Originally posted June 16, 2009
To this day, Jimi Hendrix remains an enigma to me. And that’s my fault, I suppose.
There’s no doubt about his prodigious talent; when one talks about great rock guitarists, his name is – and should be – one of the first to be laid on the table. (I’d also include Eric Clapton and Duane Allman among those first named; maybe Derek Trucks, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Who else?) But I never got into Hendrix when he was alive. At the time of his death in September 1970, I was still sifting through music that was much more accessible and less challenging: the Beatles, CSN&Y, Chicago.
And I didn’t really dig into Jimi’s music until I began collecting LPs seriously in the late 1980s. Over the years, I’ve gathered seven Hendrix albums, from 1967’s Are You Experienced? through Experience Hendrix, a 1997 two-LP anthology. (I have a couple of things on CD as well.) So I know the music – and I like most of it – but it never really brought along to me that “wow” factor that other listeners have told me about over the years. That doesn’t negate the brilliance of what Hendrix accomplished in a very short time; all it means is that when I put together a playlist of favorites, there are very few Hendrix songs that would show up: “Red House,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Little Wing” are the most likely.
I suppose that I might have heard Hendrix’ version of “All Along the Watchtower” when it was getting a little bit of airplay in 1968 (it went to No. 20 that autumn). I might have heard some Hendrix as I wandered the residence halls at St. Cloud State during my freshman year. But my first verifiable exposure to Hendrix’ work came in the spring of 1972 through a cover version of his song, “Little Wing.” Derek & the Dominos’ version of “Little Wing” was included on Clapton At His Best, a two-LP set that included highlights of the single Blind Faith album, Clapton’s first solo album and Layla.
That first hearing is probably one of the reasons why “Little Wing” remains one of my favorite Hendrix songs. Beyond familiarity, though, it’s a great song: It’s got a strong melody and chord structure, and the lyrics – enigmatic and evocative – are among the best that Hendrix ever put on paper. Here they are as presented on the inside cover of Axis: Bold As Love:
Well, she’s walking through the clouds,
With a circus mind that’s running wild,
Butterflies and Zebras,
And Moonbeams and fairy tales.
That’s all she ever thinks about.
Riding with the wind.
When I’m sad, she comes to me,
With a thousand smiles she gives to me free.
It’s alright, she says, it’s alright,
Take anything you want from me,
Fly on, little wing.
Of course, given the song’s quality, cover versions of “Little Wing” abound. All-Music Guide lists more than 300 CDs with a recording of the song. Maybe fifty of those include Hendrix’ version and another fifty include Derek & the Dominos version (or versions by Clapton), but that leaves a hefty number of cover versions by other performers. I can’t provide my customary rundown of some of the more interesting names on the AMG list, as the site is being balky this morning.
But here are a few of the cover versions of “Little Wing” I’ve come across over the years.
“Little Wing” by the Corrs from Unplugged 
“Little Wing” by Sanne Salomonsen from In A New York Minute 
“Little Wing” by Toots Thielemans & the London Metropolitan Orchestra from In From the Storm: Music of Jimi Hendrix 
The most familiar name there is no doubt that of the Corrs’, the Irish group that dances a line between Celtic folk and pop.
Salomonsen is a Danish performer who records in both Danish and English. The album, In A New York Minute, was a project that brought Salomonsen together with Danish-American jazz pianist Chris Minh Doky and his quartet for a series of largely improvised sessions. In addition, Doky brought along some friends and colleagues, including among them American alto saxophonist David Sanborn, American trumpeter and flugelhornist Randy Brecker and his brother, saxophonist Michael Brecker, American blues, jazz and rock guitarist Robben Ford and legendary Belgian guitarist and harmonica player Toots Thielemans. The album, which is out of print and quite pricey even used, is well worth a listen. “Little Wing” is one of the better performances.
As I was digging around for information about Salomonsen’s album last evening, I came across that reference to Thielemans, whom I’ve seen called many time the world’s greatest classical harmonica player. And then I found a reference to Thielemans’ own cover of “Little Wing,” which I’d never heard. I managed to find a copy, and I think the album from which it comes – which also includes performances by Buddy Miles, Taj Mahal and other folks – is going to end up on my want list.