Little Wing

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"Little Wing"
Song by the Jimi Hendrix Experience from the album Axis: Bold as Love
Released December 1, 1967 (1967-12-01) (UK)
January 15, 1968 (1968-01-15) (US)
Recorded Olympic Studios, London, October 25 & 28, 1967[1]
Genre Rock[2]
Length 2:26
Label Track (no. 613003) (UK)
Reprise (no. RS 6281) (US)
Writer Jimi Hendrix
Producer Chas Chandler

"Little Wing" is a song written by Jimi Hendrix and recorded by the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1967. It is slower tempo, rhythm and blues-inspired ballad featuring Hendrix's vocal and guitar with recording studio effects accompanied by bass, drums, and glockenspiel. Lyrically, it is one of several of his songs that reference an idealized feminine or guardian angel-like figure. At about two and a half minutes in length, it is one of his most concise and melodically-focused pieces.

The origins of "Little Wing" have been traced back to the 1966 recording of "(My Girl) She's a Fox", an R&B song which features Hendrix playing Curtis Mayfield-influenced guitar accompaniment. He developed the song while performing in New York City's Greenwich Village prior to his involvement with producer Chas Chandler. After being inspired by events at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Hendrix completed the song in October 1967, when it was recorded by the Experience during the sessions for their second album Axis: Bold as Love.

"Little Wing" was released with the Axis album in December 1967 in the UK and the following month in the US. As one of only two songs from the album to become part of the Experience's concert repertoire, the Experience often performed it live and recordings were issued on early Hendrix postumous albums Hendrix in the West in 1972 and The Jimi Hendrix Concerts in 1982. More recently, demo versions have been released as well as additional live renditions. "Little Wing" is one of Hendrix's most popular songs and has become a standard, with interpretations recorded by musicians in a variety of styles. It is ranked number 366 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time".

Background[edit]

Jimi Hendrix began his career as a rhythm and blues guitarist and performed and recorded with several popular R&B artists, including the Isley Brothers, Don Covay, and Little Richard. He learned from other R&B guitarists, including Curtis Mayfield, who was known for his understated rhythmic fills and chording.[3][4] Hendrix described touring as a support act with Mayfield in 1963: "The best gig was with Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Curtis was a really good guitarist... I learned a lot in that short time. He probably influenced me more than anyone I'd ever played with up to that time, that sweet sound of his, you know".[5] Authors Shapiro and Gleebeck have identified a song Hendrix recorded in 1966 with an R&B duo, the Icemen,[6] "(My Girl) She's a Fox", as "paced and phrased in the style of Curtis Mayfield, [that] is virtually a blueprint for 'Little Wing'".[7] Later Hendrix producer John McDermott called his contribution to "She's a Fox" (included on 2010's West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology) "perhaps the strongest of his pre-Experience career. Hendrix's Curtis Mayfield-influenced guitar styling is the song's strongest attribute".[8]

According to Hendrix, "Little Wing" came from an idea he had originally developed while playing in Greenwich Village, when he was fronting his band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in the summer of 1966.[9] He later explained that he was further inspired during the Experience's performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival:[10]

I got the idea like, when we were in Monterey and I was 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, somethin' like that, you know, and call it 'Little Wing', and then it will just fly away. Everybody's really flyin' and they’re really in a nice mood, like the police and everybody was really, 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, but I like it though.[11]

Recording and composition[edit]

