Alan Douglas: Record producer whose 20-year tenure as curator of the Hendrix back catalogue proved highly contentious

 

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The name of the record producer Alan Douglas is familiar to millions of Jimi Hendrix aficionados, even if his 20-year tenure as curator of the guitarist's catalogue was controversial.

Many considered the approach Douglas employed when he hired session musicians to overdub parts and created the posthumous 1975 studio albums Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning to be sacrilegious, but both releases charted on both sides of the Atlantic and helped introduce the legendary musician to a new generation of listeners five years after his death.

In the 1980s Douglas oversaw the compilation of two Hendrix albums, Live At Winterland and Radio One (a collection of BBC sessions) that delighted connoisseurs and kept the Hendrix name in the public eye. The ownership of the Hendrix estate had always been convoluted and, when the guitarist's father Al and Jimi's adopted sister Janie gained control in 1995, Douglas became persona non grata. With the clock running down on previous agreements he oversaw superlative reissues of Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland, and assembled two more Hendrix albums, Blues and Voodoo Soup, which again divided opinion but reinvigorated interest.

He was not only a keeper of the Hendrix flame but played a similar role in preserving the legacy of the comedian Lenny Bruce. He also recorded many jazz greats including Art Blakey, Betty Carter, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Billie Holiday, Herbie Mann, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Wayne Shorter, published books by Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and the MC5 manager and White Panther activist John Sinclair, and produced inflammatory spoken word albums by Malcolm X as well as The Jazz Poets and Lightnin' Rod, who are now considered progenitors of the rap genre.

Born in Boston in 1931, he grew up listening to jazz and what were still called "race records". Following the failure of his first venture, Duchess Records, he moved to New York and briefly worked for Roulette Records, Morris Levy's mob-connected label, and at Phil Ramone's studio. A chance meeting with Eddie Barclay's second wife led to an A&R job for Barclay Records in Paris, where he followed in the footsteps of Quincy Jones, including assignments with Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, before returning to New York in 1962 to take charge of United Artists' new jazz department.

"I was given total freedom and better budgets than anyone else in town so I was able to do interesting things," he said. He teamed Ellington with Roach and Mingus for Money Jungle, a piano trio recording that became an influential post-bop classic. A restless character, in 1964 he helped launch FM Records, where he recorded Cass Elliot, then a member of The Big 3, a couple of years before the Mamas and the Papas, as well as the multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy.

He spent $5,000 acquiring a mountain of Bruce tapes from the late comedian's mother and came up with an imaginative, thematic way to complete The Essential Lenny Bruce book project which became a US bestseller. Douglas saw the wisdom in combining the written and the spoken word and captured the psychedelic zeitgeist with Leary's You Can Be Anyone This Time Around album in 1970. Not one given to modesty, Douglas called it "the first sampling record. We sampled from the Beatles and the Stones, which was on one side, and on the other we had Jimi Hendrix, Stephen Stills, Buddy Miles and John Sebastian. We dragged Timothy into the studio one evening and he rapped for 20 minutes while they played behind him. We became the underground record company."

Douglas operated at the vanguard of the counterculture and at the crossroads of many of its strands, a trait that appealed to Hendrix when they met in 1969, a few weeks after the guitarist closed the Woodstock festival.

"I was in the studio with Jimi in New York for three months. You couldn't produce Hendrix in the normal sense – he knew what he wanted to do – you could just be there for him, help him." He introduced Hendrix to Miles Davis. "Miles wanted to work with Jimi very badly. Jimi had the contemporary edge and Miles was always reaching out for that." A projected collaboration floundered when Davis and drummer Tony Williams each asked for $50,000.

Hendrix died in September 1970, the month Douglas issued Devotion, the album John McLaughlin made with Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles. "That was the first jazz-fusion record," said Douglas. Many feel Hendrix might have followed a similar jazz-fusion trajectory, and the Douglas-produced albums of the mid-'70s seemed built on that premise.

With original Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer and the Experience Hendrix team in charge of the archives, Crash Landing, Midnight Lightning, Nine To The Universe and Voodoo Soup, have disappeared from the catalogue, though Blues is still available.

Last year, Douglas and Peter Neal published an Hendrix biography, Starting At Zero: His Own Story. Douglas spent his last years in Paris, where he still regaled journalists with tales of Ellington and Hendrix.

PIERRE PERRONE

Alan Douglas, record producer: born Boston 20 July 1931; twice married; died Paris 7 June 2014.

Comments