As a record producer, Alan Douglas learnt his craft from the ground up before facilitating projects that helped change the face of popular culture — most notably by discovering hip-hop progenitors the Last Poets. Now in his eighties, he remains innovative as ever as witnessed by Starting At Zero, the remarkable new book and film about Jimi Hendrix that invites us to discover fresh insights into the guitarist’s life and music.
For twenty years, Alan was responsible for initiating and producing all of the music, films and promotional material relating to the Hendrix Estate. He’d assumed control in 1974, at a time when Jimi’s memory was coming under threat from the onset of punk and increasingly poor album releases — the last of which bore the title “Loose Ends.” It felt like the end of the road for a rock legend Douglas describes as “one of the 20th Century’s greatest-ever musicians and composers.”
Two decades later, and the Hendrix legacy had expanded dramatically in financial and artistic terms. Alan Douglas’ stewardship of the Estate is now considered something of a golden age. This is hardly surprising since he’s not only a skilled producer, but also spent many hours in the studio with Jimi. Such insights enabled him to deliver quality Hendrix product on a regular basis. Rather than appeal to collectors he aimed to attract younger audiences, thereby laying strong foundations for the future. In doing so he made important audio and film recordings available for the first time, including the Monterey and Woodstock performances — this in addition to shedding invaluable light upon Hendrix’s jazz leanings (as heard on Nine To The Universe) and musical roots (on the widely acclaimed Jimi Hendrix: Blues). His final act as custodian was to release Voodoo Soup — a remarkable collection of Jimi’s post-Electric Ladyland recordings.
Alan Douglas’ reputation will be forever linked with that of Hendrix, and yet his career path has also encompassed jazz, rock, soul and symphonic music, as well as comic book art, poetry, film and revolutionary literature. He’s been possessed of the same astute, cultural radar all of his professional life, whether encouraging the likes of Hendrix and Duke Ellington to explore new directions; promoting controversial figures such as Lenny Bruce and Timothy Leary, or recognising the relevance of a group of inflammatory street poets from Harlem called the Last Poets, who would later be credited with inventing hip-hop.
His story begins in Boston, where he befriended jazz DJ and radio presenter Symphony Sid, who’d been one of a small handful of white DJs to play “race records” during the thirties and forties. Sid’s connections would prove helpful after Alan moved to New York in the late fifties and produced his first sides for Morris Levy’s Roulette Records. Few acts wrote their own material back then. Music publishers used demo recordings to generate interest in their songs, which is how Alan initially gained a foothold in the business. Soon he’ll become head of A&R for Barclay Records and relocate to Paris, which was already a major centre for jazz.
After returning to New York, he took charge of United Artists’ jazz division. This was in 1962. One of his first projects was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’s Three Blind Mice, recorded live at the Renaissance Club in Hollywood. He also coaxed trumpeter Kenny Dorham in the studio for Matador; a soul-jazz classic shared with Jackie McLean and Bobby Timmons. Alan’s qualities as a producer were already evident. He would encourage musicians to express themselves and push the boundaries, like when he teamed Duke Ellington with Max Roach and Charles Mingus for Money Jungle, which George Wein has described as “one of the greatest piano trio recordings in jazz history.”
Douglas would produce other memorable releases during his short tenure with UA — most notably with Oliver Nelson, Ken McIntyre, King Pleasure, Herbie Mann, Betty Carter and Bill Evans & Jim Hall, whose Undercurrent was the first of their celebrated collaborations. Highlights from these albums can be found on Douglas On Blue Note, issued in 2009.
By 1963 he was producing albums for FM Records, owned by Monte Kay and Pete Kameron. He recorded a young Cass Elliot (later to join the Mamas & Papas) and two albums with Eric Dolphy for FM. Dolphy was one of the most exciting talents in jazz. Influenced by John Coltrane, he’d been studying Indian music before recording Iron Man and Conversations (AKA Jitterbug Waltz) — albums that have retained their delightful spontaneity to this day.
When FM Records folded two years later Alan launched his own company, Douglas Communications Inc. His first act was to buy the rights to Lenny Bruce’s writings and tape recordings after a chance encounter with the radical comedian’s mother. The counter-culture was now in full swing, and the times well suited to a creative maverick possessed of Douglas’ vision and organisational skills. The Essential Lenny Bruce became a bestseller in 1967, after he’d licensed it to Ballantine Books. That book also generated two spoken word LPs on the Douglas label, in addition to providing the basis for the Broadway show Lenny and a film starring Dustin Hoffman. Douglas Books had started as they meant to continue, by championing those who dared speak the truth. Bruce had repeatedly got into trouble because of his outspoken views but as Ross Firestone wrote in his introduction, he was also possessed of “boundless imagination, satirical wit, keen intelligence, an irrepressible sense of the absurd and delight in exposing bullshit and hypocrisy in all their forms.”
