by Rush Evans
“Auld Lang Syne” played at New York’s Fillmore East and in clubs across the country during the first seconds of the 1970s.
It was a new decade, one of promise and hope for the possible fulfillment of the previous decade’s dreams. Like everywhere else, it was Guy Lombardo’s version of “Auld Lang Syne” heard over the Fillmore’s speakers, but the second it was over, the song was spontaneously reinterpreted by the musicians on stage.
It wailed, howled and screamed in the new era, performed by a band of brothers their first night together in front of an audience — Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsys.
Jimi Hendrix was arguably the first musician who learned how to make a guitar talk.
His style was as aggressive, challenging, noisy and complex as the tumultuous 1960s. It was an instrument that reflected the growing chaos, unrest and dissatisfaction. There was no need for words.
His playing was also technically brilliant, and no one — not Les Paul or Chet Atkins or Django Reinhardt — had ever experimented with this instrument in such an innovative manner. But the Seattle native and U.S. Army veteran first had to go to England to be heard.
Animals bassist Chas Chandler showcased the young guitarist in front of all the right people (attending one London performance were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Donovan, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck).
Hendrix was an overnight sensation in England, and like The Beatles, already famous by the time he hit America. And when he set fire to his guitar onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, his place in history had been established.
Two years later, inner strife caused the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, drummer Mitch Mitchell) to come apart as abruptly as it had come together back in England. By then, Hendrix was the biggest rock star alive, and he would close the Woodstock musical festival with a loosely organized band of hippies he called Gypsy, Sun, and Rainbows.
When he launched into a shattering version of the “Star Spangled Banner,” the band behind him (save drummer Mitch Mitchell) stopped playing, allowing him room to reinvent the national anthem out front all by himself — just a man, his guitar and his whole generation.
Hendrix did need a band, however, and a tight rhythm section like he’d had in the Experience.
By reconnecting with Army buddy Billy Cox and old fellow chitlin’-circuit player Buddy Miles, he had what he needed to move into new musical directions and forge a funkified force to fulfill a contractual commitment with a new album.
Hendrix’s obsessive love of jamming helped him become rock’s most innovative player. In doing so with Cox and Miles, Hendrix found a new direction, one that was more collaborative in nature, as evidenced by the prominence of Cox’s bass and Miles’ drums on the live album that came from that New Year’s Eve performance.
It was this mighty trio of brothers who ushered in the ’70s with “Auld Lang Syne” at the Fillmore East. The glorious-but-brief story of the Band Of Gypsys — the deliberate misspelling of the plural gypsy was just a mildly defiant Hendrix touch — represents perhaps the most important musical chapter of the final year of Jimi’s life.
Back to Monterey Miles remembered Monterey. While all others in attendance were seeing this guitar wizard for the first time, Miles was seeing his pal Jimmy turn into Jimi.
The shy guitarist Miles had met a few years earlier when they were both working in other bands had changed. He watched his friend in multi-colored, ruffled hippie get-up take over the Monterey Pop Festival during the Summer of Love, 1967.
During the ominous and tragic “Hey Joe,” Jimi held his guitar up to his face, plucking out the song with his teeth. This was no parlor trick. He meant it, man.
By his cover of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” he was masterfully manipulating his Stratocaster behind his back, creating deliberate feedback with the speakers, and finally, kneeling to the ground and sacrificing the guitar to his own lit match. He then grabbed the instrument and smashed it to pieces as the rhythm section powered through the violent ritual.
Miles and guitarist Michael Bloomfield watched as Hendrix made history.
“We were on the righthand side of the stage, and we were both sitting down on the floor watching these great, great musicians play,” remembered Miles. “We got a chance to see Ravi Shankar, Janis [Joplin] with Big Brother And The Holding Company, Booker T. and the MG’s, Steve Miller, the Grateful Dead.”
Monterey Pop was also Buddy’s large-scale debut, as the drummer of Bloomfield’s psychedelic project Electric Flag, a groovy San Francisco powerhouse of blues-based rock. All of 19 years old, Miles was the drummer you couldn’t ignore, a big black man with a big bombastic presence, as fully animated as the beat he provided.
Forty years later, Buddy Miles still had a striking presence, though he was no longer animated. He was a very old 60, dealing with the repercussions of a long drug addiction, several stints in prison, obesity, and most significantly, the congestive heart failure that had already ended both his sister’s and mother’s lives.
Hendrix’s set at Monterey was unforgettable for all in attendance, even for the aging rock drummer with failing health. For Buddy, seeing the former Isley Brothers guitarist set that Strat on fire was more personal. “I got more than a kick out of it, man! I said, ‘What in the hell is going on?’”
Gypsys with a Y
After the implosion of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in early ’69 and the realization that the cumbersome Gypsy, Sun, and Rainbows were not fulfilling with his musical vision, Hendrix took action to create a new support system.
