There are certain songs that just seem fated to enter into existence and the moody jams of ‘Voodoo Chile’ / ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return) are among the best of them. The two variations on a theme bristle with brilliant musicianship and a sauntering bluesy attitude. What’s more, they were almost spawned out of necessity.
As Jimi Hendrix’s manager, Chas Chandler explains, “As time went on., they were less and less prepared for the studio. By the time they got to Electric Ladyland they weren’t as prepared, by halfway through Electric Ladyland, numbers that they had worked on had ran out.”
However, for a guitarist as inventive as Hendrix, this was hardly that stressing, as he once again proved he could churn out riffs like a well-serviced rock machine. Electric Ladyland was Hendrix’s third studio album, and as it would turn out, also his last. It was also an undoubted masterpiece and ‘Voodoo Chile’ / ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return) are two tracks that permeate the record with spontaneous energy. As bassist Noel Redding recalled, “There were tons of people in the studio, you couldn’t move. It was a party, not a session.”
Sound engineer Eddie Kramer was one of those partiers in attendance and he explains how the legendary tracks came about. “This track [Voodoo Child] was created, the way Jimi conceived of it was to say ‘look I want to jam’ but I know the guys I want to pay this.” In a stroke of luck, those guys just happened to be playing a club called The Scene just around the corner for the Record Plant studio in New York where most of the album was recorded.
“Jimi went up the scene one night,” Kramer adds, “and wouldn’t you know Steve Winwood is there, Jack Cassidy is there, and Jimi is sitting there listening thinking, ‘yeah, I think I can get these guys to play this track.’ He really had this preconceived notion, once again Jimi’s vision was very clear, I want this jam, but it’s got to be done in a very specific way.”
Thus, Winwood was whisked away from The Scene to play the keyboard on the juicy jam and layer the track with more atmosphere than mars. “[Jimi] loved Steve Winwood,” Kramer goes on, “and he’d often said, ‘Jeez, I’d love to have Steve Winwood in my band’, and here he is playing,” in what was a dream come true for Hendrix and no doubt Winwood too.
The duo clearly vibes off each other and we are the benefactors of that energy. As Kramer adds, “[Winwood] is so much in the head of Jimi Hendrix. In the sense that they complimented each other. When they play off of each other, it’s just a magnificent thing. It’s a conversation of two musical giants.”
Following the spaced-out jam of ‘Voodoo Chile’ Chas Chandler produced the rather more immediate and potent variation on the riff with ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’. With it, the band provided one of the greatest album closers of all time. Electric Ladyland is a study of what the guitar is capable of, and ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ is its closing statement in the court of musical achievement.
There is no point in technical proficiency if it doesn’t sound good or offer a glimpse of soul, and with this iconic riff, Jimi Hendrix shines through with more style and skill than a Vorsprung Durch Technik reinvention of Jean-Paul Belmondo. Both tracks are masterpieces, and this story of their spontaneity only adds to their hazy brilliance.