Firestone shared Alan’s love of jazz and had attended some of his recording sessions. He’d been working on projects for Encyclopaedia Britannica before joining Douglas Communications, who were situated next to the New York City Center on West 55th Street. Ross describes their offices as being “like something out of the Arabian Nights” with their colourful, Moroccan style furnishings. It was the hippest HQ in Manhattan. Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix were both regular visitors and the place was a hive of activity as music, book and film projects got underway.
Douglas’ second book was called Movie People, by filmmaker Ted Baker. It was one of the first-ever insider accounts of working in the film industry, and got a great critical response. The third would be Timothy Leary’s Jail Notes, which appeared soon after Leary escaped from prison and fled to North Africa in the company of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Alan had already recorded an album with Leary, who’d famously advocated the use of LSD and was perceived as a major threat to the establishment. Jimi Hendrix played on this album, which Douglas Records released under the title of You Can Be Anything This Time Around.
Alan had met Hendrix shortly after his headlining performance at Woodstock. Whilst celebrated as a rock icon, Hendrix was chafing at the commercial demands made upon him and longed to explore new avenues. He’d recently formed Band Of Gypsys, who played a heady mix of rock and rhythm and blues, topped by Jimi’s soul-baring improvisations. It was Alan Douglas who introduced him to jazz masters such as Davis, Quincy Jones and Gil Evans, and also facilitated jam sessions with the likes of John McLaughlin and Larry Young, who Alan says was one of the few musicians that wasn’t intimidated by Hendrix’s ability.
“He and Jimi would just throw lines at each other and their exchanges were beautiful. I mean Jimi was being pigeonholed into the rock thing but in all seriousness, where was he going to go after those three albums? What could he have possibly done?”
The year before Hendrix died, he played on another of Alan’s projects — this time with Jalal from the Last Poets, whose incendiary brand of jazz, poetry and politics helped lay the foundations of hip-hop. With their Armageddon raps, the Last Poets were well named.
They’d formed in 1968, in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. The Poets weren’t entertainers, but modern-day griots. Inflamed by Black Nationalism, they spoke the truth as they saw it and used their music as a vehicle in keeping their revolutionary aims and methods alive. Initially, they’d perform in parks and on the streets of Harlem, which is where Alan found them in November 1969. He then produced their debut album The Last Poets, which writer Darius James claimed, “dropped a bomb on black Amerikkka’s turntables. Motherfuckers ran for cover. Nobody was ready.”
“That first record, it was just what they were doing on street corners,” Alan explains. “I saw them on television at first, liked what they were doing and got in contact with them and they made me come up to 137th Street to this old, rundown basketball court on the corner of Lennox Avenue. I just stood there listening to it and then took them into the studio where we got it straight down on tape.”
One of the tracks from The Last Poets, the scathing Wake Up Niggers, was included on the soundtrack to Nicholas Roeg’s film Performance, starring Mick Jagger. That first album eventually sold a reputed half a million copies despite receiving little or no media coverage, and is now regarded as a cornerstone of early rap and African-American protest music. Only two of the Last Poets appeared on the follow-up, This Is Madness, after founder member Abiodun Oyewole was jailed on firearms and robbery charges.
“The thing is, these guys had all either spent some time in jail or had close associates with other people who had, so they knew about that experience and this developed into what we call jail toasts,” says Alan. “Whilst they were in prison, they heard fellow inmates talking about their lives outside of jail and stories about pimps, junkies, whores and what have you, so they took that form and turned it into protest, based on the words of Malcolm X. In that sense, what the Last Poets did was original, and helped to open up African-Americans to different influences.”
Jalal Mansur Nuriddin had joined the Poets shortly before Alan discovered them. He recorded the solo album Hustlers’ Convention for Douglas under the name Lightnin’ Rod, so as not to upset any of his fellow Muslims. This cinematic tour of urban ghetto life, together with the wonderful amalgamation of jive storytelling and funky guitar that is Doriella Du Fontaine — again featuring Jimi Hendrix — were the ultimate jail toasts. Within a year or so, this kind of subject matter will be reflected in black exploitation films such as Shaft and Cotton Comes To Harlem. Not for the first time, Douglas’ reading of the zeitgeist proved infallible.
It was around this same time he produced John McLaughlin’s Devotion, which was a pioneering fusion of jazz and rock. The Yorkshire-born guitarist’s second album for Douglas, My Goals Beyond, featured some superlative acoustic playing and a mix of jazz and Indian classical styles that was truly groundbreaking. McLaughlin will pursue this same path with Shakti in years to come, but it was Douglas Records who first granted him the opportunity to experiment in this way.
