Hello there! This week our blog features a great 60s R&B tune, Little Wing. We will begin with the original version by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Next, we will review an instrumental cover by Stevie Ray Vaughan, and finally a cover by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Little Wing:
Jimi Hendrix is generally considered the greatest rock guitarist of all time. He had a meteoric career – Jimi seemed to appear out of nowhere; took the field of rock music by storm; and died less than five years after his launch as a soloist.
James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle in Nov. 1942. He was a shy, introverted youth who spent considerable time in foster care as his parents were both alcoholics who became violent when they were intoxicated.
Jimi Hendrix’s first musical instrument was a ukulele with just one string. In 1958, he got his first guitar and taught himself to play by copying the guitar parts to famous rock ‘n roll songs.
Below is a photo of Jimi Hendrix performing at Royal Albert Hall, in Feb. 1969.Embed from Getty Images
After being discharged from the Army, Jimi moved to Nashville, where he performed at a number of black venues on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. He also worked as a session musician for artists such as Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
In 1964, Hendrix moved to New York and began frequenting clubs in Harlem. He was hired as a guitarist with the Isley Brothers band, and later worked with Little Richard’s backup group The Upsetters.
The song Little Wing had its genesis when Jimi was trying to break through in the music business. He had been greatly influenced by Curtis Mayfield, for whom he had opened back in 1963. Jimi admired and copied some of Mayfield’s complex and nuanced guitar phrases. He said that Mayfield
“probably influenced me more than anyone I’d ever played with up to that time, that sweet sound of his, you know”.
In 1966, Jimi joined a short-lived group called The Icemen. They recorded a few songs that were produced by John Brantley. One of those was called “My Girl (She’s a Fox).” This tune was a precursor to Little Wing, and here is the audio from that song.
On this tune, Jimi’s lead guitar is clearly influenced by Curtis Mayfield. Lonnie Youngblood is the lead vocalist with Jimi contributing backing vocals.
Eventually Hendrix assembled his own band and began performing in Greenwich Village. There, Hendrix caught the eye of Chas Chandler, who had been the bass player for the British Invasion group The Animals. Chandler brought Hendrix to London, and hooked him up with guitarist Noel Redding, who agreed to play bass with the group, and drummer Mitch Mitchell. They formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience caused a sensation when they began live performances in London. The band released three hit singles in the U.K. – Hey Joe, Purple Haze, and The Wind Cries Mary – before they ever issued an album.
Jimi Hendrix wrote Little Wing in 1967. As you will see, the guitar work on Little Wing is extremely similar to that on She’s a Fox. The lyrics refer to a woman with ethereal qualities. On other occasions Jimi said that the song referred to an angel.
Well she’s walking through the clouds
With a circus mind that’s running round
Butterflies and zebras
And moonbeams and fairy tales
That’s all she ever thinks about
Riding with the wind.
When I’m sad, she comes to me
With a thousand smiles, she gives to me free
It’s alright she says it’s alright
Take anything you want from me,
Fly on little wing,
Yeah yeah, yeah, little wing
Jimi spent considerable time getting the sound just right for this song. He tried out several different versions of the song. Eventually Chas Chandler convinced Jimi that the song was most effective when played much more slowly than Jimi’s usual pace.
Recording engineer Eddie Kramer then fed Jimi’s lead guitar through a Leslie speaker, which was commonly used only for organ sounds. They were able to produce a sound with considerable tremolo and vibrato. The final touch occurred when Jimi found a glockenspiel lying on the floor in a corner of the recording studio, and decided to include it on the song.
So here is the audio of Little Wing, which was included on the band’s second album Axis: Bold As Love.
The net result was a sensational sound experience. Jimi’s lead guitar playing is superb, and is perfectly complemented by the electronic effects that produce the vibrato in his solos. And the glockenspiel also adds a lovely touch.
I can’t remember another Hendrix song that is so short and sweet. Coupled with Jimi’s masterful guitar work, Little Wing has become a tune that guitar maestros around the world have emulated.
Next, here is Jimi Hendrix live in Stockholm, Sweden in 1968, performing Little Wing.
