Jimi, Miles, Paul & Tony: The Supergroup That Never Was
June 16, 2017
At first, though, it sounds really weird and off the wall. But on second thought it makes perfect, Hendrix-type sense to chuck in someone who's a great musician but comes from a different tradition," said Hendrix biographer Charles Shaar Murray. "I regret this never actually took place. … it would have been magnificent.
Jimi, Miles. Paul, and Tony. They never had a name and they never recorded together but it came close to happening in 1970. By the time negotiations had begun, Jimi Hendrix had died—suddenly and tragically. Paul McCartney is the only musician who was to be part of what would have been a memorable collaboration who is still among the living as of June 16, 2017.
Paul was the only one among them that could be considered a straight-up pop star. Hendrix was in a category all his own. He was an innovative, genre-busting guitarist who wrote many of his own songs, including “Purple Haze” and “Are You Experienced” that sounded like nothing that came before. Although he was influenced to write and perform his own songs by Bob Dylan’s example, his roots were in blues and R & B.
In his all too brief career, he was already noted for adding his own innovative touch to the songs he periodically covered, most famously Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and “like a Rolling Stone,” and “The Drifter’s Escape.” He took music he loved and made it his own. Dylan was so taken with Hendrix’s interpretation of “Watchtower” that after hearing it, he revised his own bare bones version and adopted Jimi’s hard-driving rock arrangement. It was likely something Hendrix would have continued doing throughout his career had he lived. Hendrix was an enthusiastic Dylan fan from the time he first heard his unconventional songs. Dylan instantly became a major Hendrix admirer after hearing his exhilarating, no holds barred recordings of his songs.
Miles Davis also had been impressed by Hendrix. He told us in his 1990 autobiography that he sometimes had jammed with Hendrix at his New York apartment and only time and constant touring prevented him from entering the studio to record with him. Hendrix biographer Charles Shaar Murray said that Miles sought $50,000 up front for joining a Hendrix session. Davis and his arranger Gil Evans were reportedly in Europe planning to record with Hendrix at the time of the young guitarist's death in London. Miles wondered why no one had ever told Hendrix that booze and sleeping pills don't mix.
Davis and Hendrix had met with each other several times and jammed and talked about what they might do together. Davis loved what Hendrix was beginning to add to his music and was amazed to learn that had no musical training and hadn’t studied music theory. Davis felt it was a necessary part of being a great musician. He gave Hendrix several lessons in how music theory worked to enhance the range of possibilities open to a trained composer and thought that Jimi was enthusiastic and responsive. They became eager to record together and according to Miles, it unquestionably would have happened if Hendrix hadn't died before it could occur.
The most surprising part of their plan was that they wanted Paul McCartney to join them on bass. Tony Williams, the most exciting drummer in jazz at the time was to play drums with the new ensemble. Had McCartney accepted their invitation, it would have been an explosive collaboration.
The two of them eventually sent McCartney a telegram asking him to call their producer, Alan Douglas, to discuss recording with them and Tony Williams in the studio. McCartney was on vacation at the time and either never got the telegram or didn’t take it seriously enough to respond promptly.
The telegram read:
"We are recording and LP together this weekend. How about coming in to play bass stop call Alvan [a typographical error] Douglas 212-5812212. Peace Jimi Hendrix Miles Davis Tony Williams."
The telegram is now part of the Hard Rock Cafe music memorabilia collection in Prague, Czech Republic. Hard Rock historian Jeff Nolan notes: "Major Hendrix connoisseurs are aware of the telegram. It would have been one of the most insane supergroups."
Hendrix biographer Charles Shaar Murray told the Associated Press: "At first it sounds really weird and off the wall. But on second thought it makes perfect, Hendrix-type sense to chuck in someone who's a great musician but comes from a different tradition. I regret this never actually took place . . . it would have been magnificent."
Had McCartney gotten back to them the history of music in the 20th century would have added a new, astonishing chapter. But it was a time when The Beatles were falling apart and Sir Paul obviously had a lot on his mind at the time.
Tony Williams, sadly, died at 51 from a heart attack, following what should have been routine gall bladder surgery. The lesser known of the four, he is remembered today as a major figure in jazz history. The time he spent as Davis’s drummer produced some of best music the leader of the Miles Davis Quintet ever performed and recorded. Along with his bandmates, Williams took group improvisation further than it had gone before, developing structural improvisations that made the form of a tune seem immaterial to the music. Even now, his playing is still remembered for its daring. His ability to listen closely, to hear things others missed, and add to the musical dialog, was unmatched. He had been only 17 when Davis recruited him for his band.
Hendrix once recalled in Starting at Zero: His Own Story that when he was 17, he “formed this group with some other guys, but they drowned me out. I didn't know why at first, but after about three months I realized I needed an electric guitar to be heard above the noise. My first was a Danelectro, which my dad bought for me. Must have busted him for a long time. But I had to show him I could play first. In those days, I just liked rock'n'roll, I guess. We used to play stuff by people like the Coasters. Anyway, you all had to do the same things before you could join a band. You even had to do the same steps. I started looking around for places to play. I remember my first gig was at an armory, a National Guard place, and we earned 35 cents apiece and three hamburgers. It was so hard for me at first. I knew about three songs, and when it was time for us to play onstage I was all shaky, so I had to play behind the curtains.”
He already knew that this was only an apprenticeship and he was restless enough to begin listening and learning very quickly to other kinds of music, eventually going his own way. “If you stick with it you're going to be rewarded. If you're very stubborn you can make it.”
In 1966, he moved to England, where he felt that he could add something new to the emerging rock and roll scene that was taking the world by storm. Chas Chandler of The Animals had connections Hendrix didn’t have and helped him find a bassist and drummer to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience. “It was very hard to find the right sidemen, people who were feeling the same as me.”
In 1967, Paul McCartney got them into the line-up for Monterey Pop Festival, which was filmed by D.A. Pennebaker, the now legendary documentary filmmaker who had his breakthrough with Don’t Look Back, which introduced Bob Dylan to a wide audience that reached far beyond his folk music fan base. The resulting film made Jimi Hendrix a major rock star and paved the way for his later appearance at Woodstock, where his rock version of the national anthem made him into a media sensation. But Hendrix remained restless. He kept searching for ways of taking his music to new, uncharted places.
As Hendrix recalled, “When I was in Britain I used to think about America every day. I'm American. I wanted people here to see me. I also wanted to see whether we could make it back here. And we made it, man, because we did our own thing, and it really was our own thing and nobody else's. We had our beautiful rock-blues-country-funky-freaky sound, and it was really turning people on. I felt like we were turning the whole world on to this new thing, the best, most lovely new thing. So, I decided to destroy my guitar at the end of the song as a sacrifice. You sacrifice things you love. I love my guitar.”
He was always looking ahead. “My initial success was a step in the right direction, but it was only a step. Now I plan to get into many other things. I'd like to take a six-month break and go to a school of music. I want to learn to read music, be a model student and study and think. I'm tired of trying to write stuff down and finding I can't. I want a big band. I don't mean three harps and 14 violins – I mean a big band full of competent musicians that I can conduct and write for.”
The supergroup idea was a logical next step. “I want to be part of a big new musical expansion. That's why I have to find a new outlet for my music. We are going to stand still for a while and gather everything we've learned musically in the last 30 years, and we are going to blend all the ideas that worked into a new form of classical music. It's going to be something that will open up a new sense in people's minds.”
At the time, the “supergroup was being contemplated, Davis was looking for a new direction, too. He was getting some distance from jazz and moving toward a new fusion-based sound.
Jimi was also ready for something new and different. It wasn’t a career move but one that he hoped would give him the admiration of the musicians he admired and looked up to. "I don't want to be a clown anymore. I don't want to be a 'rock and roll star.”
How would the projected supergroup have sounded? Davis was trying out his new jazz fusion approach that resulted in Bitches Brew but he was also talking to Gil Evans about doing arrangements for the session; Evans was the classically trained producer behind one of Miles Davis’s most enduring recordings, the controlled and sublime Sketches of Spain. McCartney yearned to be known as something more than just a pop hitmaker and later tried his hand at classical composition. Tony Williams would have been the anchor but one who was an innovative, musical drummer who could make other musicians work together with less friction. They would have been a team, not a collection of unrestrained egos. Hendrix knew how to write and play guitar that was like a controlled fire. The parts of the whole would not only be greater than the sum of their parts but would have very likely to have created a sound we would still be listening to today.