Little Wing – Jimi Hendrix //
Little Wing” is a song written by Jimi Hendrix and recorded by the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1967. It is a slower tempo, rhythm and blues-inspired ballad featuring Hendrix’s vocal and guitar with recording studio effects accompanied by bass, drums, and glockenspiel. Lyrically, it is one of several of his songs that reference an idealized feminine or guardian angel-like figure. At about two and a half minutes in length, it is one of his most concise and melodically-focused pieces.
The origins of “Little Wing” have been traced back to the 1966 recording of “(My Girl) She’s a Fox”, an R&B song which features Hendrix playing Curtis Mayfield-influenced guitar accompaniment. He developed the song while performing in New York City’s Greenwich Village prior to his involvement with producer Chas Chandler. After being inspired by events at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Hendrix completed the song in October 1967, when it was recorded by the Experience during the sessions for their second album Axis: Bold as Love.
“Little Wing” was released with the Axis album in December 1967 in the UK and the following month in the US. As one of only two songs from the album to become part of the Experience’s concert repertoire, the Experience often performed it live and recordings were issued on early Hendrix posthumous albums Hendrix in the West in 1972 and The Jimi Hendrix Concerts in 1982. More recently, demo versions have been released as well as additional live renditions. “Little Wing” is one of Hendrix’s most popular songs and has become a standard, with interpretations recorded by musicians in a variety of styles. It is ranked number 366 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
Jimi Hendrix began his career as a rhythm and blues guitarist and performed and recorded with several popular R&B artists, including the Isley Brothers, Don Covay, and Little Richard. He learned from other R&B guitarists, including Curtis Mayfield, who was known for his understated rhythmic fills and chording. Hendrix toured as a support act with Mayfield in 1963. He described the experience: “The best gig was with Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Curtis was a really good guitarist … I learned a lot in that short time. He probably influenced me more than anyone I’d ever played with up to that time, that sweet sound of his, you know”. In 1966, Hendrix recorded a song titled “(My Girl) She’s a Fox” with the Icemen, an R&B duo. Hendrix biographer Harry Shapiro has described it as “paced and phrased in the style of Curtis Mayfield, [that] is virtually a blueprint for ‘Little Wing'”. Later Hendrix producer John McDermott called his contribution to “She’s a Fox” (included on the 2010 West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology) “perhaps the strongest of his pre-Experience career. Hendrix’s Curtis Mayfield-influenced guitar styling is the song’s strongest attribute”.
According to Hendrix, “Little Wing” came from an idea he had originally developed while playing in Greenwich Village, when he was fronting his band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in the summer of 1966. He later explained that he was further inspired during the Experience’s performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival
I got the idea like, when we were in Monterey and I was just looking at everything around. So I figured that I take everything I see around and put it maybe in the form of a girl maybe, somethin’ like that, you know, and call it ‘Little Wing’, and then it will just fly away. Everybody’s really flyin’ and they’re really in a nice mood, like the police and everybody was really, really great out there. So I just took all these things an put them in one very, very small little matchbox, you know, into a girl and then do it. It was very simple, but I like it though.
Jimi Hendrix Experience promotional photo circa 1968
In October 1967, recording sessions for the second Jimi Hendrix Experience album Axis: Bold as Love began at Olympic Studios in London. On October 25, after recording the strongly R&B-oriented “Wait Until Tomorrow”, the Experience recorded an instrumental version of “Little Wing”. It followed the same chord progression as the later master recording, but had a more forceful rock feel. After another take in the same vein, Chandler called for a different approach. Recording engineer Eddie Kramer explained, “Chas knew right away what was needed. He had Jimi slow the tempo down and try it again”. After the basic track was completed, Hendrix and Kramer recorded overdubs on October 28, 1967. For his recordings, Hendrix expended considerable effort to achieve the optimal tone for his guitar tracks. For his rhythm guitar, he had set his pickup selector to a nonstandard position between the neck and middle settings to achieve a “hollow” tone, sometimes mistakenly referred to as “out-of-phase”. However, for the lead, Kramer later fed the guitar signal through a makeshift Leslie speaker, which was normally used for electric organs. By rotating the sound, Leslie speakers produce vibrato- and tremolo-like effects, i.e., a pulsing or quivering addition to the sound (Hendrix later popularized the use of the Univibe phase shifter effects pedal, which can be set to get a roughly similar effect). Next, Hendrix added a straight (“dry, without any effects”) glockenspiel to underscore his vocal and guitar.According to Kramer, “Jimi always kept an eye out for odd instruments that would be lying about the studio” and found the glockenspiel in Studio A. Last to be recorded was his vocal, which was treated with sound processing techniques to give it an airy sound. These have been variously described as artificial double tracking, phasing, Pultec filter equalization, and processing with a Leslie speaker.
