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Jimi Hendrix’s flagship album Electric Ladyland turns 50 this year, a musical masterpiece that brought the psychedelic rocker well into the mainstream. And while hits such as ‘All Along the Watch Tower’ and ‘Crosstown Traffic’ have certainly stood the test of time, it was the bluesy experimental sounds and epic wah pedal riffs of ‘Voodoo Child’ that undoubtedly defined the album. Unbeknownst to many, however, is that this smash hit track was conceived almost by chance.
On May 2, 1968, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was going through a bit of a rough patch. Among other things, Hendrix was barely speaking to his manager, Chas Chandler, while bassist Noel Redding had just stormed out of the studio in a heated dispute.
Redding was unhappy that Hendrix was inviting too many guests into the studio, describing it as a madhouse rather than a place of work. In a later autobiography, Redding wrote, “He [Hendrix] just said, ‘Relax man…’ I’d been relaxing for months, so I relaxed my way right out the place, not caring if I ever saw him again.”
That evening, Hendrix was itching to record an idea he had for a new song. But with nobody to play with, he decided to check out a nearby gig instead.
As fate would have it, fellow psychedelic rockers from Traffic were playing at a club down the road and a longtime friend, Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, was in attendance as well. Once the set had finished around 2 am, Hendrix invited Casady, Traffic keyboardist Steve Winwood, fellow bandmate Mitch Mitchell, and a group of 20 or so stragglers back to his studio to hang out.
Normally, such reckless use of a recording studio would be unheard of. Hendrix, however, had been given an unprecedented amount of access to experiment with new tunes. In fact, this artistic freedom—to be able to jam without watching the clock—was thought to have led to his best work. Nevertheless, his manager had gone home for the night so the coast was clear.
After working on some tracks for an hour or two, Hendrix invited Casady, Winwood, and Mitchell to partake in an impromptu jam session, effectively forming a supergroup and (presumably) playing while intoxicated into wee hours of the morning. For 15 mind-bending minutes, Hendrix led the ensemble through an incredible journey of Muddy Waters-style blues, jazz, and futuristic psychedelic sounds.
Nobody thought much of the track at the time, but Hendrix knew he was onto something special. Just a few hours after the session had concluded, he insisted his bandmates record an abridged version during a scheduled press interview. Working solely off his memories and some scribbled notes from the night before, The Jimi Hendrix Experience belted out their very first rendition of ‘Voodoo Child’ (‘Slight Return’).
At that moment, a rock-and-roll legend was born. It would become Hendrix’s biggest commercial success and his only number one UK hit.
Ironically, the meandering impromptu 15-minute version, which was included on the album as ‘Voodoo Chile’, was about as far as you could get from any chart-topping pop formula of the time.