The recorded legacy of rock's voodoo child, Jimi Hendrix, has made more than a slight return. During the last two years, the catalog of the late guitar great has been restored to its original form by his family. Now, plans call for the release of several of Hendrix's most famous performances, beginning early next year with a two-CD set culled from the Band of Gypsys Fillmore East dates, plus an accompanying documentary.
Few of rock's seminal catalogs have received the kind of detailed attention given to Hendrix's albums over the last twenty months. Ironically, this face lift had its genesis in a bitter legal struggle: Earlier this decade, the Hendrix family found itself in the unusual position of fighting the attorney it had originally hired to administer the guitarist's estate, when it objected to the sale of the catalog to MCA Records. Although still distributed by MCA, the albums are now owned by the family's Experience Hendrix record label – headed by Hendrix's father, Al, and half-sister, Janie. The original albums have all been repackaged with expanded liner notes and carefully corrected recordings to reflect the artist's intentions.
"You can never get enough Jimi into these things," says John McDermott, catalog manager for Experience Hendrix, explaining the reissue philosophy. "Any time you take him out of the process, it weakens them. I can't make Electric Ladyland any better, for example. So we work with his original engineer, Eddie Kramer; manufacture from the original tapes, at the right speed; and include booklets that have as much of his original handwriting and direction as possible, in order to follow the directions he left." Although Hendrix's catalog has long been a rock-CD mainstay – made available once by Reprise and now twice by MCA – McDermott says it has been a long road to make the CDs look and sound as good as they should. "I remember buying the first CD that came out, and it was awful," he says. "The records sounded better."
Along with re-releasing the albums that Hendrix authorized, the label undertook to clean up a surfeit of inferior tracks with the release of First Rays of the New Rising Sun, containing recordings from many of Hendrix's posthumous releases. The imprint's double live collection, BBC Sessions, expanded on a previous album, including such novelties as Bob Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" and a legendary show hosted by the pop singer Lulu.
"I think BBC Sessions is an important release," says McDermott. "It shows the original Experience at a happy time and gives insight into Jimi's love of music by the Beatles and Dylan, the blues and things like that. In terms of moving forward, the Fillmore East concerts are a really important era."
Experience Hendrix's documentary includes concert footage and interviews, focusing in particular on the influence that the short-lived Band of Gypsys had on other African-American artists. "We talked with everyone from Don Cornelius to Lenny Kravitz to Vernon Reid – people who cite it as a milestone for them," says McDermott. "That's important because it addresses the continuing legacy Jimi has across a pretty wide spectrum." Experience Hendrix is also preparing a boxed retrospective and hopes to release recordings from concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, the Isle of Wight and Berkeley.
For die-hard fans, the family has followed the lead of the Grateful Dead and created a bootleg label, Dagger Records, accessible via the company's Web site (www.Jimi-Hendrix.com). McDermott says the idea is to make recordings with limited commercial appeal available to listeners more concerned with hearing anything Hendrix did than with whether the recording is historic or pristine. The label's first release is an amateur recording of a 1969 performance at the Oakland Coliseum, featuring Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. "If you're a real Hendrix fan, you'll find it," McDermott says. "But we never want it out in the bins." Future plans for Dagger releases include demo recordings and one of the Experience's first concert appearances. Additionally, the Web site offers a mail-order-only fanzine, Experience Hendrix, as well as books, memorabilia and downloadable clips. Says McDermott: "The Hendrix family wants to connect with the fans."
This story is from the December 10th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.