Shelved: Jimi Hendrix’s Black Gold Suite

The genius guitarist’s autobiographical, multi-song fantasy album sat in his drummer’s apartment for twenty years. Now in the care of the Hendrix estate, will it ever see the light of day?

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2019 | 20 minutes (3,275 words)

 

On a blustery winter day in February 1970, Rolling Stone managing editor John Burks entered a New York apartment on East 37th street. “Inside his manager’s neo-turn-of-the-century apartment, on a sofa near the radiant fireplace, sat Jimi Hendrix, in a gentle, almost reticent frame of mind,” Burks wrote. “The light snow had begun to fall. You could see that through the narrow slits where the curtain allowed the merest sliver of daylight and streetscene to penetrate into the gloomy dark room.”

Burks was brought in to provide the centerpiece for a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign: a feature story about the reforming of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. The group, consisting of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Mitch Mitchell (both of whom were white) had disbanded the previous autumn. Since then, the rock ‘n’ roll guitar virtuoso had busied himself by befriending other African Americans: Trumpeter Miles Davis, jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and (according to Burks) “living and jamming with an all-purpose crew of musicians — everything from older black gentlemen from the South who played blues guitar, to a band of avant garde jazz/space musicians under the general leadership of a flute player named Juma — and talking about coming up with something new.”

Hendrix had even formed a new all-black group, Band of Gypsyes, with Buddy Miles on drums and old army buddy Billy Cox on bass. But this unit was short-lived, dissolving after a few performances.

The big news now was the reformation of the Experience, and with it the promise of a new record. Hendrix moved into his own Greenwich Village apartment to do some writing, and had come up with something new.

“Pieces,” Hendrix said. “I guess that’s what you call it. Yeah, like pieces behind each other. Like movements, whatever you call it. I been writing some of those.”

Because he could neither read nor write music, Hendrix recorded these new song sketches on cassette tapes, along with other songs he’d already been working on. On one label he wrote, “Idea for L.P. Side 1 suite…Black Gold.” The tapes were made around the time of Burks’ interview.

“I remember Jimi telling me about his idea for Black Gold,” Animals lead singer Eric Burdon remembered, “an autobiographical, multi-song fantasy piece he had been working on. Jimi intended it to accompany an animated feature about a black rock star — himself on the road…forty minutes of fresh new material that clearly demonstrated the direction Jimi was headed in. He talked excitedly about the cartoon character he’d envisioned. I know he did at least some work on the suite before he died.”

The Black Gold Suite was shelved. Hendrix would polish and record some of the songs that appeared on the tapes (“Drifting,” “Astro Man,” “Stepping Stone”), most would not find release. He gave Mitchell the Black Gold cassettes in a box, tied shut with a headband and labeled “BG,” to work out studio arrangements. After Hendrix died in September 1970, Mitchell forgot about them, apparently not even realizing the tapes contained unique material.

Producer Alan Douglas was present during the early stages of the project’s creation.

“[The Black Gold Suite] is on cassette and the quality might be OK for us to put it out in audio form, but it is such an incredible story that I’m thinking along the lines of an animated film,” Douglas told Rolling Stone in 1974. This apparently single cassette tape must be different from the box of Black Gold cassette tapes Hendrix presented to Mitchell, which at this time were still undiscovered. We can guess that this might have been an attempt by Hendrix to represent an album’s worth of material from a series of demoed songs. In a 1985 interview, Douglas intimated that the Black Gold cassette was stolen from Hendrix’ manager and later sold to him.

Because Hendrix used the recording studio as a laboratory (even building one of his own, Electric Lady), we have dozens of albums’ worth of posthumous “original” material, mostly comprised of studio jams and alternate takes, which the artist would not have wanted to release. The Black Gold Suite distinguishes itself from most of this body of work. Central to Black Gold’s creation are issues of identity and empowerment. Featuring a version of Hendrix as a cartoon superhero, it could well have become an animated feature. The songs are complex, not a compilation of throwaway jams that make up most of Hendrix’s posthumous legacy. The Black Gold Suite stands as perhaps the most poignant evidence we have of Hendrix’s ambition to create an intricate conceptual project. If he could produce a landmark album like Electric Ladyland at age 25, what else could he have done in the ensuing years?