In October 1967, recording sessions for Axis: Bold as Love began at Olympic Studios in London. On October 25, after recording the strongly R&B-oriented "Wait Until Tomorrow", the Experience recorded an instrumental version of "Little Wing". It followed the familiar arrangement, but was "considerably more aggressive than what would develop as the final master".[12][13] After another take in the same vein, Chandler called for a different approach. Recording engineer Eddie Kramer explained "Chas knew right away what was needed. He had Jimi slow the tempo down and try it again".[12] After the basic track was completed, Hendrix and Kramer recorded overdubs on October 28, 1967.[14] Hendrix's guitar tone was "a facet of his recordings that he took great care to perfect".[15] For his rhythm guitar, he had set his pickup selector between the neck and middle positions to achieve a "hollow" tone, sometimes mistakenly referred to as "out-of-phase".[16] However, for the lead, Kramer later fed the guitar signal through a makeshift Leslie speaker, which was normally used for electric organs.[14] By rotating the sound, Leslie speakers produce vibrato- and tremolo-like effects, i.e., a pulsing or quivering addition to the sound[17] Next, Hendrix added a straight ("dry, without any effects") glockenspiel to underscore his vocal and guitar.[18] According to Kramer, "Jimi always kept an eye out for odd instruments that would be laying about the studio" and found the glockenspiel in Studio A.[14] Last to be recorded was his vocal, which was treated with sound processing techniques to give it an airy sound. These have been variously described as artificial double tracking (ADT), phasing, Pultec filter equalization, and processing with a Leslie speaker.[18][19]

According to writer Harry Shapiro, "Musically, 'Little Wing' is structured to lay a gossamer touch across the whole song from the arresting opening statement and the haunting glockenspiel to the use of a Leslie speaker cabinet for the guitar".[11] It is based on a "gentle, soulful chord progression [which] guides the melody and is an accurate mirror of the title and lyrics".[20] The song has been notated in 4/4 time at a slow rock (70–72 beats per minute) tempo:[21][22]

Em G Am Em Bm–B Am–C G–Fadd9 C–D D–rest

After an instrumental introduction, there are two verses, followed by a guitar solo, which has been described as "richly melodic".[23] Shapiro commented on the song's brevity: "The song fades on a magical solo after only two minutes and twenty-five seconds. Even live, 'Little Wing' was hardly any longer — he said what he wanted to say and stopped".[11]

Hendrix's use of guitar chords for the song involves "unorthodox fretboard technique and finger positions".[23] Guitarist Frank Marino explained:

He had the tendency to play with his fingers very flat [on the guitar's fretboard], and he had a very long thumb, so he could come over the top of the neck to play bass notes. That left his fingers in a likely position to do all this chordal-type stuff. Playing with his fingers so flat also got him that double-string effect every time, like in 'Castles Made of Sand' or 'Little Wing". That's an R&B thing.[23]

A reference work by Hal Leonard compares it to a pianist's approach, with Hendrix's "thumb fret[ting] the bass notes, functioning in almost the same manner as a keyboardist's left hand, and the fingers of his fretting hand can be likened to a pianist's right hand... that [guitarist] Adrian Belew has called a 'lost art'".[24]

Lyrics and interpretation[edit]

In discussing his lyrics, Jimi Hendrix was characteristically enigmatic. In a 1967 interview, he explained "Most ballads come across in different ways. Sometimes you see things in different ways than other people see it. So then you write it in a song. It could represent anything".[9] In different interviews, he acknowledged an American Indian-influence on his songs "I Don't Live Today", "May This Be Love", and "Little Wing".[25] He stated that "Little Wing" is "based on a very, very simple Indian style",[11] which he felt was obvious (perhaps referring to some mythologies of the indigenous peoples of North America in which spirits inhabit nature and animals, including birds): "That's exactly what it's about, like 'She's walking through the clouds'",[25]

With a circus mind that's running around
Butterflies and zebras, and moonbeams and fairy tales
That's all she ever thinks about, riding with the wind

Music journalist Charles Shaar Murray likens the figure to a feminine ideal: "Sometimes she is a spirit, sometimes a fantasy, sometimes a woman as solidly, palpably physical as he is".[26] She first appears as "Waterfall" in "May This Be Love", where she offers solace and hope, and as "a soulful, loving sprite" in "Little Wing".[26] However, other writers have suggested that the figure is like the guardian angel associated with Christianity,[27][28] which is clearly what she represents in Hendrix's later song "Angel".[29] His hand-written lyrics for "Angel" (noted "Finished January 14, 1968") uses the title "My Angel Catherina (Return of Little Wing)", which suggests that he saw a connection between the two songs.[30] At the time, Hendrix had just finished a short tour of Scandinavia, where he had performed "Little Wing" in concert for the first time.[31] At some point he responded to a question, "Love? I know a girl, Katerina, in Sweden..."[32][33]

