A touchstone performance of blues, funk, fusion and rock, this remastered film captures Jimi Hendrix, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles in concert on January 1, 1970 at the Fillmore East.
Music fans always speculate on what a deceased musician would have done had they not died prematurely. This is especially true of acts like Sam Cooke and Bobby Fuller, who died right when the music scene was about to make a major transition. Would they change with it? Would they be the ones making the changes?
In the case of Jimi Hendrix, he had just released three mind-bending albums with the Jimi Hendrix Experience that jump-started the psychedelic movement. Like many musicians at the end of the ‘60s, he was seeking something a little more earthbound: Still blazing new directions, but looking back at the R&B scene from whence he came and looking to make deeper inroads with an African-American audience. Thus was born the Band of Gypsys, his then-new trio with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles.
Though Band of Gypsys lasted only a few short months, the group made waves, as did all things Hendrix during his brief life as a musical and cultural icon. On the “Band of Gyspys” documentary, a cross-generational array of voices provide perspective on the band’s impact, including: Vernon Reid; Lenny Kravitz; “Soul Train” host Don Juggy Murray (president of Sue Records, the NYC rhythm & blues label that recorded the likes of Ike & Tina Turner and Jimmy McGriff); Velvert Turner (a Hendrix protege whose 1972 album is highly sought-after by hard rock collectors); Frankie Crocker (veteran New York disc jockey); Slash; engineer Eddie Kramer; and the rhythm section from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell.
Though the comments aren’t always factually correct (Buddy Miles did perform an early version of “Them Changes” with the Band of Gypsys, contrary to Crocker’s statement), they provide insight into the guitarist’s genius. As Hendrix explained, the Experience decided to take a break because playing “Purple Haze” every night for two years could get pretty tedious. Hendrix would constantly book endless studio time or drop by local New York City clubs, just to jam with anyone who was around. Hendrix’s appearances at the Woodstock festival and on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1969 with his first post-Experience lineup presages “them changes” to come. As Hendrix said on stage at Woodstock, things were very much in flux: “You can leave if you want to, we’re just jamming.”
Looking for an accomplice to anchor his new band, Hendrix invited Cox, his old Army buddy residing in Nashville, to join him in New York. Originally, Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell was supposed to be involved, but when he didn’t show up for the first rehearsal, Miles was recruited for the same position. Since he was good friends with Hendrix and ran in the same jamming circles, he was a natural choice for the spot.
There is nothing more powerful than hearing Hendrix, Cox and Miles lock into a groove at that magic moment when the jam sessions become full-fledged songs that inject funk into the guitarist’s rock framework.
On the “Band of Gypsys” live film, the concert footage from the Fillmore East, during the band’s most high-profile run of concerts, appears tentative on occasion. Though Hendrix threw in a few Experience standards like “Fire” and “Foxey Lady,” it almost feels like an obligation. Other songs evoke the late-night studio jam sessions he was hosting in New York. But as proven by “Machine Gun,” there is nothing more powerful than hearing Hendrix, Cox and Miles lock into a groove at that magic moment when the jam sessions become full-fledged songs that inject funk into the guitarist’s rock framework.
Hendrix was also exploring new avenues with his vocals. Though he had a reputation for being a full-on shredder, the guitarist carefully crafted his vocals, as engineer Eddie Kramer points out in an interview. He fades down the instruments at the mixing board to highlight the trio’s harmonies, adding some new sauce to the Hendrix sound.
The Band of Gypsys project was partially conceived because Hendrix, through the shady dealings of a former manager, owed one more album to Capitol Records. Even though Hendrix recorded (in the United States) for Reprise, two additional albums of early sides were released by Capitol (credited to “Jimi Hendrix & Curtis Knight”). This would suggest that the Gypsys’ album was a throwaway, but it was anything but.
Though Hendrix never really gained the Black audience he desired at a time when funk and soul captured the African-American listenership, the Band of Gypsys’ influence was felt after his death. A year after the guitarist died in 1970, scores of funk bands showed up with a definite rock influence that could be traced back to Hendrix and Sly Stone. The Bar-Kays, Earth Wind & Fire, Mandrill, the Isley Brothers (which once included the young Hendrix in its lineup) and others redefined Black music for a new decade, with Hendrix as the unofficial godfather. Most notably, George Clinton’s Funkadelic released its first two albums during Hendrix’s lifetime, leaving little doubt that the Band of Gypsys’ message was already being heard.
James Porter is a Chicago-based writer who, in addition to previously being on staff at New City and Time Out magazines, has also freelanced for several different publications, including Down Beat, Living Blues, Roctober, Illinois Entertainer and the Chicago Reader. He is also the host of Hoodoo Party, a monthly radio show on Chicago’s WLUW-FM devoted to early rock ‘n’ roll. Porter is currently finishing a book called “Wild in the Streets: Tales from Rock & Roll’s Negro Leagues,” which should be published by Northwestern University Press in 2022. It deals with overlooked and underrated African-American rock musicians, a subject the author knows well, having played in rock ‘n’ roll bands when not meeting editorial deadlines.