He had already enlisted his old Army buddy Cox to replace Noel Redding after a contentious departure. Like Cox, drummer Mitch Mitchell had played with the Gypsy, Sun, and Rainbows lineup at Woodstock, but like Redding, Mitchell had also been half of the Experience rhythm section. To truly try something new, Hendrix needed a new drummer. And Miles was ready, willing and able to fulfill this role.
According to Miles, given to the occasional charming malapropism, it was Hendrix who pursued him. “I knew something was up, because we kept in cahoots with each other,” said Miles.
And it was Hendrix, not Miles, who first proposed working together in a more official setting: Even after becoming the most celebrated rock guitarist in the world, “ … he wanted to play in the Buddy Miles Express!” asserted Buddy.
By all accounts (Buddy’s included), Hendrix was a friendly and non-confrontational person, and with this in mind, others have recorded a different manner in which Miles came to be the third member of the new group. In Sharon Lawrence’s Hendrix bio, for instance, she states that Hendrix told her that he “got myself talked into agreeing” that Buddy would be in the band.
But Buddy’s overall assessment of the nature of the long-term friendship implies that Hendrix was more than happy to finally be working with his friend in a more official capacity. Whatever the case, Miles did become the new drummer, and so much more, as the band’s time unfolded.
“We did the whole Band Of Gypsys concept in nine days,” said Buddy of the days leading up to the Fillmore. “We went down to the Fillmore every day and practiced, and when we weren’t practicing there, we was practicing at a studio called Baggy’s.”
What Jimi found in his old friends was just that: friendship. It was a comfortable, stress-free, jam-filled time together, an organic meeting of musical minds. What emerged was a raw, primitive sound, one that was less experimental, less avant-garde than Jimi’s sound with the Experience.
When asked if the obvious differences between the Gypsys and the Experience were openly acknowledged by the three players, Miles said, “We didn’t have to. It was explanatory itself. It worked its own way out through the bump and grind.”
Being someone who would sign any contract in front of him a few years earlier on his way up, Hendrix found himself in a legal bind by 1969, and the quick formation of this new band could help get him out of it.
Back in 1965, while recording with soul singer Curtis Knight, Hendrix had agreed to a contract with Ed Chalpin and PPX Industries, an agreement that conflicted with an earlier one he signed with Sue Records. By 1967, Chalpin, along with the rest of the world, had noticed that the guitarist had become a hit-record making sensation. He was ready to get his own slice of the pie.
Chalpin sued for royalties, and in the ultimate settlement, suggested by Hendrix manager Michael Jeffery, he was to receive all proceeds from a new Hendrix record to be released on Capitol Records. The quickest and easiest way to fulfill this was to generate a live album from the Hendrix/Cox/Miles group, then move on and go back to the studio and prepare for whatever lay ahead creatively for Hendrix.
As much as Jeffery saw this as a perfect solution to get past the Chalpin commitment, he was not, according to Buddy, happy about his client working with Cox and Miles.
“He didn’t like black people,” Miles stated flatly. “He didn’t like Jimi being around black people. He felt like black people was gonna take his ball of wax. What he failed to realize is that Jimi wanted to go on and play some soulful music.”
Hendrix had found the power of soul in two old friends, and he was grateful for it, said Miles.
“He was very appreciative, because he wanted to go on and go further without Mitch Mitchell or Noel Redding. It wasn’t a thing of who was better or anything like that. That didn’t have anything to do with it. It was just a horse of another color.”
It was another color. The black rock star with two white guys behind him now had two black guys beside him, in an incarnation that would prove to be his funkiest.
Miles also said that white soul singer Steve Winwood had been considered for inclusion in the band. Cox, Miles and Hendrix spent days in November and December jamming at Baggy’s, where they would create a number of new songs.
Ironically, their name had been conceived by Experience drummer Mitchell and had also been uttered by Hendrix onstage at Woodstock about the Gypsy, Sun, and Rainbows lineup: “Call it Gypsy, Sun, and Rainbows; for short, it’s nothin’ but a band of gypsies.” It appears unlikely that anything about the band’s creation was a calculated attempt on Hendrix’s part to finally connect with a black audience, though he had always been mindful of the fact that he had traditionally reached a white one.
It was a new lineup and a new repertoire that Hendrix brought to the stage of legendary rock promoter Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York Dec. 31, 1969.
Jimi, Billy and Buddy had worked up a number of new songs, 19 by Miles’ count. They didn’t have to rehearse the more familiar Hendrix songs performed that night. “We already knew ’em,” said Miles.
It was two shows that night, to be followed by two more on New Year’s Day. There was no new record to promote or significant advertising effort, just three brothers taking the stage. There was a tambourine placed in every seat to bring the audience into the festivities.
During the first show, Hendrix did quite a bit of the showy histrionics that had become his trademark, creating enough of a distraction from the music that Graham told him he was “all jive tonight” and not putting forth his best effort. Offended, Hendrix rose to the occasion at midnight for the second show.