Releases and performances[edit]

"Little Wing", along with the rest of the tracks for Axis: Bold as Love, was mixed October 31, 1967. Because some of the masters had been lost, stereo remixes were prepared on November 1 (it is not clear if "Little Wing" was remixed).[34] On November 2, 1967, a monaural mix was prepared, making Axis the last Hendrix album specifically mixed in mono (subsequent mono albums were electronically "folded" from the stereo mixes).[34] When recording Engineer Kramer was preparing the album for a new mono reissue, he commented on the differences "Perhaps the most unique track was 'Little Wing'. Jimi's guitar and vocals were much drier while the drum reverb was much more present. It was experimentation... the entire [mono] album was all mixed in one day!".[35]

The album was issued by Track Records in the UK on December 1, 1967.[36] The Experience's American label Reprise Records held up its US release because of the December release of Get That Feeling, the Curtis Knight album on Capitol Records that was designed to look like a current Jimi Hendrix album.[37] Even when Reprise issued Axis on January 15, 1968, it was felt that its sales were hampered by the confusion caused by having two new albums in the stores in such a short time.[37] The song appears on subsequent reissues of Axis: Bold as Love, which continues to be a best selling Hendrix album.[38] It has also been included on numerous Hendrix compilation albums, including The Essential Jimi Hendrix, Stone Free, The Ultimate Experience, Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix, and Voodoo Child: The Jimi Hendrix Collection.[39]

"Little Wing" was one of only two songs from Axis that the Experience regularly performed in concert. Since the studio version of the song ends on a fade, they devised a different ending for their performances. Early recordings show a progression to an open chord, while later ones have more elaborate single-string guitar improvisation with effects, such as wah-wah, before a chiming final chord.[40] On January 8, 1968, the Experience debuted the song at the Konserthuset in Stockholm, Sweden, recordings of which have appeared on bootleg albums.[41] Other live versions appear on Stages: Paris 68 (L'Olympia Paris January 29, 1968), The Jimi Hendrix Concerts (Winterland Ballroom San Francisco October 12, 1968), and Hendrix in the West (Royal Albert Hall London February 24, 1969, although originally listed as San Diego Sports Arena).[42] These recordings have been reissued on Live in Paris & Ottawa 1968, Winterland, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience box set. The 1969 Royal Albert Hall live recording was included on singles issued in the UK and US in 1972.[42] A March 17, 1968 instrumental jam with Hendrix and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag is built around "Little Wing".[43] Hendrix recorded it for his personal use around the time he began recording tracks for Electric Ladyland at the Record Plant studio in New York. This low-fidelity tape from the Cafe au Go Go, along with others from the Generation Club and the Scene in New York, was later stolen from his apartment and has appeared on several bootleg albums over the years.[44]

Recognition and legacy[edit]

