by John McDermott
1 May 2009
Ultimate Hendrix: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Live Concerts and Sessions
March 2009, 256 pages, $34.95
by Guy Crucianelli
What most artists spread out over many years, Jimi Hendrix crammed
into four. From his first burst of UK popularity to his still saddest
of deaths, Hendrix spent every day of his life at the service of his
art. If he wasn't playing music live, he was thinking about it,
talking about it, rehearsing it, even miming it on television. And
between all this he wrote and recorded some of the heaviest,
craziest, most innovative guitar music of all time.
Modeled on Mark Lewisohn's seminal 1988 The Beatles Recording
Sessions, Ultimate Hendrix: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Live
Concerts and Sessions shows just how busy Hendrix was, with a
performing/recording schedule that would have killed the Beatles if
they'd been one guy instead of four. Author John McDermott, with
Eddie Kramer and Billy Cox, Hendrix's engineer and long-time friend
and sometime bassist respectively, fill the dates with detailed
entries that track the guitarist's career from struggling sideman to
rock superstar to super-exhausted and struggling rock superstar.
While it is common to think of his career as fitting the dates
1967-1970, in truth Hendrix hammered away for years. Ultimate Hendrix
begins in 1963, when the guitarist began playing backup for such acts
as the Isley Brothers, Curtis Squire, and Little Richard. It wasn't
until the summer of 1966, when Hendrix met Animals bassist and future
manager Chas Chandler, that things really took off, and at this point
the book's broad seasonal headings, such as "Summer 1965" or "Fall
'65", change to the more consecutive "Thursday, 13 October 1966 ...
Friday, 14 October 1966 ... Saturday, 15 October 1966", with rarely a
The book's day-to-day entries oscillate between high productivity and
very low frustration, with peaks and valleys dictated by Hendrix's
fortunes and later his moods. Undoubtedly, 1966-67 was a peak moment.
Both Chandler and Hendrix knew early on what they wanted, and through
a symbiotic relationship that was as pragmatic as it was alchemical,
they managed to create some of the greatest music of all time in a
very short time. Hendrix arrived in the UK in September 1966, his
first single ("Hey Joe/Stone Free") was released in December, and his
debut album Are You Experienced a mere five months after thatno time
for Chinese Democracy here.
As with Beatles Recording Sessions, Ultimate Hendrix describes songs
being built from the bottom up, listing the many takes and practical
procedures behind some of the most familiar, impractical sounds. On
20 February 1967, for the track "I Don't Live Today", Hendrix
"skillfully manipulated a hand wah-wah unit [which] foot-controlled
models soon replaced". A hand wah-wah? Another favorite Hendrix
trick was to create "various spaceship sounds ... by moving his
headphones into and away from his vocal microphone". From such
mundane things is magic born.
While I was aware that Hendrix played bass on some of his recordings,
I was surprised to learn just how often and how it wasn't only the
bass. Hendrix also played piano, drums, electric sitar, and even a
kazoo ("Crosstown Traffic").
What one also realizes from reading this book is that while Hendrix
was obviously a great musician, he was a considerable producer, as
well. Though his official production credits, outside of his own
music, for bands such as Eire Apparent or Cat Mother remain largely
unknown, numerous entries describe him moving from studio to control
room to studio, combining a producer's capacity for efficiency and
momentum with the imagination of an artist hitting his stride.
It's amazing that Hendrix managed to record and produce anything at
all, let alone the amount he did, considering his touring schedule.
In early 1968 alone, McDermott notes, "in what can only be described
as a remarkable test of their endurance and enthusiasm", the
Experience played 60 US dates in 60 days, traveling in a rented
station wagon! On 22 May 1968, they were mixing in a New York studio,
and on 23 May they began touring Italy and Switzerland.
Understandably, this kind of pace couldn't last long.
Ultimate Hendrix's co-author's, Eddie Kramer and Billy Cox, were two
of the most important people in the guitarist's life and career. Cox
especially is an unsung hero of the Hendrix legacy, a confidante and
collaborator who provided the guitarist both musical inspiration and
psychic respite. Hendrix's music changed as much and as quickly as
the Beatles', and after the exit of bassist Noel Redding in June
1969, Cox was there pretty much the rest of the way, helping the
guitarist find his new sound: "Jimi knew that I had a direct link to
him musically. [He] must have felt that I could help him pull all of
the pieces of ideas that he had together into something as good as
those three albums he had released".
Of "those three albums", only Are You Experienced seemed to fully
satisfy Hendrix, as he stated that both Axis: Bold as Love and
Electric Ladyland "could have been so much better". In order to
ensure firmer control of his music, Hendrix built his own studio,
Electric Ladyland, which even in its first few years was legendary.
As engineer Eddie Kramer continually laments, too many Hendrix
recording sessions ended up as parties, with hangers-on, groupies,
and various other revelers packed into the studio to witness the
Of course, some of the revelers were great musicians in their own
rightSteve Winwood, Stephen Stills, Dave Mason, or future Band of
Gypsy's drummer Buddy Milesand despite the chaos and disorder of
some sessions, hundreds of hours of consistently outstanding music
did go down on tape. Though much of this included reels of extended
jamming deemed unusable by Hendrix for a fourth studio album, after
his death engineer Eddie Kramer and drummer Mitch Mitchell put
together the very beautiful and cohesive The Cry of Love LP which,
with its layers of guitar and complex rhythm patterns, gave a clear
indication of where Hendrix was headed musically.
Sadly, since his death the guitarist has been haunted by many
permutations of his voluminous recorded material, some of it
re-dubbed, re-edited, even re-tracked. Remember the name Alan Douglas
and curse it.
But luckily, the legacy is now in good hands. In his introduction,
author John McDermott writes how he had the "extreme good fortune to
be asked by Al Hendrix [Jimi's father] and his daughter, Janie, to
join his newly formed company, Experience Hendrix LLC, and manage the
Jimi Hendrix catalog". So now, readers have the residual good
fortune of McDermott's access and expertise.