to finish it. What is clear from listening to what could have been, is that on September 18, 1970, rock & roll had the most important loss in its then short history.