Curtis Knight’s Wikipedia page claims that he was born in 1945, but one has to wonder if he gave a later birthdate at some point in his life to seem younger. He was part of a late 1950’s Harlem Doo Wop group called The Titans—that act was featured in the 1957 Hollywood Rock and Roll cash-in Bob Girl Goes Calypso. Here’s “So Hard to Love, So Easy to Cry.”
Very, very solid work. That was Charles Wright singing lead, with Curtis Knight as second tenor. Now, it was a common thing for Doo Wop groups to have teenaged members, but it’s hard to believe that anyone in this group is twelve years old. Whatever his age, Curtis wasn’t about to let the eventual decline of Doo Wop’s popularity hold him back. Here he is as a solo artist in 1961, with the moody “Voodoo Woman.”
A little more sophisticated than the typical Top 40 number, what with the additions of the glockenspiel and the gong. Things got interesting for Knight by the end of 1964, when he saw a young guitarist playing in Greenwich Village and was blown away. He’ was young, but had already toured with the likes of Wilson Picket and Little Richard. Here he is backing up Buddy and Stacey, who had opened for Little Richard on that particular tour.
Yup. Jimi Hendrix. An able sideman in his early days, Jimi was eager to stretch out and develop his own sound. Knight saw Jimi’s potential and asked him to join his group, the Squires—he accepted.
1966’s “Hornet’s Nest” is an instrumental number that only features the Squires; Curtis is nowhere to be found on the track. For the first time, Jimmy received credit as one of the composers of a song. Special mention has to go out to the hot rhythm section of Napoleon Anderson on bass and Marion Booker on drums.
This early version of “Driving South” shows how willing Knight was to step aside and let Jimi do his thing, even encouraging him to sing for the song’s opening. Then Curtis takes over on vocals, but still leaves plenty of room for Jimi to go off. When he says ”He’s doin’ it with his teeth, y’all! He’s doin’ it with his teeth, y’all! Eat that guitar! Eat it! Eat it!” you can hear two things in his voice: the enthusiasm of a ringleader introducing the most amazing act in the circus, and the pride of someone who had helped encourage the talent of a true genius.
And that’s the rub. Knight encouraged Jimi to stretch musically, and most reports say that they were good friends. But not long after the recording session that gave us Hornet’s Nest, Jimi was approached by Chas Chandler and asked to let him be his manager. Jimi saw the potential for bigger things and a chance to start over in a new direction in a new place, so he and Chas took off for London. Soon The Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed, and the sound—an intriguing fusion of different styles even with Curtis Knight and The Squires—became at once heavier and more psychedelically influenced.
The British loved Jimi. He played to packed houses. Beatles and Stones and Yardbirds all rushed to see him perform and knew they’d have to up their game. By the summer of 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience had made an incredible stateside debut at the Monterey Pop festival and was about to embark on an ill-fated tour opening for The Monkees. The time in between was spent in New York City and Jimi called up his old friend Curtis to join him in a couple of jam sessions. Here they are on “Happy Birthday.” Yes, that’s the bassline that the Beastie Boys used for “Jimmy James,” which was actually one of the names Jimi went by in his early days. Note the use of the opening blast of “Foxy Lady” just before the scratching kicks in.
The weird thing about “Happy Birthday” is that Curtis played tambourine in that session but added his vocals later. Why? Because the producer was Ed Chalpin, Jimi’s former manager. He would later sue Jimi for having changed management with no notice or compensation, and he released a number of these songs as unofficial Jimi Hendrix releases while the suit was pending. Curtis Knight was his primary witness, supposedly.
Which brings us to the 45 in question. It was released after Jimi’s death in 1970, but the instrumental track had been recorded in the second of those two 1967 jam sessions. Once again, Curtis played tambourine, but the vocals were added later, clearly meant as a tribute to his lost friend. Here’s “The Ballad of Jimi.”
The B side, “Gloomy Monday,” was actually one of the few songs that Curtis did sing during those sessions. Can’t tell if that’s Jimi joining Curtis on the backing vocals, but it certainly could be.
Curtis moved to London in the early 1970’s and remade himself as Curtis Knight Zeus. He went in a more progressive rock direction, somewhere between Genesis and Funkadelic. But he still had a great ear for raw talent. The guitar player is “Fast” Eddie Clarke, who would later become a member of Motorhead in their “Ace of Spades” prime. This was Eddie’s first professional recording session.
In 1974, Knight released his book Jimi: An Intimate Biography of Jimi Hendrix. He continued to perform and record over the course of his life, but never reached the level of fame achieved by his old friend. This Dutch performance from 1996 shows that he could still put on a good show, though.
Curtis Knight died of prostate cancer in 1999.
So the big question is: Was the single in question a tribute or a cash-in? And is it possible for it to be both at the same time? The music business is a slippery one; a hunger for status can outpace the hunger for money, which is no mean feat. Just how much credit did Knight deserve for being the last bandleader that Jimi had before he went solo? And how much of a right—legally, ethically, morally—did he have to parlay that status into more money for himself by helping to release work that Jimi would have seen as not ready for public consumption?
It’s hard to say, but the fact remains that Jimi has had far more albums released after his death (and most of those were not released by Knight or Chalpin) than he had during his life. Most fans of Elvis Presley, Tupac Shakur, or Jeff Buckley will tell you that they’re happy to be able to hear the unfinished, unreleased work regardless of whether or not the artist thought it was good enough. The two songs on this single do not stand up against classics like “Stone Free” or “Castles Made of Sand.” But I’m glad they’re out there, and if the controversy surrounding them makes songs like these and “Happy Birthday” more available to the public, I certainly won’t complain.