By this time, Douglas’ books division had agreed a distribution deal with Grove Press, who’d taken a few risks themselves after publishing The Autobiography Of Malcolm X and licensing films such as I Am Curious (Yellow), which redefined the boundaries of pornography. Their first joint venture was Getting Busted, an anthology of personal experiences written in conjunction with a well-known civil liberties lawyer. It was followed by Shots From The Underground Press, a compilation of photographs taken by David Fenton, who belonged to a radical political group from Michigan. Black Panthers Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale wrote the introduction to that one. Next was Guitar Army, a collection of writings by John Sinclair, manager of Detroit rock band the MC5 and founder of the White Panther Party, whose manifesto promised a “total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock ‘n roll, dope and fucking in the streets.” Sinclair later asserted that, “you can’t approach the White Panther Party without a sense of humour. I mean on one hand we were serious political revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the government. On the other hand, we were on acid.”
Guitar Army appeared in 1972, by which time Sinclair had been freed from a ten-year jail sentence for possessing a negligible amount of marijuana. John Lennon and Abbie Hoffman had both campaigned on his behalf. Shortly afterwards Sinclair was arrested again for conspiring to destroy government property. He later defeated the charge in a landmark case that resulted in the US government being prohibited from using domestic electronic surveillance. By now, Douglas Books had earned a reputation for challenging convention — an impression underlined by their final round of titles which included Out Of The Closets: Voices Of Gay Liberation — a pioneering anthology of gay writings edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young — and Whole Grains: A Book Of Quotations, featuring illustrations by underground cartoonist Art Spiegelman. He then led the team of talented comic book artists who illustrated Douglas’ product catalogue — an assignment that yielded some classic examples of underground wit and artistry. There were to be two further projects. El Topo: A Book Of The Film which had been suggested by poet Ira Cohen, who was a friend of director Alejandro Jodorowsky whilst The Last Movie was due to star Dennis Hopper, who’d risen to fame in Easy Rider. Douglas Communications arranged to produce a book of the film but then lost their distributor, just as Alan became involved with the Hendrix Estate.
Warner Brothers hired him to evaluate tapes they’d found in a New Jersey warehouse. There were almost a thousand hours’ worth of material, mostly of recordings from 1969/70. The brief was to identify the most marketable of these and prepare them for release. Alan’s tenure began with Crash Landing, issued in March 1975 — a set containing the breathtaking Peace In Mississippi, and that sold over a million and a half copies in the US. Midnight Lightning then followed a year later, complete with studio versions of Machine Gun and Hear My Train A Comin’. Fans clearly appreciated both albums but after word got out that Douglas had replaced several backing tracks, certain rock critics immediately denounced him. Mitch Mitchell would later confirm that some of the original playing had been sub-standard, and Alan had made the right decision in hiring session players to correct this. Nearly forty years later, and perceptions have altered a great deal. Today, both Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning remain in demand, and are ranked alongside other milestones of Hendrix’s oeuvre.
In 1993, the Hendrix catalogue moved from Warner Reprise to MCA, who recognised the fact that its value and market share had increased significantly since the beginning of Alan’s tenure. Definitive reissues of the three albums released during Jimi’s lifetime followed — releases that again benefitted from up-to-date re-mastering technology, previously unreleased photos and in-depth essays by Hendrix expert Michael Fairchild, whose unparalleled research and writing ability would provide the benchmark for such reissues in future. Twelve months later, and the Hendrix Estate changed hands when Jimi’s father regained the rights to his son’s legacy. A federal judge ruled that any projects still in production could only be issued with the approval of both parties, and neither side could produce anything “similar in form or substance.” There were two uncompleted projects left over from Alan’s administration. One was a book compiled from Jimi’s own sayings and writings; the second was a film by director Peter Neal, who made the first-ever documentary on Hendrix back in 1968. After the Hendrix Estate violated the terms of the original 1995 settlement by issuing a 2012 documentary called Voodoo Child, Peter and Alan won the resulting court case and were granted permission to complete both the film and the book, which were summarily renamed Starting At Zero.
Their victory ensures that Jimi’s memory is kept alive in the best possible way — i.e. by allowing him to tell his own story whether in book form, or as the narrator of a unique film that seeks to reveal rare insights into his life and times. As always with any Alan Douglas venture involving Hendrix, the music takes precedence. That’s how it was when their friendship began, and nothing has changed in the meantime, since his respect and admiration for Jimi’s work remains strong as ever.
These days Alan lives in Paris, where he oversees an eclectic catalogue of films, music and books encompassing jazz, funk, avant-garde, hip-hop, blues, Latin and rock. It’s a body of work where musicians like Hendrix, Dizzy Gillespie, Parliament, Little Richard, Celia Cruz and John Lennon rub shoulders with a host of other major figures, both literary and artistic. Whilst still incomplete, it’s quite possibly the most rewarding testament to an enquiring mind you could wish for.
Biography by John Masouri, September 2013
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