"And that's just to prove you can never predict what's going to happen on the BBC World Service," declaims a proper-sounding Alexis Korner, host of the "Rhythm and Blues Show," between Jimi Hendrix's grooving cover of Bob Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" and his throttling take on Muddy Waters' "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man."
The popular host's comments, now ready for mass-distribution thanks to a new double-disc collection of Hendrix's BBC Sessions, may not have known how spot on he was back in October 1967. Those broadcasts and others from that era have just been re-released on an impressive new album that provides a snapshot of the legend before he was accorded legendary status. BBC Sessions's thirty tracks (thirteen of which are unreleased) were remastered by original engineer Eddie Kramer from source studio reels, and the result is as sonically startling as it is historically significant. The Seattle-born twenty-five-year-old captured on tape was out for blood -- albeit with a sharp sense of humor. Although "Hey Joe" and "Purple Haze" had hit British charts, Hendrix still wasn't a guaranteed draw, and the ripples from the Experience's debut album, Are You Experienced, had yet to turn into tidal waves. By his choice of covers alone (Dylan, the Beatles and Cream, among blues songs widely covered by other Brit bands of the era), Hendrix seemed hell bent on weighing in on the musical discourse of the era.
While the material from the BBC sessions has been in bootleg circulation for years (in addition, seventeen of the songs were also released ten years ago as Radio One (on Rykodisc), this reissue benefits from improved sound quality and a noteworthy attention to detail -- Kramer's participation in the process, for example, was much heralded. For the Hendrix family, who finally won rights to Jimi's material from a former producer and his estate lawyer in 1995, the release of this material is another small victory.
Among legions of fans worldwide, Jimi's father, Al, might be the biggest of all. (He only listens to radio stations with his son's music in good rotation, and he's currently spinning Sessions in his car.) The elder Hendrix, now in his late seventies, gave Jimi his first guitar, exposed him to the likes of Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King, and encouraged his son to follow his muse and "be original." Though his son's albums have made millions, until recently, Al and the rest of the Hendrix family had been cut out of the loop. He spent his sixties working as a gardener in Seattle.
"Some of that stuff that was put out before the other parties," Al says in a near whisper of a voice, "well, I didn't go for it. But now I say, 'well, that's about the best people can do, and the best people doing it.' I'm glad that they went and got Kramer to do it."
According to Jimi's half-sister Janie, who along with Al runs Experience Hendrix, the label responsible for putting out Sessions and re-releasing Hendrix's catalog (distributed by MCA), this latest record is the by-product of years of hard work. She was steeped in the project start to finish -- from securing rights issues to finding photos for the album art.
"Basically, [Hendrix historian] John McDermott and I went to London and negotiated with the BBC, so I was very much involved in the whole process. Apparently, when the BBC worked on the Led Zeppelin album and the Beatles album they actually unearthed some tapes that had never been released before. So that was a real blessing to us," Janie says.
Once business matters were squared away, Janie and McDermott returned with the tapes to New York and hit the studio with Kramer. A week of eighteen-hour days later, they had what they wanted. It was a speedy process that Jimi himself might have appreciated.
"It was a symbiotic thing," Kramer says of the recording relationship between him and Hendrix. "He would do something and I would react to it and create something different from that sound, improve upon it and enhance it, and he would into the studio and go, 'oh, that's cool.'"
Listening to the unchecked invention and genuine passion on these recordings, the sound of a legend in the making, it's not too hard to imagine Hendrix nodding his head from his above and echoing the same approval.