Lithofayne Pridgon, a muse to musicians and likely inspiration for Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady,’ dies
Lithofayne Pridgon, Jimi Hendrix’s long-term girlfriend and the likely inspiration for one of his most popular and enduring songs, “Foxy Lady,” spent most of her life in a hallowed orbit of music stars.
A muse, confidant and forever a free spirit through the 1950s and ‘60s music scene, Pridgon’s life intersected again and again with the careers of Sam Cooke, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Etta James and — of course — Hendrix, whom she first connected with when the soon-to-be-insanely-famous guitarist was angling for a gig with Cooke.
Both mysterious and omnipresent in an era of tremendous musical change, Pridgon died at her home in Las Vegas on April 22 at age 80. Her death was largely overlooked and her family made no public announcement.
Bootsy Collins, the former Parliament-Funkadelic musician, described Pridgon as the “Queen of the Chitlin Circuit” on social media. “She helped change my life & tons of others,” he wrote.
In 1955, at age 15, Pridgon met rambunctious, rising R&B star Little Willie John backstage at the Riverside Ballroom in Springfield, Mass. A year later, John, who would become her first lover, took her to New York and introduced her to Cooke at a party in Harlem’s Cecil Hotel. Over the next few years, she would meet a host of future music stars, Marvin Gaye, still of the Moonglows, Brown, then of the Famous Flames, and Wilson, shortly after he joined Billy Ward and the Dominoes.
“She was nobody’s concubine,” said musician and cultural critic Greg Tate, author of “Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience,” who first became aware of Pridgon through her captivating appearance in the 1973 documentary “Jimi Hendrix.”
“This is somebody who was as much of a superstar as any of the men she dated, as a Black woman in the world, and at that time in the world,” he said.
In the Harlem of the ‘50s and ‘60s, where a porous border existed between the music world and the underworld, Pridgon, streetwise and possessed of an enviable survival instinct, held her own. Through Willie John, she met James, fresh off her first hit, “The Wallflower,” who would become a lifelong friend and confidant. In 1961, when James was roughed-up by a bad-boy paramour, Pridgon connected her with another acquaintance, notorious Harlem mobster “Red” Dillard, for protection.
In the early ‘60s, Pridgon toured as a backup singer with Bobby Blue Bland’s the Blandolls; hired more, she felt, for her ability to look and move the part, rather than what she referred to as “my one octave singing range.” Life on the Chitlin Circuit during the civil rights era could be perilous. During one stop in Georgia, the musicians were mistaken for freedom riders and their tour bus was pelted with bottles and rocks.
In later years, holding court on the phone from her home in Las Vegas, Pridgon was a gifted and entertaining raconteur. Blessed with an eidetic memory and a mordant (and, oft-times, self-deprecating) wit, she could recall people, places, events and even conversations from over half a century ago. An inveterate truth-teller, her roving recollections told from an insider’s perspective, which she also committed to paper as part of a long-gestating but never-published memoir, constituted an utterly unique personal chronicle of post-World War II Black American culture.
An only child from a large extended family, Lithofayne Pridgon (also known as Faye or Fayne Pridgon) was born in 1940 in Moultrie, Ga., and largely raised in a section of the city known as “Dirty Spoon,” an alley with a dip at the end, wedged between the railroad, a cemetery and two highways.
She was intoxicated by the comings and goings in Dirty Spoon: a world of loose women and womanizing men, moonshine, juke joints, and the blues. After hearing John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” as a child on a crank-handle Victrola, she became enamored with the blues, especially by Muddy Waters, Hooker and Elmore James — “lowdown, back alley, sho’nuff, stomp down, dirty blues,” as Pridgon termed it.
Writer and historian Peter Guralnick, who interviewed Pridgon extensively for his 2005 Sam Cooke biography, “Dream Boogie,” said she was “a keen and insightful observer of the human comedy, vibrant with enthusiasm for the world that she so exuberantly inhabited” and was also “unabashed and unapologetic in recounting her experiences.”
A case in point, a story she never tired of telling: the circumstances of her initial meeting with Hendrix at a 1962 orgy held in the Harlem apartment of her friend and patron “Fat Jack” Taylor, a local drug kingpin, restaurateur and aspiring music mogul. Her attraction to Hendrix, then a 19-year-old budding musician two years her junior and newly discharged from military service, was immediate. “He was skinny, he was raw-boned, he was my type,” she said.
A year later, they met again by chance at the Apollo Theater, where Pridgon was such a fixture she was known as “Apollo Faye.” Hendrix was angling for a gig as a sideman with Cooke. Pridgon, then Cooke’s lover, helped make an introduction. From that time on, she and Hendrix were “inseparable.”
They lived together, wrote songs and made the rounds of Harlem nightspots, like the Palm Cafe and Smalls’ Paradise, Hendrix carrying an “old raggedy guitar case” with him everywhere, hoping to sit in and catch a break. But, as enamored as she was of him, she wasn’t willing to change her lifestyle. “I wanted to continue seeing Jackie and Sam and Willie.” That didn’t wash with Hendrix, who was young and “insanely jealous.”
Among her most cherished possessions was a collection of handwritten letters and notes Hendrix wrote to her, in florid script, that contain poetic but pained expressions of both his intense devotion to her and immense frustration that she wouldn’t commit to him solely. The same sentiment drives “Foxy Lady.” (The song’s title alludes to a kitten he gave Pridgon, and later a poodle, both named “Foxy.”)
Pridgon’s own songs, rooted in the blues and brimming with attitude and sardonic humor, with titles like “Low Down Alley Woman,” rankled Hendrix in their celebration of her free-living, free-loving ways, but won her a contract with Atlantic Records from the label’s founder, Ahmet Ertegun, who signed her himself in 1972, producing sessions for an unreleased album in Muscle Shoals, with guitarist Shuggie Otis.
“She was definitely a Jimi cheerleader,“ said Collins, who recalled Pridgon attempting to broker a meeting for him and his brother, Catfish Collins, with Hendrix, angling to back him in a new group following the release of “Band of Gypsys,” Hendrix’s live album with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles.
The night Hendrix died in London, Pridgon was recording in the guitarist’s newly opened Electric Lady studio in Greenwich Village. She gave little credence to conspiracy theories that still swirl around Hendrix’s death at age 27 — a coroner determined he choked to death on his own vomit — largely because she was privy to information about him that could only come from an intimate.
Hendrix, she said, suffered from a sleep apnea. “I used to have to wake him up, and make him turn over on his side in his sleep, because he was choking.” This was something, she noted, that German figure skater Monika Dannemann, with whom Hendrix spent his fateful night, was likely unaware.
Among Hendrix enthusiasts, particularly fellow musicians, Pridgon acquired an almost talismanic quality as the muse who nurtured and encouraged him from ambitious sideman to pioneering artist. She was courted by Sly Stone, who brought her to Los Angeles in 1971, ostensibly to produce her music, and lived in his Bel-Air mansion. There, she hooked up with another brilliant guitarist and Hendrix acolyte, Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic, who was so enamored of Pridgon he wrote her a love note in his own blood.
“She just had a presence, a certain power that would come over you,” says Collins. “She was an amazing person, one of a kind.”
Pridgon is survived by two daughters, Vyki Z. Walls and Litho Fayne Ramsey; a son, Quinn Pridgon; two granddaughters, Kharisma and Fantasi Pridgon and a great-grandson.
Campion is a Times special correspondent.
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