In 1969 Curtis Knight was still recording at PPX Studios on West 55th St., just off Broadway in Manhattan. Jimi Hendrix had left Curtis’ band, gone to England with Chas Chandler, the bass player from the Animals, and come back to the States an international star. When “Purple Haze” hit, Curtis released some old tracks with Hendrix on them. The album was called Get That Feeling. The cover showed a picture of Hendrix and said, “Jimi Hendrix plays and Curtis Knight sings.” The record was a great disappointment to anyone who had heard Hendrix’ Are You Experienced?, but it sold, Curtis made some money, and the record probably has some value as a collector’s item.
In an effort to squeeze some money and publicity out of the Hendrix phenomenon, Curtis Knight’s manager, Ed Chalpin, owner of PPX Enterprises, tried to sue Hendrix’s management over an old contract that may or may not have existed. He got the publicity at least — Rolling Stone ran a story on the dispute — but it wasn’t favorable. Chalpin was portrayed as a sleazy, underhanded operator with a grudge. Whether or not you believe that “any publicity is good publicity” depends on who your agent is.
Curtis Knight was treated in the story as just a musician, a singer Hendrix had played with. If anyone had asked Hendrix about Curtis, there might have been quite another story.
I was playing with a group called Mocha Chip at the Electric Circus on St. Mark’s Place in the Village. We were a mediocre, mismatched band from Boston, with a slick manager named Willy Havana who weaseled us into some big “showcase” clubs by overwhelming the owners and promoters with impressive lies and outra¬geous claims. We were young and thought ourselves somehow headed for the big time.
We were staying at the Bryant Hotel, 54th and Broadway, on the edge of Time Square. Rooms were $15 a night. The place was full of musicians, whores, drug dealers and traveling salesmen. Willy Havana installed us there, finding suitable accommodations for himself elsewhere.
One night after the gig, I was getting out of the hotel elevator when I heard an electric guitar being played somewhere. I got to my room and it was louder by the window. Someone had an amp near a window below me and was playing some really tasty stuff.
I found him two floors down. He was sitting by the window, playing a Fender Jazzmaster. The amp was on a chair, aimed out at Broadway below. I stood by the open door, listening. He sounded a little like Hendrix, without the other-worldly flavor, but he was working on it.
He turned around and saw me there, broke into a big friendly grin, and said, “Hey, man, you a guitar player?”
“Come on in. My name’s Johnny Starr. You got a gig in town?” I introduced myself and told him I was working at the Electric Circus.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “My cousin played there. Jimi Hendrix.”
“Jimi Hendrix is your cousin?” I was skeptical, of course. He was black, he played somewhat like Hendrix, but he didn’t look like Hendrix, and there were always bullshitters around claiming famous relations.
“Yeah, he showed me this.” He played the introduction to “Wait till Tomorrow” from Axis: Bold as Love. It sounded perfect, every little inflection was just right.
“Go get your axe,” he said. “I’ll show you how to do it.”
He showed me the riff, which was easy when someone showed it to you.
“Hey, you’re alright, you wanna come to the studio with me tomorrow? Curtis needs another guitar player.”
“You mean Curtis Knight who had Jimi Hendrix in his band?”
“Yeah, how do you think I got the gig? My cousin turned me on to Curtis. It’s a good gig. You go in at 9:30 in the morning and play all day, sometimes all night. He pays $15 a track and buys your lunch.”
“Is that what Jimi got?”
“That’s what everybody gets.”
Next morning at nine, I jerked myself out of bed after four hours’ sleep and ran through a few scales on the guitar. Johnny Starr would give me a good introduction to Curtis, but I was still nervous. This was my first shot at a real session gig, and it was with a guy who had had Jimi Hendrix playing for him, in the same studio. Johnny was waiting in the lobby. We walked a block and a half to 300 W. 55th St. and took the elevator to third floor. The door opened right into the studio.
A short stocky black man in a white puffy-sleeved shirt and fringed leather vest greeted us. His hair was long and straightened, parted and combed down in hippie style. He looked at me, noticed the instrument case in my hand and said, “Heeyy, little brother, can you play that thing?”
“Yeah, I can play.”
“I jammed with him last night,” said Johnny, “He can play.”
“Well it’s nice to meet you, little brother. I’m Curtis Knight. You want to work?”
I unpacked the guitar and met the other musicians — drummer, bass player, and keyboard man.
“You ready, little brother? Let me hear your guitar some,” said Curtis. “You boys play that riff we worked on yesterday.”
It was a simple R&B figure in two chords, easy to pick up.
“Okay, little brother, I like that. You got a job. Yeah.”
