With the exception of James Dean, who made only three films, there might be no pop-culture icon who has done more with less than the late Jimi Hendrix. The ultimate guitar hero released just three studio albums before his death in 1970, but new generations of music fans keep plugging into his amplified legacy.
The volume of Hendrix’s music is about to get turned up.
Today, the Hendrix estate and Sony Music Entertainment will announce the March 9 release of a “new” Hendrix album, “Valleys of Neptune,” which will feature a dozen unreleased recordings.
The late star’s sister, Janie Hendrix, calls the material a “major revelation” about her brother’s musical directions at the time of his death, but the project and Sony’s intense interest in it also reveal plenty about the modern music marketplace -- namely that proven stars of the past, even the dead ones, are growing more important to an industry facing an uncertain future.
At last week’s massive 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sony chairman and chief executive Howard Stringer opened his company’s presentation by talking about Sony’s Legacy Recordings and its licensing agreement with Experience Hendrix, the Seattle-based company that acts as steward of the estate.
That partnership was first announced last summer, but today marks the real rollout of Sony’s venture into the Hendrix vault. The company also will re-release familiar Hendrix albums bundled with new DVD documentaries, take the star into the online sector aggressively and look for synergy opportunities with the biennial Hendrix all-star tribute tour that begins its national run March 4 in Santa Barbara.
“It’s an auspicious start in fulfilling a shared vision for the Jimi Hendrix catalog going forward,” Legacy general manager Adam Block said.
Perhaps, but it also offers insight into the mind set at the major record labels. There was a major scramble among Sony’s rivals to land the Hendrix deal for the simple reason that icons of the past are viewed as a particularly good investment at a time when CD sales of new music are in continued decline and up-and-coming acts represent limited upside amid the shifting profit realities of the digital-download era.
In other words, the rewind button looks like a safer bet these days.
Warner Music Group has undertaken a major Frank Sinatra revival that is both archival -- with the release of vintage recordings -- and entrepreneurial with new ventures in advertising, film and perhaps a Las Vegas casino. Michael Jackson was the bestselling artist of last year (8.2 million albums sold in the U.S. alone), and the Beatles came in third (3.3 million); country crossover singer Taylor Swift finished between the two with music that was actually recorded in this century.
The Fab Four also hit the video game market with their Rock Band game, the latest of their seemingly seasonal encores as a pop-culture force.
And now, Hendrix is warming up as a 21st century enterprise.
Born in Seattle in 1942, Johnny Allen Hendrix would take on a persona that matched his trippy guitar feedback. His persona -- part gypsy mystic/part cosmic visitor -- made him seem somehow both earthy and otherworldly, a combination that made him a touchstone figure for a tie-dyed generation.
When he set his guitar on fire on stage in 1967 at the Monterey International Pop Festival he truly ignited his career. The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded signature 1960s tracks such as “Purple Haze” and “Foxey Lady,” but their frontman’s fashion influence and guitar innovations made him greater than the sum of those hits.
Hendrix died in London after a night of barbiturate use in September 1970. He was 27 and had no will. His estate, which is now valued somewhere north of $80 million, was caught up in legal battles for years; initially, control went to his father, Al Hendrix, but over the next decade he ceded it to others with results that left Hendrix devotees grumbling.
Eventually, Al Hendrix wrested control back, leading to the 1995 creation of Experience Hendrix, but his 2002 death led to more court conflicts. Janie, the half-sister of Jimi, emerged as the victor when the dust settled in 2008. She says that now, finally, the obstacles have been cleared and “Valleys of Neptune” is part of a major cache of material that will be tapped.
“There are things that were acquired through the years, both music and film footage and home recordings, or things that were left behind by the old administration not taking care of things,” she said. “We have material for a decade’s worth [of new releases].”
Janie Hendrix added that “Neptune” has some familiar songs -- die-hard fans might have heard some of these tracks on various bootleg recordings that have turned up over the years -- but these versions are startling.
“It sounds,” she said, “like Jimi could have recorded them yesterday.”
Any new release will face withering inspection from Hendrix scholars. One of them, Charles R. Cross, author of the acclaimed 2005 Hendrix biography “Room Full of Mirrors” and an occasional critic of the Hendrix estate, said the track listing comes with the promise of pristine presentations of long-muddied material.
“With so many different ‘official’ albums so far and hundreds of bootlegs, very little Hendrix is truly ‘unheard’ or ‘unreleased’ these days,” Cross said Sunday. “But to listen to some of Jimi’s final Experience recordings in their original versions, with quality remastering, is enough to get any Hendrix fan excited, particularly when the songs are as good as ‘Hear My Train,’ one of Jimi’s best-ever tracks.”
South African native Eddie Kramer was the lead producer on the album, and he was also the engineer in the studio with Hendrix during the original sessions. Kramer spent months using vintage analog approaches and the latest digital tools to excavate the material. “I felt like an archaeologist using a brush who finds, underneath the dust, this marvelous gold artifact,” he said.
‘A new direction’
Kramer said the music of “Neptune” comes primarily from 1969, a time of “both frustration and real excitement” for Hendrix as he pushed his way toward “a new direction.” The guitarist had brought in an old friend, bassist Billy Cox, to play on some of the tracks; on Friday, Cox, now living in Nashville, said he is giddy at the prospect of hearing the results of his work with Hendrix.
“I can tell you that Jimi was on his way to a powerful new thing, a new direction completely, he was going back to his roots and he wanted a sound with more soul,” said Cox, later in Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. “Who can say where it would have led him if he hadn’t died?”
Cox chuckled when asked about the sway Hendrix has on young rock fans and new generations of artists. People who were born after Hendrix was buried seem to view him as a wizard who wasn’t quite real.
“Jimi was a complete original and a visionary,” Cox said. “Every 10 years a new generation finds him. There are only two kinds of guitarists in the world. The ones who talk about how they were influenced by Jimi Hendrix and those who were influenced by Jimi Hendrix but won’t admit it.”