Homage to the first rock star, Jimi Hendrix
Rated by Rolling Stone magazine the greatest guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix remains in the hearts, ears and minds of musicians and fans more than 40 years after his death. Legal and family issues were settled in 2010, allowing the first release of “Valleys of Neptune” and “West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology.” Veteran Bay Area guitarist Ralph Woodson has presented a Jimi Hendrix tribute since 2005. Originally called the Ralph Woodson Experience, the band is now Purple Haze. Dan Cueva plays drums and Pete Roberts is on bass. After performing a few times in the Crystal Bay Casino Red Room, Purple Haze has moved to the casino’s larger venue. Purple Haze will play its second Crown Room show at 10 p.m. Friday, April 1. Woodson spoke with Lake Tahoe Action’s Tim Parsons this week:
Q: Was Jimi Hendrix the first rock star?
Woodson: Definitely. He was the first rock ‘n’ roll star. He was the first one to get out there and really do stuff. You heard the hype and then you saw it and it was bigger than the hype. Usually, it’s the other way around.
Q: It seems like Jimi transcended race. I mean, we have somebody who made it all the way to the White House, but much of the nation is obsessed with his heritage. But you don’t hear about Jimi being black.
Woodson: Music is special like that. They feel like they can identify with you and they know you on a real personal level, and it doesn’t matter if your psychedelic. It’s like they’ve already made this heart connection with you. So it doesn’t matter what you look like because I already know you from the inside. I definitely agree. Music is the one thing that seems to rise above all of that. People just lose that whole trip. They forget. If it’s a star they really like, like Prince. He’s not black. He’s bigger than black.
Q: Could Jimi have been as successful without the British Invasion?
Woodson: It helped a lot. I think without that he would have been more or less a blues musician, and that’s a lot harder. They changed the blues thing and it became more pop, and that helped him a lot. When he did his first album he just changed his style, totally. That first album, you didn’t really hear any funk. He went totally in another direction. He had been playing a lot of stuff that was funk oriented, blues oriented. Every now and then you’d hear some jazz. The only funk I can find on the first album is the intro to “I Don’t Live Today.” That’s what a lot of people don’t get about Jimi is his rhythm is impeccable. And that’s the same way as his singing. He didn’t have a great voice but he had impeccable timing. He’d be playing and singing and the guitar would be singing with him. Like a call and response with a guitar and there’s be certain parts where they would sing it together. He had that thing like magic.
Q: Did he get some of his showmanship from playing with Little Richard?
Woodson: Definitely. Playing on the Chitlin’ Circuit, that just made him a professional. He knew it inside and out. He’d been through rough times and had to pull it off without a big budget. When he finally got all that stuff behind him and was able to do his thing, it was sick. He really paid dues. He really played a lot of hard tours. No food, no money. And he was actually Little Richard’s flunky. I don’t think too many people know that Little Richard really didn’t treat him too well. As a matter of fact, when Jimi made it big, he wouldn’t let Little Richard come in his dressing room.
Q: What do you think about the new box set?
Woodson: I thought it was great. It was great to hear stuff I hadn’t heard. There were some nice versions, and also some versions you can hear where they were too high. It was kind of funny, man. They had to learn. It was the ’60s. And that whole thing made it happen, too. It was a learning experience. That opened up a lot of stuff but at certain points it took away from it and it’s too bad he didn’t live long enough to figure all that stuff out.
Q: Days before Jimi died, a traffic jam prevented a meeting between he and Miles Davis, who had just recorded “Bitches Brew” and had created this new fusion sound.
Woodson: That would have been it. That’s where he belonged. That was the next step.
Q: You pointed this out to me earlier. Jimi only played guitar 12 years.
Woodson: Yeah, it’s incredible. He’s a genius.
Q: If he were alive now, he’d be 68 and he would have been playing guitar 53 years. It’s probably unimaginable what he might have done, but have you ever imagined?
Woodson: I’ve thought about it, but in ’67 who could have thought of “Purple Haze?” It’s three simple chords, but who would have thought of that? That was Jimi’s genius. He did a lot of technical stuff that people still can’t do with feedback. But his talent was his imagination. His creativity. That will live on forever. Every musician who gets a glimpse of him will see that. He had this thing for this slow, pretty stuff. He has a feel that nobody else has. When he wrote “Little WIng,” when he wrote “Castles Made of Sand” his licks on the guitar, the tones that he choose. To me, those are masterpieces. It’s his choice, too. When you’re writing, you choose what’s good to you. The stuff he chose was excellent. He had this perfect ear and an eye for it. He could see it, and then he could create the sound.
Q: Jimi was your inspiration to play the guitar, wasn’t he?
Woodson: Most definitely. Before that, guitar to me was mostly James Brown, Sly Stone and The Beatles. Mostly rhythm guitar. Jimi made it sing, and he had the tones all together.
Q: He changes the was rock guitar sounds.
Woodson: There were people before him actually trying to do the feedback and stuff and I heard some of that stuff. (Laughs). He made it music. These other cats were making noise. He made it sing and fit the song.
Q: Tell me about the bands you’ve played with.
Woodson: I started in a band called Hedzoli Sounds when I was about 19. It was West African high life. That was the first tour I ever did. It was a totally different style of music. I also played with Lady Bianca (blues). I also played with the Cyclopes Band (blues-rock with Neil Shon), and we opened for tons of bands: Tower of Power, Little Feat, Doobie Brothers, James Brown, ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the Oakland Coliseum. And I did a tour with the Mighty Diamonds (reggae).
Q: What gave you the idea to do a Hendrix tribute?
Woodson: I’ve been inspired by him all along and I’d always played Hendrix songs and I was trying to make the band more successful. When we started doing just the pure tribute to Hendrix, a lot of doors opened. And it’s all the stuff I loved doing. Getting paid for playing Hendrix. It’s don’t get no better.
Q: What guitar do you use?
Woodson: I’m right-handed and play the Strat upside down, like what Jimi did. He was left-handed and played the Strat upside down. So I just got a left, so I could look like him with all the controls up top. My tuning is the same. We tune down to E flat, that’s where most of the blues cats, they lived down there.
Q: Jimi used to thumb the frets to get a bass sound. Do you play that way.
Woodson: He had really big hands. If you even look at him if he’s standing up without the guitar, his hands make his arms look unnatural. But his hands are so big when he wraps them around a guitar it’s hard to look at him and see what he was doing because he’s doing a lot of stuff and his hand’s barely moving.
Q: So then how do you get his sound?
Woodson: The way I learned to play Jim Hendrix was to learn it by ear rather than by eye. I figured that out early, that I wouldn’t be able to look at him and figure out exactly what he was doing because he was left-handed and his hands were so big. It wasn’t just apples for apples to just look. So it did me a lot more good to just learn it by ear. I would actually see that I played stuff in a different position because I was trying to get the tone that he had got and it actually ended up sounding closer to what he did than if I had watched him.
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