When the Electric Circus gig was over, I stayed in New York to work with Curtis — the money was okay, sometimes we made over $100 a day, and only two years before, Jimi Hendrix had been doing the same gig. There were pictures of Hendrix on the walls — Hendrix playing with Curtis, Hendrix laughing with Curtis, Hendrix standing with Abe, the tired-looking engineer in the control room.
Curtis told a “Jimi” story every once a while, speaking as if they were still good friends. He seemed pleased for Jimi’s great success, in an almost paternal way, and he was careful not to give the impression that he had any less respect for us than he had for Hendrix.
Very few of the songs were planned in advance. Curtis would get an idea and vocalize it to the musicians. We’d mess around with it until he liked it, and sometimes he’d improvise the lyrics right on the spot. He was always open to any ideas for arrangements or different sounds.
Musicians came and went, sometimes there was a new drummer every day. Johnny Starr got fired because of a “personal problem” with Curtis. John the bass player was next, and after a while only Richard Sussman, the piano player, and I were left from the original group. Curtis thought it was time to take a break and shut down the sessions for a while.
On the last day of the first sessions, I rode down in the elevator with Curtis and Tim, the latest bass player. As we left the building, Curtis took the bass player aside, telling me to wait on the sidewalk. Curtis was firing Tim because he’d had trouble with the bass line on one of the tracks. The way he treated some of the musicians had bothered me, but this time it was worse — the bass line had been part of one of my arrangements. Curtis paid Tim off and walked over to me.
“I’m lettin’ him go, little brother, he’s not gettin’ it. I’ve got some new guys comin’ in, and I want you to be there. Call me in two weeks or get hold of Richard. You need some money?”
After Curtis left, Tim asked me, “Did he fire you too?”
“Curtis told me he fired you.”
“Maybe he didn’t want you to feel bad…”
Tim turned around and headed for the subway, looking confused and dejected. He felt bad, and so did I, but it’s business, I told myself.
I took the shuttle flight back to Boston. Nothing was happening there; the Mocha Chip band had recently dissolved from lack of interest. With two weeks to kill, I wandered around the city, taking drugs and making the club scene. I met a college girl named Rachel, and we hit it off well. At the end of the two weeks I asked her to go to New York with me.
We got a room at the Bryant. When I got to the studio, Richard was there with a whole new bunch of musicians. Curtis has made a deal with a new label, Paramount, which is owned by Gulf and Western. He said this was the band he wanted for the record, and we went to work.
The next day, Rachel came to the studio. Curtis took me aside and said, “That’s a mighty fine-looking lady you got there, little brother — a real fox.” Curtis was always hospitable to guests in the studio, and all day he was very attentive to Rachel, who began to look uncomfortable after a while.
“I don’t think I like Curtis,” she said later.
“He thinks you’re a fox,” I replied.
“He asked me if I would like to work for him” she said. “And he didn’t mean in the office.” Johnny Starr had told me Curtis “had girls in the street” — music wasn’t his only business, but I hadn’t given it much thought until now. Maybe he’s really a pimp, maybe he’s not, I thought. It wasn’t professional to bring your girlfriend to the studio, anyway.
Rachel went back to Boston, and I got down to work on the album. I liked the new musicians, except the heavy-handed drummer. Curtis agreed to try another drummer, a friend of mine named Joey. Curtis and Joey had trouble right from the start. There was bad tension between them, but Curtis had to admit Joey was a good drummer. I did my best to keep the peace and it worked until Curtis brought in a blues singer named Marie.
Curtis had gotten us rooms at the Earl Hotel in the Village to “save us money.” He had some kind of deal going — there were always eight to ten girls in the lobby, dressed and ready for the street, and now all “his” musi¬cians were there, too.
Joey’s room was next to mine. One night after the sessions we were drinking wine in his room when Marie showed up. She liked my friend the drummer, and after a while I went back to my own room. A few hours later, I woke up to the sound of someone pounding hard on Joey’s door. A man was shouting — it was Curtis.
“What are you doin’ in that motherfucker’s room, girl? in my hotel! I’m gonna beat down the door and break his legs. Get your ass out of there. now!”
Marie left with Curtis, after talking him out of attack¬ing Joey, who would not be working in the recording sessions any more.
It was clear to me now that any involvement with women was unwise in Curtis Knight’s sphere of influence. I still didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I knew I wanted to keep working on the album, not so much for the money, but for the experience. I was paying my dues.
At the studio the next day, not a word was mentioned about the night before. The heavy-handed drummer was back. Richard and I, in our new roles as musical directors, went about showing arrangements to the other musicians.
