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The wizardry of early Hendrix

David Bennun listens to the master in imago stage

David Bennun | March 17th 2015

“You can’t use my name,” we hear Jimi Hendrix say to producer Ed Chalpin over the studio mic. It’s 1967. Hendrix is a star not so much rising as soaring. Two years previously, he signed away his rights as a recording artist to Chalpin on the misunderstanding that he was ensuring payment for a single session. Now he’s making his final contribution to Curtis Knight & The Squires, the group of which he was briefly a member, and Chalpin, even at that moment, is piggybacking upon his fame.

The leap from those songs—at last collected, remastered and officially released via the Legacy label this month—to those of the Jimi Hendrix Experience is a giant one. “You Can’t Use My Name: The RSVP/PPX Sessions” would be at best a period curio but for Hendrix’s involvement. Knight was a capable but unexceptional mid-60s R&B artist, whose most notable gift, in retrospect, appears to have been spotting greater aptitude in another. (That said, Hendrix’s familiar, soft, insistent vocals bear a striking similarity to the style of Knight’s.)

It’s hard to guess how I’d hear these recordings if I didn’t know Hendrix played on them. Then again, Hendrix’s presence is all but unmistakable. Even restricted by others’ requirements, rather than set atop its own custom-built vehicle, his guitar work stands out. At moments its searing propulsion calls to mind a rocket engine attached to a compact runabout. Elsewhere it burns in the background, crackling and sparking, and imparts heat and light to the otherwise mundane.

Fascinating as it may be to hear any genius in the imago stage, there is only so much pleasure one can take in pop as a kind of academic pursuit, tracing the origin of this sound or that idea. Ultimately what matters is the thrill of the music itself, and this is where so much unearthed archive material falls short. Happily, a handful of tracks among the 14 on this record inject a genuine Hendrix rush into the bloodstream—especially the judiciously chosen opener.

“How Would You Feel” is an intriguing example of something R&B used to do back when it was still close enough to its roots in blues and gospel to function as a kind of folk music: it’s an adaptation of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, reworked as a civil rights protest song. It seizes Dylan’s crucial question—“How does it feel?”—strips it of its vengeful Schadenfreude, and redirects it at a putative white listener, describing everyday ignominies for black people and demanding, “How would you feel?” It’s an astonishing track, surging through its four-minute span, ablaze with righteous fury and flaming fretwork. Hendrix’s guitar is the liquid fuel that drives it.

It makes me seek out Hendrix’s later cover of the Dylan song, and re-examine his incendiary take on “All Along the Watchtower”, which transformed Dylan’s own approach to it; Dylan effectively wound up covering Hendrix’s cover of him.

A pair of 1966 instrumentals—Hendrix’s first released compositions—showcase what he could already do given free rein. “Knock Yourself Out” would be a routine, upbeat twelve-bar blues jam but for the guitar scrabbled and scrawled across it by the master’s preternatural fingers. “Hornet’s Nest” is a full-blown corker, a walloping dose of psychedelic go-go that again transcends a rudimentary format through Hendrix’s wizardry.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this collection is the thought that within three years of first entering the studio with The Squires, Hendrix would complete his mind-melting classic album, “Electric Ladyland”. Within six, he’d be gone, leaving behind the greatest what-if of any premature departure from rock’n’roll this side of Buddy Holly. These glimpses of his earliest recording career can’t shed any light on that. What they illuminate is just how formidable was his talent, and how swift its progress.

You Can't Use My Name: Curtis Knight & The Squires (Featuring Jimi Hendrix) The RSVP/PPX Sessions is out on March 23rd in Europe and March 24th in America, Legacy Recordings

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