In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine included "Little Wing" on its list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" at number 366.[45] As one of Jimi Hendrix's most popular and interpreted songs, "Little Wing" has gone on to become a standard.[46][47] Examples of artists who have recorded it include:[48]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ A third recording date, October 31, 1967, has also been suggested. McDermott 2000, p. 28.
  2. ^ "'Little Wing' is so sad yet so hopeful, a ballad not of any particular category, yet blending perfectly between lyric and melody". Henderson 1981, p. 175.
  3. ^ Shapiro 1990, p. 68.
  4. ^ Other R&B guitar influences include in-demand session guitarist Cornell Dupree, with whom Hendrix shared guitar duties while touring with King Curtis in 1966 (Black 1999, p. 39.) and Steve Cropper with Stax Records/Booker T. & the M.G.'s.
  5. ^ Roby 2010, p. 61.
  6. ^ "(My Girl) She's a Fox" was written by brothers Richard and Robert Poindexter, who later wrote "Thin Line Between Love and Hate".
  7. ^ Shapiro 1990, p. 77.
  8. ^ McDermott 2009, pp. 16–17.
  9. ^ a b McDermott 1995, p. 42.
  10. ^ Underground chemist Owsley Stanley, who perfected the mass production of LSD before it was made illegal, was present "freely handing out LSD to musicians backstage". Hendrix was surprised to learn that the purple tabs had been nicknamed "purple haze" by some after his song. Cross 2005, p. 191.
  11. ^ a b c d Shapiro 1990, pp. 224–225.
  12. ^ a b McDermott 2000, p. 28.
  13. ^ On October 14 or 15, 1967, Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell recorded an early instrumental demo which was apparently labeled "Little Wing" on the tape box, although Hendrix biographer Keith Shadwick claims that it was a mistake, because of its much closer resemblance to Hendrix's later song "Angel". Shadwick 2003, p. 127.
  14. ^ a b c McDermott 2009, p. 74.
  15. ^ McDermott 2009, p. 72.
  16. ^ Shadwick 2003, p. 247.
  17. ^ Hendrix later popularized the use of the Univibe phase shifter effects pedal to get a roughly similar effect. Ogunjobi 2008, pp. 110–111.
  18. ^ a b McDermott 1992, p. 95.
  19. ^ Shaprio 1990, p. 531.
  20. ^ Greenwald, Matthew. "Little Wing — Song Review". AllMusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved March 25, 2014. 
  21. ^ "Little Wing by Jimi Hendrix". Musicnotes.com. Alfred Publishing Co. Inc. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  22. ^ As with most Hendrix songs, his guitar is tuned down one-half step, resulting in a lower pitch. Hal Leonard 1998, p. 133.
  23. ^ a b c Shadwick 2003, p. 128.
  24. ^ Hal Leonard Corporation 1998, p. 133.
  25. ^ a b McDermott 1992, p. 191.
  26. ^ a b Murray 1989, p. 74.
  27. ^ Ogunjobi 2008, p. 110–111.
  28. ^ Henderson 1981, p. 175.
  29. ^ "Angel" was issued as a single and on the album Cry of Love six months after his death. Shapiro 1990, p. 540.
  30. ^ McDermott 2009, p. 71.
  31. ^ McDermott 2009, p. 86.
  32. ^ Fairchild 1991, p. 6.
  33. ^ Hendrix's brother Leon saw "Little Wing" (and "Angel") as a general tribute, "He wrote it for his girlfriends, our aunties, and especially for our mama, who looked over us from high above in the afterlife". Hendrix, Leon 2012, pp. 219–220. Biographer Charles R. Cross' sometimes controversial Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix includes an unreferenced statement that "He [Hendrix] later told his brother Leon that both songs were about their mother, Lucille" (Cross 2005, p. 206); however, this is not mentioned in Leon's biography.
  34. ^ a b McDermott 2009, p. 76.
  35. ^ Roby 2002, p. 80.
  36. ^ McDermott 2009, p. 79.
  37. ^ a b McDermott 2009, p. 86.
  38. ^ "Jimi Hendrix — Awards". Allmusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved February 25, 2014. 
  39. ^ "Jimi Hendrix Little Wing — Appears On". AllMusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved March 30, 2014. 
  40. ^ Shadwick 2003, p. 140.
  41. ^ Belmo 1998, p. 359.
  42. ^ a b Shapiro 1990, pp. 523–562
  43. ^ Shapiro 1990, pp. 596–597.
  44. ^ Shadwick 2003, pp. 144–146.
  45. ^ "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone (963). December 9, 2004. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  46. ^ McDermott 1997, p. 4.
  47. ^ Fahey 1997, p. 11.
  48. ^ "Song search results for 'Little Wing'". AllMusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved March 25, 2014. 

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