James Marshall Hendrix (his original name was Johnny Allen) was born in Seattle, Washington on November 27, 1942. His association with the guitar began early — Hendrix brought a broom to elementary school and strummed it constantly. Soon he found a one-string ukulele in the trash. Hendrix bought his first guitar for five dollars when he was fifteen.

After a stint in the Army, Hendrix toured the notorious Southern “chitlin’ circuit” with rhythm and blues acts The Isley Brothers and Little Richard. His skill would get him into bands but, invariably, his flashy showmanship got him kicked out. Hendrix biographers Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber describe this paradigm accurately as “admired, hired, [and] fired.”

In September 1966, Hendrix moved to London at the urging of former Animal’s bassist-turned-manager Chas Chandler. It was a momentous decision. Hendrix would finally front his own band away from the penury of the chitlin’ circuit. Moreover, London was home to the most popular rock being created, and Hendrix was about to turn it all upside down.

‘Well, I want to show them that music is universal — that there is no white rock or black rock.’

Five days after arriving in England, Hendrix hired Noel Redding, then auditioning on guitar for the New Animals. “Chas asked if I could play bass and sit in with this other guy, gesturing to a bloke who was pacing uneasily in a distant corner,” Redding remembered. “He was dressed in a horrible tan raincoat and grotty black winkle-picker boots and zips! Awful!” For his own part, Hendrix said later he was primarily interested in Redding’s hair — a kind of Bob Dylanesque afro — and his ability to remember chord changes.

Drummer Mitch Mitchell, recently fired from Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames, came to audition next. “There was Noel and he’d never played a bass in his life, not ever, with his two tiny 15 watt amps,” Mitchell said. “Hendrix arrived in like a Humphrey Bogart raincoat and his Stratocaster with two little Burns amps. We just proceeded to play and I found out that they had already auditioned something like 30 drummers. We just played over various rhythms and that was that. Hendrix said ‘Okay, I will see you around.’” The Jimi Hendrix Experience debuted that October.

There’s an unwritten rule among musicians, and one I hold dear: Never cover a song if you can’t make it your own. Jimi Hendrix didn’t have that problem. In December 1966, the Experience released the single “Hey Joe,” which Chandler had seen Hendrix perform in New York and thought would make a hit. There were already many versions out there; The Leaves, The Byrds, The Standells, Love, the Surfaris, the Music Machine, and Tim Rose had all done their version of the Billy Roberts original. No matter—it was Hendrix’s song now, even if he borrowed Love’s “lead bass” part and extended it. The single went to the Top 10 in England.

By the early 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll had lost much of its punch. Elvis was making movies. Buddy Holly was dead. Chuck Berry was in jail. British musicians, raised on these American records, reinvigorated the music. By mid decade, London was the place to be. Some of the most exciting and popular music of the time was coming out of England. That place was about to restart Hendrix’s career too.

Despite its somewhat desegregated beginnings — Little Richard and Chuck Berry are undisputed architects of the form — by the mid-60s rock was almost the sole expression of white men. The irony, of course, is that the music is rooted firmly in the African American idioms of blues and R&B. Hendrix assaulted this white fortress immediately. Only a week in London, he asked to sit in with the supergroup Cream featuring renowned guitarist Eric Clapton at The Regent Street Polytechnic. Ripping through a version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” Hendrix usurped Clapton as the “god” of rock guitar.

“He just played his ass off, basically,” remembered Cream bassist Jack Bruce. “The first time I saw Eric, I thought, ‘Oh, there’s a master guitar player.’ But Eric was a guitar player. Hendrix was some sort of force of nature.” Clapton watched the performance with a mixture of awe and dismay. “You didn’t tell me he was this fucking good!” he barked at Chandler backstage. Soon Experience performances were being attended by members of the Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Although clearly admired, in many ways Hendrix was an outsider among his English colleagues. Many English musicians couldn’t fully appreciate Hendrix’ abilities — even his own drummer, who admitted the year after Hendrix died that “a lot of people are only just beginning to realize what he did put down, including myself.”

