It was the winter of 1967–68, and Jimi Hendrix was looking for a recording studio in New York. His second album, Axis: Bold as Love, was an FM-radio favorite and he had a road case full of tapes he had recorded in London that he was ready to rework.
Warner/Reprise had already paid for his next album (which would become Electric Ladyland), and there was ample budget for studio time, but as Al Kooper recalls, "There were no rooms in New York in those days. I said to Hendrix, 'You want in, you need to book it out; you need to own the place.'"
Recently back from London, Hendrix missed his favorite U.K. recording engineers. "When you're with an engineer over there, you're with a human being," the guitarist said in his memoir, Starting at Zero. A-list producer Tom Wilson (Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel) had introduced Hendrix to a young engineer from the Midwest named Gary Kellgren, with whom Wilson had recorded both the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat and Frank Zappa's We're Only in It for the Money. One of Kellgren's sonic signatures was the psychedelic "phasing" sound heard on Eric Burdon's anti-war anthem, "Sky Pilot."
Hendrix and Kellgren worked together during the summer of 1967, with Hendrix jamming on "The Star-Spangled Banner" and drinking strawberry shakes. It was the first-time Hendrix used an Ampex 8-track recorder and he liked the smoky sound of "Burning of the Midnight Lamp" that resulted from their sessions. But most of all he liked Kellgren.
"(Hendrix) was treated like shit every other time he had been at a recording studio. Gary's success came from the fact that he could communicate to the artist in a way that was real; they dug him as a person," says Hendrix archivist John McDermott.
"Hendrix loved Gary," adds Chris Stone, who would co-found the Record Plant with Kellgren. "They were co-pilots behind the board."
"Burning" failed to chart when it was released in England in August 1967, but Hendrix still hired Kellgren for his next LP the following spring. If only they could find a place to record.
With a shortage of multitrack rooms in New York, Kellgren told Hendrix he wanted to build one of his own – a new design that was more like a living room than the lab-like label studios of the era. Hendrix didn't really want a typical recording studio; he wanted a nightclub where he could record, a place like the Scene on West 46th Street where he jammed loose and loud with Jim Morrison and Eric Clapton late into the night.
Kellgren needed $100,000 to build Hendrix the studio of his dreams. A chance encounter with Stone, a sales executive at Revlon, brought in the necessary funding from a rich Westchester divorcee named Ancky Revson, who was also an early investor in the musical Hair. The deal launched a 10-year partnership between Kellgren and Stone, and Tom Wilson got a cut for bringing in Hendrix.
"Kellgren didn't build Hendrix a studio," Stone explains, "It was a home."
"Gary Kellgren didn't build Hendrix a studio. It was a home." –Record Plant co-founder Chris Stone
Inspired by the name of Andy Warhol's Factory, where Kellgren had partied with Lou Reed, the first Record Plant was built in an abandoned garage around the corner from the Scene at 321 W. 44th Street during the winter of 1968. From the outset, it stood apart from other studios. "I walked in and it was all padded walls and colors," recalls producer Ed Freeman, who recorded American Pie with Don McLean there. "The place was just swarming in drugs, many of which I was taking. It was all very hip. I think the word was groovy at the time."
A young Record Plant engineer named Todd Rundgren worked on his debut LP Runt in his spare time and recalls: "Custom speakers, custom console, everything brand-sparkling-new. Everybody couldn't wait to get in."
The studio's primary attraction was the gear. Hendrix was enthralled by the new Scully 12-track tape machine with its seemingly limitless layers of sound. The centerpiece of the studio was a custom console that encouraged the guitarist to endlessly fiddle with his mix.
The Record Plant's opening night party went down on March 19th, 1968, while Hendrix was out of town on tour; George Harrison was expected to attend, but the only celebrity to show was a Nehru-jacketed George Hamilton. April 18th, 1968, was the first Experience recording session at the Record Plant, with Kellgren behind the board and Al Kooper sitting in on keyboards and guitar on the song "Long Hot Summer Night."
Hendrix loved the new studio. With Kellgren by his side, he no longer needed a producer who would tell him what to do and when to stop. Within a month, Hendrix producer Chas Chandler was gone and the Experience were soon replaced by Band of Gypsys. The large, loud control room with all the new toys probably facilitated the turnover: Chandler and the band wanted to make a new record; Hendrix wanted to fill the control room with hangers-on while endlessly reworking songs he had nailed on the first take.
Hendrix was inspired by finally being in charge, and responded by spending even more time in the studio. Kellgren and Stone hired his former U.K. engineer Eddie Kramer to keep up with his workload and help bring over the English bands. "It was such a crucible of musical talents, craziness and intense work," Kramer recalls. "I don't think we ever slept. Time would be booked for seven or eight o' clock, and then go all night to seven or eight in the morning. We would stagger out onto Eighth Avenue, and grab some breakfast, go home and sleep for a few hours and then come back."
The "Voodoo Chile" session in early May of 1968 defined Hendrix's new recording style; it was characterized by an all-night back-and-forth between the Record Plant and the Scene, where Traffic were playing on their first U.S. tour. Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, Traffic's Stevie Winwood and Jefferson Airplane's Jack Casady improvised in a circle around Hendrix, while a cavalcade of partiers added chatter to the mix.
"We wanted to jam somewhere, so we just went to the studio ... and brought our friends along," Hendrix was quoted as saying in the Electric Ladyland liner notes. This differed from Experience bassist Noel Redding's recollection of a band being torn apart: "You couldn't even move, it was a party, not a session. I took it out on Jimi; I told him to get all the people out. I had a big go at him and walked out."