Regarding the song’s arrangement, Shapiro commented, “Musically, ‘Little Wing’ is structured to lay a gossamer touch across the whole song from the arresting opening statement and the haunting glockenspiel to the use of a Leslie speaker cabinet for the guitar”. According to AllMusic’s Matthew Greenwald, it is based on a “gentle, soulful chord progression [which] guides the melody and is an accurate mirror of the title and lyrics”. The song has been notated in 4
4 time with one bar in 2
4 at a slow rock (70–72 beats per minute) tempo and is built on a chord progression without a bridge section.
Em G Am Em Bm–B♭ Am–C G–Fadd9 2
4 C 4
After an instrumental introduction, there are two verses, followed by a guitar solo, which has been described as “richly melodic” by biographer Keith Shadwick. Shapiro noted the song’s brevity: “The song fades on a magical solo after only two minutes and twenty-five seconds. Even live, ‘Little Wing’ was hardly any longer – he said what he wanted to say and stopped”.
Hendrix’s use of guitar chords for the song involves unconventional finger positions and approach to the fretboard.[ Guitarist Frank Marino explained:
He had the tendency to play with his fingers very flat [on the guitar’s fretboard], and he had a very long thumb, so he could come over the top of the neck to play bass notes. That left his fingers in a likely position to do all this chordal-type stuff. Playing with his fingers so flat also got him that double-string effect every time, like in ‘Castles Made of Sand’ or ‘Little Wing”. That’s an R&B thing.
A reference work by Hal Leonard compares it to a pianist’s approach, with Hendrix’s “thumb fret[ting] the bass notes, functioning in almost the same manner as a keyboardist’s left hand, and the fingers of his fretting hand can be likened to a pianist’s right hand”.Leonard also adds that guitarist Adrian Belew describes the technique as a “lost art”.
Lyrics and interpretation
In discussing his lyrics, Jimi Hendrix was characteristically enigmatic. In a 1967 interview, he explained “Most ballads come across in different ways. Sometimes you see things in different ways than other people see it. So then you write it in a song. It could represent anything”. In different interviews, he acknowledged an American Indian-influence on his songs “I Don’t Live Today”, “May This Be Love”, and “Little Wing”.He described “Little Wing” as being “based on a very, very simple Indian style”,perhaps referring to some Native American mythologies in which spirits inhabit nature and animals, including birds. In one interview, he saw it as self-explanatory: “That’s exactly what it’s about, like ‘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.
Music journalist Charles Shaar Murray likens the figure to a feminine ideal: “Sometimes she is a spirit, sometimes a fantasy, sometimes a woman as solidly, palpably physical as he is”.The figure first appears as “Waterfall” in “May This Be Love”, where she offers solace and hope, and as “a soulful, loving sprite” in “Little Wing”. However, other writers have suggested that the figure is similar to the guardian angel associated with Christianity, which is clearly what she represents in Hendrix’s later song “Angel”.Hendrix’s brother, Leon, interpreted “Little Wing” (and “Angel”) as a general tribute: “He wrote it for his girlfriends, our aunties, and especially for our mama, who looked over us from high above in the afterlife”. Hendrix’s hand-written lyrics for “Angel” (with the note, “Finished January 14, 1968”) use the title “My Angel Catherina (Return of Little Wing)”, which suggests that he saw a connection between the two songs. At the time, Hendrix had just finished a short tour of Scandinavia, where he had performed “Little Wing” in concert for the first time. At some point he responded to a question, “Love? I know a girl, Katerina, in Sweden.” In a later 1969 interview, Hendrix described his relationships while he was on tour: “So like ‘Little Wing’ is like one of these beautiful girls that come around sometimes … She was a very sweet girl that came around that gave me her whole life and more if I wanted it. And me with my crazy ass couldn’t get it together, so I’m off here and there and off over there.”