My own relationship with Curtis remained professional. I never mentioned the Rachel incident, and he didn’t know I had heard him threatening Joey.
His temper surfaced again when a vocal trio came in to sing a background part. The engineer didn’t get their voices on tape, and they demanded to be paid again to sing the part a second time. When they refused Curtis’ protests, he became furious and began shouting at the engineer.
“What the fuck’s the matter with you, Abe? You stupid fucker. This is coming out of your pay. If you fuck up again you’re fired. Goddamn it, I don’t need this shit!”
While much of the music was improvised, once in a while Curtis came up with songs that were already complete. One of these was a balled called “Friedman Hill.” It had a nice melody and a slow, sort of cha-cha rhythm, and was a refreshing change from the usual hard-driving dance material. Richard and I were going over the chords while Curtis sang the lyrics. I usually didn’t pay much attention to the words except as signals for musical changes, but this time I was catching them through the repetition process:
I took her life in a place called Friedman Hill
Now I live in this place where the sun never shines…
…and I killed the only girl I ever loved…
This was Curtis’s personal song; he was singing it with real feeling. I already had serious questions about his attitude towards women, and it was really none of my business anyway. But now I couldn’t help wondering just who or what I was dealing with here.
The sessions went on, business as usual, and I was able to keep my feelings about Curtis in check, until the day he made the announcement:
“The president of Gulf and Western is coming in today, to check out my scene. I want you all to be on your best behavior. I don’t want my band to look anything but professional,” he said, giving each of us a cold look that meant he wasn’t kidding. He left the room, looking very busy.
“Is this a recording session or a military inspection?” Richard asked out of the side of his mouth.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
When Curtis came in with the president of Gulf and Western, he was all smiles and efficiency, escorting the disinterested-looking corporate executive around the studio, pointing out the Hendrix pictures, showing him the tape machines, and explaining the creative process.
“…And these boys over here are my band.”
We were all sitting silently on amps and drum cases in a corner, “on our best behavior.” Since we had no names, we were spared personal introductions to Mr. Gulf and Western, who nodded politely and left with Curtis. I was just breathing a sigh of relief when Curtis returned and dropped the real bomb. He was with a woman this time.
“This is Marina, she’s going to be the tour coordina¬tor for our trip to Argentina.”
There had been no previous mention of Argentina. Curtis and Marina, who was heavily made up and looked right at home with him, were smiling broadly, like proud parents giving a puppy to a child.
I had seen and heard enough of Curtis Knight outside of the studio to become extremely wary of him, was already on the verge of quitting, and now I was going to Argentina with him. I looked at Richard.
“Forget it,” he said. “Do you know what’s going ON in Argentina?”
“No,” I replied, “But I know what’s going on around here, and it just keeps getting creepier. That woman looks like Dracula’s wife.”
At the first opportunity, I told Curtis I didn’t want to travel with any band, and that I had doubts about Argentina as an attractive destination. Richard did the same. Curtis acted hurt and angry.
“I’m depending on you two — you know all the arrangements. Look, we’ve got some tracks to finish up on the album. “We’ll talk it over later. This record’s gonna be Top Ten down there. We can live like kings — all the best hotels, limos, good money…”
“…And women,” Marina chimed in, “They go crazy for American musicians. You’ll have everything you want — and the best beefsteaks in the world.”
These things would have sounded attractive in any other situation, but with my suspicions about Curtis, and now this ghoulish-looking creature offering women and meat, I was ready to run for the door.
Richard and I met at his apartment that night, and decided definitely not to do it. That settled, we had a few drinks and were messing around with some song ideas when the doorbell rang. Richard answered the door and Marina came in with a bottle of cognac. She was dressed to kill and ready for anything. It was Curtis’ idea of an offer we couldn’t refuse.
She wasted no time making her intentions clear. “I’ve been to bed with all of the Rolling Stones.”
The dead one, too?
I cornered Richard in the kitchen.
“So,” I said, “We get drunk, we get laid, we wind up on a plane to Buenos Aires with ‘Curtis Knight’ branded on our asses. I’m gettin’ out of here. Can you handle her?”
“Sure,” he said.
I didn’t know exactly what he meant by that, but I took him at his word.
The next day in the studio I told Curtis, “I’m leaving for Los Angeles in a week. I’m sorry, but Argentina is out of the question.” He knew I hadn’t taken the bait; there was nothing he could do.
With a blank look, he said, “Well, good luck, little brother. You know you might regret this.”
“Maybe. See ya, Curtis.”
A year later I saw a copy of the album, Down in the Village, on the Paramount label. None of us musicians were credited. It never made the charts in this country, and I wasn’t curious about what did or didn’t happen in Argentina.