Alas, this is just audio of a live performance by Jimi; but the audio quality is pretty good. And you can hear more of Jimi’s absolute mastery of the electric guitar.
Jimi Hendrix had an incandescent coming-out at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (literally, as he set fire to his guitar at the end of his set). He followed that up with a sensational performance at Woodstock in August 1969. In just two years’ time, Hendrix had become the highest-paid rock musician in the world.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted for three mind-blowing albums. After that, the trio broke up at the end of June, 1969 due to personal and musical differences. Jimi then performed with various groups of musicians. In 1970 he assembled a new trio, replacing Noel Redding from the original Jimi Hendrix Experience with Billy Cox. In mid-1970 this group commenced the City of Love tour.
In September the City of Love tour had reached Europe. Hendrix spent the night of Sept. 17 with girlfriend Monika Dannemann. Dannemann testified that they had a bottle of wine, visited some friends, and returned to her apartment.
The following morning, Dannemann found Hendrix unconscious and unresponsive. He was taken to a hospital, but pronounced dead early that afternoon. A post-mortem autopsy revealed that Hendrix died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates.
Jimi Hendrix’ tragic death was a major loss for rock music. Although he only performed as a solo artist for about five years, his creative contributions were truly astounding. He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Both Rolling Stone magazine and Guitar World rank Hendrix #1 on their list of the greatest guitarists of all time, which is where he belongs.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Little Wing:
Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. He was born in the Dallas area, where his older brother Jimmie taught him how to play guitar. Stevie subsequently dropped out of high school and moved to Austin to take part in their music scene.
Below is a photo of Stevie Ray Vaughan working on his guitar at a live performance in May, 1987.Embed from Getty Images
From an early age, Stevie was inspired by blues and rock guitarists such as Muddy Waters, Albert King and Jimi Hendrix. However, probably the biggest influence on his style was Lonnie Mack, a Memphis blues guitarist. Although Mack is not as well known as many other musicians, his guitar style was emulated by artists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman.
Vaughan spent a decade in Austin, working with several different blues bands and perfecting his craft. He became well known in Texas, but had a hard time gaining national recognition.
However, this all changed dramatically in 1982. Noted producer Jerry Wexler recommended Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble, as performers for ‘blues night’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Vaughan and his band were a sensation at Montreux. The night after his performance at the jazz festival, he appeared at the Montreux Casino where Jackson Browne was in the audience. Browne
offered [Vaughan] free use of his personal recording studio in Los Angeles. … While they were in the studio, Vaughan received a telephone call from David Bowie, who … invited him to participate in a recording session for his next studio album, Let’s Dance.
At this point, Vaughan’s career took off. The following spring the band played at The Bottom Line in New York, where celebrities like Mick Jagger, John McEnroe and Johnny Winter caught his show. New York Post reporter Martin Porter wrote that the venue had been
“rendered to cinders by the most explosively original showmanship to grace the New York stage in some time.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan developed a reputation for his virtuoso guitar work and his incredibly energetic live sets. He was known to superglue his fingernails, to ensure that they would not get ripped off while he was playing. His albums became best-sellers, and SRV and his group were headliners on major tours.
Stevie Ray greatly admired Jimi Hendrix, and Little Wing was a particular favorite of Stevie’s. Here he is in a live performance of Little Wing.
This took place at Toronto’s renowned nightclub El Mocambo in 1983. This is an instrumental version of Little Wing. Stevie repeats Jimi’s rolls and trills with great fidelity and terrific technique. The last 2 ½ minutes of the song comprise a fantastic guitar solo, with Stevie riffing off the Jimi Hendrix guitar line. It’s exciting to see one guitar hero paying homage to another.
You can see why Stevie Ray Vaughan was so popular. Here he is dressed in his trademark cowboy hat, accessorized by a bolo tie and cowboy boots. You can see the sweat pouring down his face as he plays. What a moving performance!
By the mid-80s Vaughan had really hit the big time, but problems with alcohol and drugs threatened to derail his career. Reportedly Vaughan had begun drinking at age 6, when he would finish off the half-empty liquor bottles that his alcoholic father would leave around the house.