Graham wished the audience a happy new year over the Fillmore’s sound system as Lombardo’s “Auld Lang Syne” played. Hendrix turned in his own version moments later and then poured it on with his new band mates. The show boasted a number of the new songs and a few of the old, but most significant, it felt different, thus rendering a totally new Hendrix experience.
Buddy brought the power of soul in his fat, double-fisted fury, putting the rhythm right out front, with Cox’s bass defining the memorable melodic hook in “Who Knows.” These guys were not just a rhythm section designed to prop up the world’s greatest guitarist. There are conflicting accounts of whether this is what Hendrix wanted from the Band Of Gypsys, but Miles affirms that the band sounded exactly as intended.
Inspired by Graham’s comment, Hendrix stayed away from the tricks and dwelt instead on his playing and doing so within the context of this new triple-threat unit. The Band of Gypsys sounded funky and raw, with a soulful groove unheard of in Hendrix’s previous incarnation.
The two Jan. 1 sets were fiery, as well, and the clearly triumphant moment from all four shows was a disturbingly vivid new song called “Machine Gun.” The rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of Buddy’s drums with the startling and unpredictably placed guitar attacks from Hendrix were as violent and inglorious as the very real machine guns in operation in a land on the other side of the planet. The opus was this band’s “Kashmir,” a masterpiece of rock suited for its troubled — and troubling — times.
The Band of Gypsys album was quickly prepared by Hendrix and recording engineer Eddie Kramer.
The final product was out by April, and it included only six songs. Miles wrote and sang two of them, and his voice was included very prominently along with Hendrix’s on all four of the others.
Hendrix had never been a fan of his own voice, though it remains uniquely mysterious in rock and roll and is a perfect match for his frequently ethereal tracks. Miles’ voice was naturally soulful, earthy and unmistakably black, ironic for someone so personally indifferent to race. The voices complemented one another, a beautiful blend of their natural differences.
Kramer would later say that Hendrix, when mixing the album in the studio, expressed concern for the excessiveness of Buddy’s vocal vamping. But it worked, and the album was released with the secondary voice intact.
Such prominent inclusion of a second voice was a first for a Hendrix album, which may have contributed to the album’s mixed reviews. Perhaps Hendrix only wanted four long originals (“Machine Gun” clocked in at 12 and a half minutes) in order to fulfill his Capitol commitment and move on to his next studio project, saving his other originals for that setting. Perhaps Buddy’s originals preserved Jimi’s originals for a future date, for a time without an unpleasant contractual commitment. Or perhaps he was simply pleased to include his friend’s outstanding songs, one of which, “Them Changes” (listed as “Changes” on the original album), would become an FM rock staple and hit in its solo Miles studio form.
Whatever Hendrix’s intentions, the Band of Gypsys did continue to exist, if all too briefly. A few studio tracks would be released some years later, and one more performance would take place at the end of the month. At New York’s Madison Square Garden, the Gypsys performed as part of the Winter Festival for Peace Benefit Concert on Jan. 28.
With many acts on the bill, Hendrix’s new band did not hit the stage until three in the morning. A clearly stoned Jimi sat down on the stage after just two songs. “I’m the one who picked him up off the floor,” said Buddy.
It was with much emotional pain that Miles revisited that difficult night nearly four decades later.
“I do remember Michael Jeffery giving Jimi two tabs of Owsley purples,” said a solemn Miles of the bad acid that he believed caused the performance breakdown. “It didn’t really make sense to anybody that was there, especially with the people that were stagehands, the people that were the crew, the people that had anything to do with the show. They didn’t know what went down. I didn’t even know what went down. Then I found out moments later that, when it came down to it, Jimi was sick. Nobody knew why he was sick. Nobody knew that Michael Jeffery slipped him acid. Nobody knew basically what was going on, but it did happen.”
Miles believed that Jeffery’s disdain for the all-black band led him to deliberately sabotage its performance by slipping his employer an excessive dose of the drug. Miles saw it happen, “ … and so did my sister,” who had also been backstage prior to the performance.
Soon after the night at the Garden, Jeffery effectively dissolved the Band Of Gypsys.
“He came and told me I was fired,” said Miles. “Jimi didn’t say much. Billy Cox didn’t say much. But Michael Jeffery came up to, and he says, ‘You’re fired.’ I didn’t really spontaneously know what to say. I was just trying to figure out what did I do wrong. And it took me a while to understand that that was the politics of what this business is about.”
Jimi’s performances during the rest of 1970 were billed as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Mitchell returning to the drums. Cox continued on as bass player.
Time has been kind to the Band Of Gypsys album, which continues to inspire other musicians. Its place in Hendrix history is secured, another symbol for the extraordinary career of an iconic rock star who seemed to have appeared fully formed, leaving a musical impression still unmatched.
“The Band Of Gypsys was a strong statement,” Buddy once said, “from three brothers.”