Casady sat in on bass that night and recalls how the Electric Ladyland sessions usually rolled: "We ran over the chord changes only one time, then just started to play the song. I think Jimi broke a string, so we noodled around while he replaced it, and then we did the track in one take. That was the master. It was all live, a full 15-minute song."
The recording of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" was less spontaneous, and targeted for airplay. Originally recorded in England, "Watchtower" was reworked countless times at Record Plant through the summer of 1968, with Hendrix trying out numerous sidemen and laying down multiple versions of the same solo. Hendrix cut all the vocals for the solo in New York, shyly hiding behind a three-panel screen in the studio when he sang. Kramer's name is on the tape box of the final mix, though Kellgren confidant and former Band of Gypsys sax player Jimmy Robinson feels that "Gary's sounds are all over that record."
Electric Ladyland was the only Experience album to be mixed entirely in stereo, but the official release distorted the 3D effects that Hendrix and the Record Plant engineers had worked so hard to create. Still, in less than a month, the double LP was on top of the charts; in exchange for the $70,000 spent in the studio, Hendrix had a hit single and his first Number One album in the U.S.
The marathon sessions at the Record Plant continued – and Hendrix could easily drop an exorbitant $2,500 a night. Record Plant engineer Jack Adams told Rolling Stone: "We'd remix a song for 10 hours. ... I'd get tired and say to hell with it; I'm going home. Then about 10 the next morning, the janitors would phone up and say, 'Hey, get this guy outta here, we gotta clean the place up.'"
Word spread that Hendrix was in residence, and business started rolling in. The Woodstock soundtrack album was reassembled from distorted, rain-damaged masters in the new Studio B. Crosby, Stills & Nash recorded their first tracks together there. Leslie West and Mountain recorded and mixed "Mississippi Queen" while Hendrix was working across the hall.
To keep up with demand, Kellgren and Stone hired the best talent in town, including Roy Cicala, an engineer who would eventually buy the New York studio, work alongside John Lennon and groom a generation of engineer-producers including Jack Douglas, Shelly Yakus and future Beats billionaire Jimmy Iovine. It took nearly a dozen engineers to keep pace with Hendrix in those days, including an assistant named Thomas Erdelyi, later to be known as Tommy Ramone.
By late 1969, the camaraderie between Hendrix and Kellgren was crumbling. John McDermott says there may have been "sandpaper" over a girlfriend, or maybe it was because Kellgren was rarely around; he was out in Los Angeles building his next studio, complete with its legendary Jacuzzi and kinky back rooms. When Eddie Kramer went independent, Hendrix decided it was time to move on.
He hired Kramer and nightclub architect John Storyk to create a space of his own in Greenwich Village, originally a club, not a studio. "It was virtually unheard for an artist to own their own studio in those days, let alone one downtown. Then late in the game, Eddie Kramer changed their minds," Storyk says.
Despite its name, Electric Lady Studios was not where Electric Ladyland was recorded; and, in fact, it was used by Hendrix for just one month before his death.
The studio was a money-pit and construction went over schedule, which kept Hendrix working at the Record Plant through the spring of 1970.
Electric Ladyland was the only album completed during the two years that Hendrix worked at Record Plant; however, the sessions left a treasure trove of material, including the recent, archival release, Both Sides of the Sky that features an Eddie Kramer remix of Hendrix, Stephen Stills and Buddy Miles playing Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" months before CSNY. "Back then it seemed to me that [Kellgren and Stone] were taking advantage of Hendrix," Kramer says now. "They would let the tape run, or they'd just let him jam, and do whatever he did. Which is great, thank God, he did. Thank God that somebody did run the tape recorders."
Toward the end of his Record Plant residence, Hendrix was apprehensive about leaving the home that he and Kellgren had built. "I remember we gave him a pound of grass," studio manager Fran Hughes recalls. "Nobody had ever given him a gift. The concept that it was a giving gesture made him break down in tears."
Hendrix engineer Lillian Davis remembers watching his roadie lay out all his guitars end-over-end in their cases on the studio floor: "Hendrix was there alone, just staring at all the guitars, as if they were all that he owned."
The building rooftop became a favorite Hendrix refuge in those last months at Record Plant as he moved upstairs to the 10th floor studio (still owned and operated by Sony Music). Years later John Lennon and a young Jimmy Iovine would do a can-can in T-shirts reading "Brooklyn" up on that roof. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street took publicity photos at the elevator shaft for Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Up there in 1970, planning to leave the studio where he had recorded his masterpiece, Hendrix and engineer Jack Adams spent hours folding paper airplanes out of Record Plant stationery, sending them out into the night skies of Times Square, competing to see whose design would fly further before spiraling to a crash landing in the streets below.
Kellgren and Stone went on to build Record Plants in L.A. and Sausalito, and their truck caravan recorded many of the classic live albums of the Seventies and Eighties. Kellgren's fame peaked during 1976–77, with the Record Plant–recorded releases of the Eagles' Hotel California, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. Almost 10 years to the day after he first worked with Jimi Hendrix in New York, Kellgren drowned in the swimming pool of his Sunset Strip mansion (now owned by Rick Rubin). Bob Marley made his U.S. debut in a live radio broadcast from Record Plant Sausalito on Halloween 1973. John Lennon remixed "Walking on Thin Ice" at Record Plant New York on the last night of his life. Fifty years later, Record Plant L.A. is still going strong and the original Record Plant Remote is still on the road.