The double album blurred the lines between musical genres and refused to let blackness be narrowcast.
For a kid born in 1960, I came to Jimi Hendrix’s music late. While I fondly recall lurking outside the door of my sister’s bedroom to sneak a listen of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and loving the iconic introductory guitar on the Temptations’ “My Girl” emanating from my brother’s room, I can’t claim that I stood in the hallway of my childhood home, in Chicago, playing air guitar to the power chords that introduced “Purple Haze.”
Then I went college. One night in 1979, probably in between Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, a friend put on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and, like millions of other listeners, I was absolutely transfixed. At the time, I’d known Hendrix for remarkable three- and four-minute singles like “Manic Depression” and “Foxy Lady.” But hearing Electric Ladyland, whose 10th anniversary coincided with my freshman year, and whose 50th anniversary is upon us, was a game-changer.
On a personal level, it was an affirmation of sorts. As an African American with a diverse sonic appetite dating back to childhood, I’d been called an “Uncle Tom” by junior high classmates for liking Steely Dan more than B.T. Express, a taunt that left me with physical and emotional scars. Electric Ladyland confirmed that my interests were, and always had been, cool. Way cool. The album had a little bit of everything.
The jazz aficionado in me loved “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” while my inner blues lover dug Jimi’s take on Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll).” The rock head banger inside me loved “Crosstown Traffic.” By the time the recording ended, with a searing cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and a fiery “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” I knew I’d found my church.
So had a lot of people, especially African American listeners and musicians. More than any recording up to that point, Electric Ladyland refused to allow blackness to be narrowcast, and presented a vision of a diverse, accomplished African American future. Which is why it’s as powerful in 2018 as it was half a century ago.
In1969, legendary rock critic Robert Christgau raved that “no previous rock album flowed like [Electric Ladyland], and while jazz albums often support as many contrasting sonic moods, Louis Armstrong himself didn’t match Hendrix’s appetite for sound effects and general silliness. His spaced-out spirituality is the fullest musicalization of ‘psychedelic’ ever accomplished.” In 2017, Pitchfork ranked the recording number 11 in its top 200 recordings of the sixties. In his assessment, Nate Patrin wrote, “Hendrix was a master of both the boundless potential and the immediate simplicity of rock.” Yet this praise only skims the surface.
Electric Ladyland was released in October of ’68, a little less than a year before Hendrix’s landmark appearance at Woodstock, where his solo guitar version of “The Star Spangled Banner” would solidify his place in the pantheon of American musicians. It’s fairly easy to draw a direct line from him to other great guitarists like Robin Trower, Joe Satriani, Ernie Isley, Prince, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as shredders in different genres like Robert Randolph (gospel/Americana), Gary Clark (blues/rock) Eddie Hazel (funk), and Mary Halvorson (jazz), just to name a few. But Electric Ladyland’s impact goes deeper than just the work of a virtuoso guitar player.
“I think that the impact Hendrix’s work had on me was the sheer power of his visionary imagination,” Vernon Reid, a guitar wizard and leader of the group Living Colour, tells Timeline via email:
Hendrix painted murals of sound, a cosmology of artistic freedom. He didn’t seem to have any boundaries to his expression. Even as he was deeply connected to blues, he was not hemmed in by that traditional structure. He managed to find a way to be free within it. Jimi became a capital-O Obsession. The opener of Electric Ladyland, “And the Gods Made Love,” was hardcore psychedelia, total aural strangeness, a preamble to a dream question, “Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland?” The answer was decidedly NO, but I really, REALLY wanted to go.
Hendrix’s vision, his uncanny ability to be rooted in many genres yet see beyond aesthetic boundaries, is what makes Electric Ladyland an inspirational touchstone for so many artists. Reid notes that his group’s 1990 recording Time’s Up owes a significant debt to the Hendrix classic, adding that “a record like Prince’s 1999 or Sign ‘O’ the Times doesn’t happen without the existence of Electric Ladyland.” Neither, he says, does Lenny Kravitz’s Let Love Rule or Miles Davis’s Agharta or Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain or any seventies-era tunes by the Isley Brothers. And of course, he says, “the DNA of rock from Seattle is suffused with what Hendrix accomplished with Electric Ladyland, which makes all the more sense, given that Seattle was Hendrix’s hometown.
Evidently, Electric Ladyland’s DNA still runs strong in the current generation of musical artists. Or perhaps the confluence of Barack Obama’s presidency and the rise of Black Lives Matter have played a part in supporting a vision for a strong African American future. Either way, several recent, sprawling, epic recordings suggest a sonic itinerary that includes the multi-dimensional realm of Electric Ladyland.
A Seat at the Table, Solange Knowles’s 2016 exploration of contemporary black womanhood, draws on many styles, such as jazz, gospel, and hip-hop, and reimagines each to create a polyglot rhythm-and-blues sound that both is rooted in the past and reaches far into the future. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a 2015 meditation on African American masculinity, features a broad base of musical styles and goes so deep on the jazz tip that it provided the breakout moment for saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who then released his own appropriately titled recording, The Epic, which presents an Afro-futurist vision.
Flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell had her breakout in 2017 with Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, which depicts a future world where technology and nature coexist peacefully. Mitchell, who was based in Chicago for more than 20 years, draws on blues, house music, and gospel, blending them seamlessly into an improvised context. None of these recordings are rock albums, so they haven’t been presented in the lineage of Electric Ladyland. But it isn’t hard to see their eclecticism and vision in a similar mold as Hendrix’s timeless double LP.
“Jimi Hendrix was lighting a pathway for, and setting a challenge to, subsequent generations of artists,” says Reid. “He showed me and many others what was possible to create and make happen. The greatest lesson of Electric Ladyland for me was finding myself.”
Back in college, while looking at the album’s liner notes (remember those?), I noticed that Hendrix was credited not just with producing the record but directing it, title that’s rarely used in recorded music. That’s because it isn’t simply a collection of songs; it’s one of the first concept recordings in popular music. What that concept is, of course, varies from ear to ear, listener to listener, artist to artist. “It wasn’t just slopped together,” Hendrix has said. “Every little thing you hear means something.”