The Day Jimi Hendrix Launched Electric Lady Studios
The launch party for Electric Lady Studios on Aug. 26, 1970, was meant to celebrate a high-tech facility that set a new standard for recording studios. It ended up as farewell event for co-owner Jimi Hendrix.
He left for a performance in the U.K. the next day. Hendrix died at age 27 less than four weeks later, on Sept. 18 in London. He never returned to a facility in which he'd invested so much time and effort. The cause of death was "inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication."
Before the basement space at 52 West 8th St. in Greenwich Village became Electric Lady, it was the Generation Club. Hendrix loved to jam and hang out there. Hendrix and manager Michael Jeffrey decided to buy the space in 1968. Hendrix’s plan was to continue to operate a nightclub and build a small studio in the back to record live sessions. To revamp its look, Hendrix hired architect John Storyk, whose design of the futuristic Cerebrum Club impressed the guitarist. Hendrix’s audio engineer Eddie Kramer would design the sound system.
But then, plans changed. "I walk down the stairs into what will become Electric Lady and I said to the guys, 'Are you crazy?'" Kramer told PBS. "'You want to make a nightclub? Get out of here; this is nuts. Let's build Jimi a recording studio. We'll make the best recording studio in the world.'"
Storyk had by then completed the design for a nightclub. With Hendrix's vision as a guide, he was asked to re-create the space as two recording studios, Studio A and Studio B. "Jimi's directions were to make it very soft, he wanted lights to change. He actually wanted a lot of the things he saw in Cerebrum," Storyk told PBS. "'I just want things to be soft and curvy. I want things to be white and then I want the light to be able to change it.'"
Hendrix also consulted Les Paul, pioneer of the solid-body electric guitar. "Musicians know that I'm a night person, so when someone's got a technical question — how do you hold the guitar pick for this, how do you finger that chord? — they call," Paul once told the New York Times. "Back when Jimi Hendrix opened Electric Lady Studios, he was on the phone all the time; we talked about how to mic a guitar amplifier and where he should place the mic in the studio."
Construction issues abounded, however, and Hendrix was ultimately forced to borrow $300,000 from Warner Bros. to cover mounting costs. Undaunted, Hendrix began working in Studio A, even while construction continued into the summer of 1970 on Studio B. Songs recorded at Electric Lady included "Freedom," "Drifting," "Night Bird Flying," "Straight Ahead," "Astro Man," "Angel," "In From the Storm" and "Belly Button Window," according to Ultimate Hendrix: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Live Concerts and Sessions. (All are included on the album The Cry of Love, released posthumously in 1971.) Steve Winwood also dropped by to see the studio and jammed with Hendrix on "Valleys of Neptune."
Listen to 'Valley of Neptune'
The studio was ultimately said to have cost as much as $1 million, forcing Hendrix to constantly tour in order to generate funds. Everything had to be just right for a facility that Kramer said "was designed and built for Jimi with his vision in mind. It was a great vibe for Jimi to work in. He was so proud of it. This was something he had created with his hard work and his money and his efforts on the road and his sales of his albums. This was his home."
Unfortunately, his long-awaited launch party was marred by a food fight, according to Rolling Stone, and an upset Hendrix quickly departed. But not before Patti Smith, then a struggling singer and poet, ran into him while sitting on a nearby stairway.
"When I told him I was too chicken to go in, he laughed softly and said that contrary to what people might think, he was shy, and parties made him nervous," Smith wrote in her memoir Just Kids. "He spent a little time with me on the stairs and told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock, and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play. It didn't matter what key or tempo or what melody, they would keep on playing through their discordance until they found a common language. Eventually, they would record this abstract universal language of music in his new studio. 'The language of peace. You dig?' I did."
Hendrix's last studio recording with vocals, "Belly Button Window," was cut at Electric Lady Studios on Aug. 22, 1970, according to the Electric Lady Studios website. He stopped by one final time, just before leaving for the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, to record an instrumental track known simply as "Slow Blues."
In the years following his death, Hendrix's vision for Electric Lady was finally realized. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie recorded there. The studio, under the direction of general manager Lee Foster since 2004, was renovated in 2011 and 2012. U2, Beck, Coldplay and Daft Punk have used the space, too.
"Unlike most studios of that era, Electric Lady is really the dawn of a new studio," Storyk said. "Now, every artist has their own studio. The idea that the artist was on that side of the glass was a relatively new idea. Most control rooms were small; they were for engineers. Artists were on the other side of the glass. They come in, they go out, have a nice day. This was completely different."
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