Posts Tagged ‘London Metropolitan Orchestra’

‘Riding With The Wind . . .’

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

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,

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.