“Since Hendrix, there’s not a lot that blows me away,” Whitley said.*
We’re all familiar with Chris’s cover of Hendrix’s “Drifting” on the Perfect Day CD. But did you know that he covered other Hendrix songs? That one of the first albums he bought (with money his grandmother had given him for his 11th birthday) was Hendrix’s Smash Hits? Here’s a short playlist of live recordings of Chris covering Hendrix’s Hear My Train a Comin’, Little Wing, and Machine Gun [more bootlegs at the end of this post]:
References and comparisons to Jimi Hendrix abound in the numerous album reviews and interviews spanning Chris’s career. Chris mentioned Hendrix as an early influence frequently during the LWTL tour, but music critics didn’t compare Chris to Jimi until Din of Ecstasy. For example, in a review of the CD in Guitar Player, Mike Baker writes
The opening cut, “Narcotic Prayer,” gives a good idea of what he’s up to. On paper, the tune has only a few simple chords, but under Whitley’s fingers they expand and interlock, creating a guitar music from a parallel world. The source of Whitley’s original vocabulary is not at all clear. “I grew up on what my parents had–Dylan, the Beatles, and Hendrix,” he explains. “Those people were so heavy they were beyond influences. They stimulated me to do my own thing.” Though he doesn’t sound like Jimi, Hendrix is perhaps Whitley’s most direct antecedent, a musician whose instrumental style, idiosyncratic vocals, and unique songwriting are indivisible.
Another example from a review of Chris’s solo gig at Martyrs’ (March 1999):
A mural painted on the back wall at Martyrs’ depicts legendary musicians who have passed away, and the central, dominant portrait is of Jimi Hendrix. The mural reminds the performers onstage that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and that their heroes may be watching over them. Wherever Jimi is now, if he heard Chris Whitley on Sunday night, then he was certainly smiling.
Similar to history’s most celebrated guitar god, Whitley plays in an unconventional style, fuses funk and blues into his rock, and creates mind-boggling sonic sculptures. The comparison stops there, though, because Whitley doesn’t play long, self-indulgent solos, and he doesn’t sound like Hendrix or anybody else.
When, in an interview with Jeff McErlain, Chris was asked to name musicians who combine “musical and lyrical capabilities well,” Chris replied,
Dylan and Hendrix. To me they’re still kind of benchmarks of just … the highest level of talent. At certain times, I have wished that Hendrix’s lyrics were a little more poetic …. Maybe in the last ten years I’ve probably gotten to appreciate Hendrix’s lyrics more than I did as a kid, which is funny. I like him more musically and conversely, I appreciate Dylan more lyrically.
In response to the ubiquitous questions about his changing sound – LWTL to Din to Dirt to Rocket House, yadda yadda yadda – and how his not “staying within one lane” hampered his career, Chris again referred to Hendrix:
“I never had an ambition to win the lottery,” he said. “My goal was to have a career, make a life out of it. Not have one hit and go away. I want to keep challenging my audience, which is very hard to do within the industry right now. I mean, Bold As Love was made by a different Jimi Hendrix than the one who made Are You Experienced. All the people I’ve loved have moved around like that. It used to be the goal.” **
Other connections between Chris and Jimi:
- They shared a sound board:
In just one example of the kind of weird connections and coincidences that Whitley says mark his life, the disc [LWTL] was recorded at Lanois’ New Orleans studio using a sound board that Whitley had used to record some demo work at age 18 in New York City [possibly at the Record Plant?]; Lanois had subsequently purchased the board — the same one, in fact, that Jimi Hendrix used to record Electric Ladyland.
- Chris attended the 1992 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at which the Jimi Hendrix Experience was inducted:
bn: I remember seeing you at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the year that Hendrix was inducted, and you looked out of place among all those lawyers and record executives in suits.
CW: I just felt like shocked. I was sitting with Sony exec Tommy Mottola and was flattered by being invited. But I felt frustrated with the industry: How saturated our culture is with the thousand records that come out each week, how hard it is to get on the radio, and the low-attention spans. It makes you doubt your most fundamental values.
- It seems that Chris “whiffed” on his chance to honor Hendrix, according to Sean Elder:
Whitley … had famously flamed out on stage on more than one occasion (during a Jimi Hendrix tribute at BAM a few years ago he had to be led off stage as his cover of “Little Wing” wandered off the musical map).
Here are a couple more live recordings of Hear My Train a Comin’ (because once is not enough!):
And a few live covers of Drifting: