‘Riding With The Wind . . .’

When Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing” first showed up in 1967, it was as an album track on Axis: Bold as Love, tucked near the end of Side One, almost seeming an afterthought between “Ain’t No Telling” and “If 6 was 9.”

Well, she’s walking through the clouds,
With a circus smile running wild,
Butterflies and rubies,
And moonbeams and fairy tales.
That’s all she ever thinks about.
Riding with the wind.

Lord when I’m sad, she comes to me,
With a thousand smiles she gives to me free.
It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright
Take anything you want from me,
Anything.

Fly on, Little Wing.
(Anything you want . . .)

“Hendrix,” says William Ruhlman of All-Music Guide, “originally developed the lovely guitar pattern that serves as the basis of the song while playing in Greenwich Village in 1966 and finished it in the fall of 1967 in time to record it for his second album. Playing the guitar through a Leslie organ speaker, he emphasized its melodic appeal, adding lyrics that paid tribute to a generous, if somewhat ethereal female who might as easily be a child or an angel as a woman.”

The track today sounds as if it would have been a perfect single to pull from Axis: Bold as Love, but it seems that the only single released from the album was “Up From the Skies” b/w “One Rain Wish,” which spent four weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 82. The A-Side of that one sounds like a science fiction/fantasy shuffle and it has some elegant wah-wah guitar, but – with, as always, the benefit of hindsight – I have a sense that “Little Wing” might have done better on the chart.

As it was, the song seems to have been pretty much ignored until Eric Clapton brought it to life during the sessions for  Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs in September of 1970 (just nine days before Hendrix’ death). Adding what Ruhlman correctly describes as “a majestic opening riff,” Clapton, Duane Allman and the rest of  Derek & the Dominoes recast “Little Wing” from Hendrix’ semi-mystical musings to – in keeping with the rest of the album – a tale of love gone awry.

But amid the riches of Layla, even an iconic performance of “Little Wing” didn’t merit a single. The track wound up as the B-Side of Polydor 15056, with “Bell Bottom Blues” as the A-Side.

(The 1973 Polydor release of “Bell Bottom Blues” is notated by Joel Whitburn in Top Pop Singles as “longer version,” leading me to believe that the Atco single released two years earlier must have been an edit. The Polydor single was in the Hot 100 for four weeks and went to No. 78; the 1971 Atco single – with “Keep On Growing” as the B-Side – stayed in the chart two weeks and peaked at No. 91.)

The Polydor single, I have to assume, was the result of Polydor releasing in early 1972 the anthology Clapton At His Best at about the same time as Atco released The History of Eric Clapton. At the time, I opted for the Polydor set – I wrote about its influence on my life as a music fan some years ago – because it was the first of the two that I found.

(Though both of those anthologies have been supplanted by releases like the Crossroads box set and more, it’s still interesting to compare the tracks included: The Atco draws heavily on Clapton’s time with the Yardbirds, John Mayalls’s Bluesbreakers and Cream, then touches on Blind Faith and Clapton as studio musician. It also covers Clapton’s time as one of Delaney & Bonnie’s friends and finally offers the title track from the Layla album. The Polydor collection pulls much of its material from Layla and Clapton’s ensuing self-titled solo album, with two tracks from Blind Faith and nothing from the years before.)

On that Polydor album, “Little Wing” announces itself after the jam that ends “Keep On Growing,” and the first time it did so in our basement rec room, it caught my attention completely. Because of repeated listening to the Polydor anthology over the years, the track still seems to me to belong there – after “Keep On Growing” and before “Presence Of The Lord” – more than it does leading off Side Four of the vinyl configuration of Layla or being tucked between “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and “It’s Too Late” on the Layla CD. Wherever one finds it, however, the track is brilliant.

What got me thinking about “Little Wing” this week was a cover version. A while back, the Texas Gal and I went down to one of the local sales lots and bought a 2004 or so Chevy Cavalier to replace the 1998 Nissan that I had been driving into the dust. For practical reasons, she adopted the Cavalier and handed off to me our 2007 Nissan Versa. Besides having a driver’s side window that works, the greatest benefit of driving the Versa is that it has a CD player. So I spent several evenings a couple months ago ripping CDs of pretty much random stuff pulled from the mp3s. Among them, as it turned out, was an intriguing cover of “Little Wing” by famed harmonica player Toots Thielemans & the London Metropolitan Orchestra.

It’s not the only cover version of “Little Wing,” of course. A quick look at listings at AMG show versions by Sting, the Corrs, Danish singer Sanne Salomonsen, Concrete Blonde, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gil Evans and numerous others. But I thought the Thielemans version – which I found on In From The Storm, a 1995 collection that offers cover versions of twelve of Hendrix’ songs – was worth a listen this morning.

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4 Responses to “‘Riding With The Wind . . .’”

  1. porky says:

    “……originally developed the lovely guitar pattern that serves as the basis of the song”……. after listening to many of Curtis Mayfield’s records.

    Just my two cents.

  2. Paco Malo says:

    My favorite cover is not the Derek and the Dominoes version, but rather Stevie Ray Vaugh’s studio version that turns it into a jazz/blues fusion masterpiece. I’ve spent more money in jukeboxes turning people on to this cut than any other record — except one Son House number.

    Thanks for all the new information to add to my already large database. Jimi as a songwriter has never been fully appreciated — not then, not now. But you’re helpin’ bro’.

  3. Yah Shure says:

    Correct you are: both “Bell Bottom Blues (15056, billed as “Eric Clapton” ) and its predecessor, “Let It Rain (15049) were issued as singles by Polydor to promote ‘Clapton At His Best.’ The Polydor “Bell Bottom” was the unedited 5:01 track, versus the Atco 45’s 3:10 length, which suffered from a too-abrupt, quickie fade. Atco would probably have been better served both by editing the track to incorporate the cold ending and by having issued it as the “Layla” follow-up, rather than as the album’s lead-off single.

    “Little Wing” was unedited (5:32) on the B-side of the Polydor “Bell Bottom” 45.

    I’ll give Atco bonus points for making their ‘History Of Eric Clapton’ compilation true to its title, by licensing tracks from RCA, Elektra, London and Giorgio Gomelsky. Of particular interest at the time was its inclusion of the Phil Spector-produced version of Derek & The Dominos’ “Tell The Truth” on Atco 6780, which had been quickly withdrawn after release in 1970. By contrast, the material on the Polydor ‘Clapton At His Best’ compilation was still in print on Atco at the time of its release
    (although that would change when distribution of Robert Stigwood’s catalog moved from Atlantic over to Polydor in 1973.)

    As much as I would have liked to have seen “Little Wing” issued as an A-side by either Jimi or D&TD (or both) I don’t think it would have generated a significant amount of AM airplay.

  4. Paco Malo says:

    I’ve heard Tom Dowd, in an interview, say that he sat around for 6 months scratching his head after “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” was released — mystified how it could take this good a record half a year to catch fire. Part of the problem with the double album was it coundn’t find its audienc. “Bell Bottom Blues” gave no clue as to the fireworks inside and “Layla” was too long and un-cutable . But with “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who, these two tracks began the crumble and death of the 3:35 maximum length radio-playable album track. As Steely Dan said, “F.M.”

    In “The Layla Sessions: 20th Anniversary Edition” (1990) box set, the disc of 5 long jams is the magic wonder and the liner notes with selected Track Identification Charts are amazing. An essential for any Derek and the Dominoes fan.

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