The press couldn’t reconcile Hendrix’s race with his unprecedented ability. In London, he was called “Black Elvis” and the “Wild Man of Borneo.” Rolling Stone dubbed him a “Psychedelic Superspade,” a supposedly complimentary but nakedly racist moniker.  Simultaneously, part of Hendrix lore is that he was thought of by many African Americans as a kind of Uncle Tom, a black man playing white music. His psychedelic rock certainly existed outside of traditional “black” forms of musical expression, and his records were not played by African American radio stations — many of which were run by white-owned corporations.


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After closing the Woodstock festival in 1969, Hendrix played a benefit concert for the Harlem United Block Association, in the traditionally black New York neighborhood. “Sometimes when I come up here,” he remarked, “people say, ‘What’s he doing up here?’ Well, I want to show them that music is universal — that there is no white rock or black rock.” The Harlem crowd heckled, threw a bottle and eggs at the stage, and drifted away from the show. Hendrix returned to the southern part of Manhattan island.

“In the Village, people were more friendly than in Harlem where it’s all cold and mean,” Hendrix told an interviewer in 1968. “Your own people hurt you more. Anyway, I had always wanted a more open and integrated sound.” As the 60s progressed, the Black Panther movement tried to associate themselves with him. Hendrix referenced them, but never fully committed. The American musical press made an issue of it, which Hendrix took Burks to task for when he brought the subject up. “I heard about that too,” Hendrix said, laughing. “In Rolling Stone. Tell me all about it.”

Unsurprisingly, conservative white America rejected Hendrix as well. He was denied hotel rooms in Alabama because of the female white groupies surrounding him. He was threatened with violence in Dallas if he reprised his Woodstock version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

After three successful full-length albums with the Experience, Hendrix announced his intention to play with other musicians. Redding left in late June 1969 after some acrimony. The next several months would see Hendrix commit himself more fully to who he called his “own people,” personally and professionally. The Band of Gypsys released a live album in March 1970, which would be the last official release of Hendrix’s lifetime. Hendrix saw it mostly as going to satisfy a contractual obligation.

“The only reason we put out Band of Gypsys was that Capitol was pressing for an LP and we didn’t have anything ready at the time,” he said. “So they got that. I wasn’t too satisfied with the album. If it had been up to me I would have never put it out.”

On January 28, 1970, Hendrix abruptly walked off stage on what was to become the last Band of Gypsys concert. The next month he sat in his manager’s office with his old Experience band mates, Mitchell and Redding, and conducted the Rolling Stone interview.

In his own “gauzed and sinewy voice,” Hendrix told John Burks about the Black Gold Suite. “Mostly it’s cartoon-type material,” he said. “I make up this one cat who’s funny. He goes through these strange scenes, you know. You put it in music, I guess. Just like you put blues in music.”

Producer Alan Douglas said Hendrix “became part of the family” when Douglas was recording John McLaughlin’s Devotion album at the Record Plant studio in New York. Band of Gypsys drummer Buddy Miles was on the session.

“We were trying to figure out what to do with [Hendrix], but he had this incredible pressure from management and Warner Bros. and everybody to deliver a record,” Douglas wrote. The producer brought some structure to the sessions, asking Hendrix to work on ideas “from beginning to middle to end for everything.”  

Hendrix had Black Gold in his mind for months. Its characters were fragments of himself.

“The thing that finally made me start doing that was Black Gold, an autobiographical suite of eight songs that was pretty complex, so I wanted him to have everything written before we went into the studio,” Douglas said. “We had this very elaborate double cassette set-up for him at home so he could record and overdub and so on, so he could do a couple of lines at home and musically work out the ideas. So he did it, wrote the songs, and they were beautiful.”

Hendrix had Black Gold in his mind for months. Its characters were fragments of himself. “Here was this cat come around called Black Gold,” he told an interviewer the previous December, “and there was this other cat came around called Captain Coconut. Other people came around. I was all these people. And finally when I went back home, all of a sudden I found myself being a little West Coast Seattle boy for a second. Then all of a sudden, when you’re back on the road again, there he goes, he starts going back. That’s my life until something else comes about.”

Other Black Gold characters included Astro Man, Captain Midnite, and Trash Man. “I am your trashman,” Hendrix sings on the cassette tape.