At the height of his career, Vaughan would drink a quart of whiskey and do a quarter-ounce of cocaine daily. In 1986 during a European tour, Vaughan was taken to the emergency room. After his doctors warned him that he would likely die within a year unless he sobered up, Vaughan entered rehab in Austin in October, 1986.
Stevie Ray had worried that sobriety would rob him of his musical talents. However, after leaving rehab and rehearsing with his band, he emerged better than ever.
In August, 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band performed at a concert with Eric Clapton at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin. Following the concert, the bands were loaded onto four helicopters waiting to take them to Chicago.
Vaughan’s helicopter took off, but shortly afterwards veered left and crashed into the top of a nearby ski hill. Vaughan, his three fellow passengers and the helicopter pilot were killed instantly.
What a tragic ending for a great musical talent. Stevie Ray Vaughan created a blues style that borrowed from the great blues predecessors. Vaughan also incorporated elements from jazz guitarists such as Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery. He played his signature 1959 Fender Stratocaster guitar with tremendous verve.
Vaughan was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Rolling Stone magazine named him the #7 in their “100 Best Guitarists of All Time.” Miss you, Stevie.
Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood and Little Wing:
In 1969, various British rock groups were disintegrating. Eric Clapton was disenchanted with his supergroup trio Cream for several reasons. For one thing, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce loathed each other, and Clapton felt caught in the middle of their feuds. In addition, the perfectionist Clapton believed that the group was “coasting,” often producing third-rate performances.
A couple of years earlier, Steve Winwood had left the Spencer Davis Group over creative differences – Winwood was interested in jazz-influenced progressive rock, while other members of the band favored heavy-metal blues-infused music. Winwood formed Traffic in order to pursue these new directions. However, Winwood took a temporary hiatus from Traffic temporarily in 1969, and
Winwood started to jam with his good friend Clapton in Clapton’s basement in Surrey, England.
Eventually, Clapton and Winwood teamed up with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech to form the supergroup “Blind Faith.” The photo above shows the group; from L: Steve Winwood; Ric Grech; Ginger Baker; Eric Clapton. The band’s first gig, a free concert at London’s Hyde Park in summer 1969, drew 300,000 people! But after just one album, the group disbanded.
Clapton and Winwood remained good friends, and in the past decade began to appear together again. This started at Clapton’s second Crossroads Guitar Festival held outside of Chicago, where they performed together with a set that included a few Blind Faith numbers.
Above is a photo of Winwood and Clapton in 2008 at Madison Square Garden. And here they are in a live performance of Little Wing at that venue.
Initially Eric and Steve take turns on the lyrics, and then they sing together in the second half of the tune. Eric contributes his usual stunning guitar licks. He produces beautiful notes and throws in perfectly timed runs on his Fender Stratocaster, while Steve chimes in on his Hammond B-3 organ. The audio is exceptional, and the camera focuses on Eric’s hands as he rolls through his solos. What an enjoyable video!
Unlike the lovely, mellow original by Jimi Hendrix, this version of Little Wing builds to a climax. It is easy to see why this song is so appealing to guitar heroes. In addition to the songs that we feature in this post there are over 100 covers of this tune, including impressive live performances by Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana and Paul Rodgers.
After they teamed up at Crossroads, Clapton and Winwood reunited for a limited series of concerts in the US, Europe and Japan between 2008 and 2011. I am frustrated that I have never caught one of their concerts.
I have been a fan of Steve Winwood ever since I saw him perform with the Spencer Davis Group in 1966; I have seen him with Traffic and as a solo act since then.
And I have seen Clapton performing solo a few times in recent years, although as a grad student in England I spent a fair amount of time “missing Eric Clapton,” having caught the Yardbirds and John Mayall shortly after Clapton left each of those groups.
In the history of rock music, Blind Faith was simply a brief interlude in the careers of Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. After the group broke up, Baker continued on with Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Winwood soon re-united with Traffic, while Clapton formed the super-group Derek and the Dominos before finally embarking on a long and distinguished solo career.
The British Invasion produced an incredibly large number of superstars, including Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. We wish each of them all the best, and we are saddened that we have lost Ginger Baker in the past year.