Jimi Hendrix's most significant albums were reissued Tuesday, giving fans another chance to buy the revered guitarist's studio recordings. If this sounds familiar, it's because Hendrix's catalog has been remastered, recompiled and reissued in at least 22 configurations since his death in 1970.
But this time there's a difference. For the first time, the original two-track master tapes were used to remaster the three studio albums Hendrix released from 1967 to 1970 -- "Are You Experienced?," "Axis: Bold as Love" and "Electric Ladyland" -- and the record Hendrix was working on at the time of his death, "First Rays of the New Rising Sun" (material from which was previously released posthumously on the albums "Cry of Love," "Rainbow Bridge" and "War Heroes"). These four albums, released on MCA's Experience Hendrix label, mark the recovery of the original master tapes after some two decades in limbo.
Or do they?
Recording engineer Joe Gastwirt, who has worked on several Hendrix reissues, disagrees, saying he also used the original master tapes. "I don't wish to get into a major controversy," he said. "But I know the tapes that I worked from had edits and splices all over them, and it's very, very unlikely that a copy of a master tape would have splices on it."
Who should consumers believe? Is it really possible the master tapes have been lost until now? Were two sets of original masters made simultaneously on different decks? More importantly, is there enough of a difference between the new reissues and older releases to justify forking over 15 bucks a CD?
To Eddie Kramer, engineer on the original recording sessions and remastering engineer on the new series, the case of the missing masters is no mystery. "We [Kramer and members of the Hendrix family] went on a long search and found 85 percent of the masters," he said. "I was the guy who was there at the sessions. I wrote on the boxes, and Jimi wrote on the boxes. I recognize the handwriting and the tape I used."
"We found tapes in studios and buried in record company libraries. Some tapes were bought from collectors," Kramer continued. "The tapes had disappeared, either unintentionally or intentionally -- in other words, certain people were holding back tapes because they wanted them to go to the Hendrix family and not to the previous administration. They felt that would be a betrayal."
The Hendrix family -- Jimi's father, Al Hendrix, and half-sister, Janie Hendrix Wright -- just gained rights to Hendrix's material in July 1995 after three years of litigation against Alan Douglas. Until then, Al Hendrix received minimal royalties, estimated by his daughter at $2 million over 20 years' time on a catalog that regularly sells two million to four million records a year. Once a judge awarded them the rights to Jimi's work, the family formed Experience Hendrix, a company that handles Jimi's estate, including his musical output and the use of his image for merchandising. The family signed a deal with MCA last year for the reissue project, then teamed up with Kramer and John McDermott, a Hendrix historian who's written several books on the late guitarist. This week, Experience Hendrix/MCA also released "Band of Gypsys," the 1970 live album, outside of North America; Capitol owns the U.S. rights and at this time has no plans to rerelease the album domestically.
"I'm not saying it's anyone's fault," said Hendrix Wright. "I'm not pointing fingers. The copies of the masters were all anyone thought was available, and I think [Douglas and Gastwirt] were under the impression that they had the masters. But those splices must have been created by Alan Douglas, because there weren't any splices on the original masters that we recovered."
\\Kramer concurs. "I have the utmost respect for Joe Gastwirt's technical ability. But I think he was misled in this case."
Still, for all the discrepancies, both parties agree on one thing: that Hendrix's music should sound better on these reissues than ever before. "I haven't heard them yet, but they should sound better, because the quality of analog-to-digital converters has improved," said Gastwirt. "Personally, I'm such a Jimi fan that I can't wait to pick them up -- and I hope they do sound better."