Off the top of my head, I can think of three cases in which a composer puts out his version of a song, only to have it quickly co-opted by someone else. I’m not talking about Pat Boone’s version of Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ or Bobby Darin’s version of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were a Carpenter’. Those are embarrassing covers. I’m also not talking about Rod Stewart’s cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Downtown Train’. There are kazillions of examples of respectable singers making respectable, respectful covers of worthwhile songs.
I’m talking about the rare case where an original version is eclipsed by a cover, where the subsequent version discovered qualities the author himself didn’t grasp.
Burt Bacharach wrote and arranged ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ for his vocal model, Dionne Warwick. Mr Bachrach: Aretha’s “was a better record than the one I produced.”
Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) kidnapped ‘All Along the Watchtower’ from Bob Dylan. Well, most people think so, including Mr Zimmerman himself. Yours truly is, of course, in the minority dissenting opinion. Dylan, on how he felt when first hearing Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such a talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
But then Jimi had the tables turned on him with the song ‘Little Wing’, from “Axis: Bold as Love” (1967). Although the album captivated the collective imagination of the entire Freak Nation, ‘Little Wing’ itself went largely unnoticed. In 1970, Eric Clapton recorded it with Derek & the Dominoes (on the same day he recorded ‘Layla’). Hendrix died 9 days later, so we’ll never get to hear his opinion of Clapton’s version. But it was Slowhand’s version that catapaulted the song into the status it now holds, both as a rite-of-passage for wannabe guitars and as an inspiration for other explorations.
The song itself is a masterpiece of enigma. Here’s Hendrix’ own very elucidating description: “Well, that was one song on there we did a lot of sound on, you know. We put the guitar through the Leslie speaker of an organ, and it sounds like jelly bread, you know….It’s based on a very, very simple American Indian style, you know, very simple. I got the idea like, when we was in Monterey, and I just happened to…just looking at everything around. So I figured that I take everything I see around and put it maybe in the form of a girl maybe, something like that, you know, and call it ‘Little Wing’, in other words, just fly away. Everybody really flying and they’s really in a nice mood, like the police and everybody was really great out there. So I just took all these things an put them in one very, very small little matchbox, you know, into a girl and then do it. It was very simple, you know. That’s one of the very few ones I like.” Well, okay, Jimi, thanks for that. Jelly bread???
Hendrix’ recorded version showcases his (right-handed) guitar (flipped over to be played upside down by left-handed Jimi) being run through a Leslie speaker, usually used with Hammond organs, together with a distortion effect giving it a unique tone. Mitch Mitchell’s explosive drums cut the dream with speed; Noel Redding’s bass serves as both a floor and a ceiling, without which they’d probably just float away into the sky; a pinch of glockenspiel provides the celestial. Two and a half minutes. It was one of Hendrix’ performance favorites. I found one collection of 14 bootlegged live performances. Here’s one for you, from the Royal Albert Hall, London, England, February 24, 1969.
Derek & the Dominos’ version is indeed inspired, from the majesty of the very opening guitar riff. Listen for example to this performance by the Allman Brothers, guest-starring Clapton, 2009. The vocals are fine, Clapton’s guitar is fine, Derek Trucks’ solo is really exciting. But it isn’t in the same stratosphere with the Carl Radle (b)/Jim Gordon (d)/Bobby Whitlock (p) rhythm section, not to mention the second lead guitar of Duane Allman. Or the production of Tom Dowd, who is credited by all involved to have been the key moving force in making the legendary “Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs”.
Dowd’s production is genius, pure genius. I don’t need to walk you through ‘Little Wing’ or ‘Layla’ or ‘I Looked Away’ or ‘Bell Bottom Blues’, you’ve listened to them as often as I have. The expansive tapestry of the two guitars, the organ, the drums, the two voices and the bass (that’s all there is), sounding richer and certainly more complex than Phil Spector’s 27 kettle drums on ‘Da Doo Run Run’. You don’t need me to tell you how thrilling and uplifting this music is.
It was D&tD’s version that has inspired the many and varied covers of ‘Little Wing’. There are oodles of virtuoso guitar homages to Clapton/Allman by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Stevie Vrai. There are stripped-down melodic versions by the Irish band The Corrs and Tuck & Patti, a knock-out husband (guitar) and wife (vocals) team who perform it as the second half of a medley with another song from “Axis: Bold as Love”, ‘Castles Made of Sand’. If you don’t know Tuck & Patti, give them a listen. They’re not as well-known as they should be, but they are infallibly musically tasteful and technically impressive.
One of the great arrangers of the 20th century, Gil Evans (here’s a posting I wrote about his work with Miles Davis) was planning a collaboration with Hendrix before the latter died. The pairing is surprising, seemingly disparate beyond fusion. Evans later recorded with his orchestra a CD of Hendrix music, including a version of ‘Little Wing’. It’s so embarrassingly bad, and I have so much respect for Gil Evans, that I won’t even give you the link to it. But Evans did help out Sting with his version of the song, which has gained a well-deserved stature in its own right. It’s an impressive amalgam of other treatments, incorporating both the melodic and personal side of the song as well as the complex, energetic, symphonic orchestration.
So what are we left with here? I think I usually know what subject I’m addressing–a song, an artist, a song as representing an artist, or an artist as expressing himself in a song. But here it’s an unusual aggregate of a song, various artists, a range of approaches. In the end, I don’t go to Hendrix for songs, but for his disassembly of world order. But he has inspired this one jelly bread of a song, haunting, the rare meeting of psychedelia and reality, a most electric and eclectic homage to the ephemeral bliss of the carnal, Derek & The Dominos’ rapturous recording of ‘Little Wing’.
Well she’s walking through the clouds
With a circus mind that’s running round
Butterflies and zebras
And moonbeams and fairy tales
That’s all she ever thinks about
Riding with the wind.
When I’m sad, she comes to me
With a thousand smiles, she gives to me free
It’s alright she says it’s alright
Take anything you want from me,
Fly on little wing,
Yeah yeah, yeah, little wing
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