And don’t forget I also want to live, not just survive

And we burn up all trash no later than 3:10

I ain’t your black slave

Just because I just might try to wash out your mind

It’s up to you friend

So get up off your rusty behind

There were precious few black superheroes in 1970. Cartoon writer Stan Lee invented The Black Panther in 1966; Marvel Comics introduced The Falcon in 1969. The hero of Schoolhouse Rock’s “Verb! That’s What’s a’Happenin’!” is the fantasy creation of a very normal little boy, but it wouldn’t air until 1974. As with most other aspects of his life and career, with Black Gold Hendrix was mostly on his own.

Despite saying things like “the only colors I see are in my music,” the reality was that Hendrix wasn’t allowed to be post-racial in a racist society. Toward the end of his life, Hendrix thought more deeply about who he was and where he came from.

The only song from Black Gold Suite to see release is the tantalizing “Suddenly November Morning,” the first track of Side 1. It was included in 2010s West Coast Seattle Boy anthology. The song is melodic, lyrical, and introspective.

Lately things seem a little colder

The wind seems to get a little bolder

And I have been on the run

But then again it’s all in my mind

Back out on the snowy Manhattan street in February, 1970, Hendrix “smiled wistfully,” and assured Burks that the comeback of the Experience was going to be “the best arrangement for all of us, I guess, you know?”

“Another smile, another handshake, and he disappeared into the limousine, behind the steamed-over car windows,” Burks wrote. “The limousine expelled a huge cloud of exhaust. No one was willing to let the long car break into traffic, and it was still waiting to get away from the curb, in the same place, when I turned the corner, walking.”

The reformed Experience would include bassist Billy Cox, not Noel Redding. In the spring the band began an intensive tour of the United States and Europe, culminating in the famous Isle of Wight festival appearance in August, which provided a fitting, unintentional finale to the brilliant guitarist’s short career.

Hendrix died a month later, in September, at age 27. The Black Gold tape box would stay undiscovered in Mitch Mitchell’s possession for another two decades.

In the intervening years, a posthumous Hendrix industry has arisen: 27 compilation albums, 25 live albums, and 12 studio albums of his material (depending on how one classifies these things) have been released, not including sundry singles, “official” bootlegs, and EPs. Producer Alan Douglas’s role in this industry was controversial. Hired to comb through the Hendrix archives, Douglas produced Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning. He did so by wiping some of the original backing tracks, replacing them with new performances by different musicians.

Hendrix’ half-sister Janie now runs his estate, after enduring many legal challenges. Only nine when Hendrix died, she remembers her brother playing guitar and watching cartoons on the television. In 2010, she promised a proper release of the Black Gold Suite will happen before decade’s end.  

Eddie Kramer, who worked on the West Coast Seattle Boy compilation and was the sound engineer on every one of Hendrix’ albums since his debut is not enthusiastic about Black Gold.

“Oy vay,” he said, when MOJO asked him about it. “It’s not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What’s more important is what’s coming up in the future.” I don’t happen to share Kramer’s opinion — but then again, based on what’s been made available, Black Gold is a low-fidelity recording of acoustic demos, communicating big ideas. It is an architect’s sketch of a house never built. As such, it might not hold Kramer’s interest as much as properly recorded studio outtakes and jams; material which is altogether more presentable to the casual listener.

Black Gold could have been incredible, had Hendrix brought it to fruition. It would have been unprecedented: an animated feature with a matchless soundtrack, portraying a black superhero as conceived by a black man. Hendrix would have combined his lifetime love of music and cartoons in a landmark way. It could not have come to pass because it didn’t: exhaustion, constant touring, intra-band personnel changes, the lack of a trusted producer’s steady hand, and ultimately the young man’s death prevented it.

“I tell you, when I die I’m going to have a jam session,” Hendrix wrote when he was 27. “I want people to go wild and freak out. And knowing me, I’ll probably get busted at my own funeral. The music will be played loud and it will be our music. I won’t have any Beatles songs, but I’ll have a few of Eddie Cochran’s things and a whole lot of blues. Roland Kirk will be there, and I’ll try and get Miles Davis along if he feels like making it. For that it’s almost worth dying. Just for the funeral. It’s funny the way people love the dead. You have to die before they think you are worth anything. Once you are dead, you are made for life. When I die, just keep on playing the records.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Jason Stavers and Matt Giles